O’Connor is Ballintubber’s ace

LESS than 48 hours after being crowned Young Footballer of the Year, Cillian O’Connor fired Ballintubber to their second consecutive Mayo SFC title at a rain-soaked McHale Park, Castlebar.

The 19-year-old hit 1-4 for the defending champions as they held off the stubborn challenge of Castlebar Mitchels for the second year in a row.

O’Connor’s goal on 18 minutes was a major turning point and he also nailed two crucial points in the space of 60 seconds when the game hung in the balance in the closing stages.

“It’s been an incredible weekend,” the young Mayo forward remarked afterwards.

“It was a huge honour to pick up the Young Player of the Year on Friday night but, to be honest, I couldn’t stop thinking about this game. I’m delighted that we’ve managed to retain the title.

“Castlebar had improved ten fold from last year’s final; they brought huge physicality and intensity to the game and they made us fight every step of the way.”

There was no arguing with the man of the match’s assessment.

Last year’s beaten finalists, who were hoping to end an 18-year wait for senior championship success, got off to a flying start.

A goal from teenage full-forward Danny Kirby inside the first minute rocked Ballintubber and the holders had fallen behind by 0-2 to 1-3 by the end of the first quarter. Mitchels’ Kevin Filan (38), who ended the campaign as the leading scorer, hit two points with Niall Lydon also on target as the home side hit the champions with everything they had.

Former Mayo forward, Barry Moran, was also on top at midfield and Ballintubber’s huge support base were stunned into silence by Castlebar’s early form. However, just when the Mitchels seemed to be taking control, the goal that changed the complexion arrived.

The outstanding Alan Dillon played a leading role in its creation by drilling a long-range diagonal pass in Cillian O’Connor’s direction.

The young marksman did well to gather, make space, and fire in a right-footed shot that deflected off Castlebar defender, Alan Feeney, and flew past his goalkeeper Ciaran Naughton.

This score breathed new life into Ballintubber’s challenge and they rattled off three points without reply from Alan Dillon, Cillian O’Connor (free) and Jason Gibbons to ease into a 1-5 to 1-3 lead after 30 minutes.

Everything had changed.

Castlebar responded with a well-taken score from Niall Lydon, after Neil Douglas’ initial good work, but they still went in at the break trailing, after asking Ballintubber plenty of difficult questions.

The 110th Mayo senior decider really came to life though in the second half as both sides went hell for leather in the worsening conditions. No effort was spared, despite the driving rain and swirling wind, and the teams were level again twice before a winner finally emerged.

Ballintubber goalkeeper, Brendan Walsh, also proved his worth twice during the third quarter to keep Castlebar at bay.

First, he made a fine save to divert Donal Newcombe’s goalbound shot over the bar three minutes after the restart.

Then, after Alan Plunkett and Gary Dillon had notched points at the other end to nudge the holders into the clear again, their goalkeeper pulled off a smart save to deny Neil Douglas a crucial goal from a ground-shot.

Castlebar had to be content instead with a brace of pointed frees from Kevin Filan which levelled the game on 45 minutes. The outcome hung in the balance again at this stage but Anthony McGarry’s Ballintubber found their second wind.

Cillian O’Connor stepped up to the plate, drilling over a couple of points from play (one off each foot) in the 51st and 52nd minutes to push the Abbeysiders into a 1-9 to 1-7 lead.

Once more, Castlebar looked to be taking in water but, once more, they responded. A point from Danny Kirby pulled Pat Holmes’ courageous side back into contention moments later but an invaluable response from Ballintubber sub, Damien McGing, proved worth its weight in gold at the final whistle.

McGing’s classy score left two points in it and, despite a late free from Kevin Filan. Ballintubber’s defence, and their status, stood firm.

Scorers for Ballintubber: C O’Connor 1-4 (2fs), A Plunkett 0-2, J Gibbons, A Dillon, G Dillon, D McGing 0-1 each.

Scorers for Castlebar: K Filan 0-5 (4fs), D Kirby 1-1, N Lydon 0-2, D Newcombe 0-1 each.

BALLINTUBBER: B Walsh; G Loftus, C Hallinan, P Earley; T Earley, D Geraghty, R O’Connor; M Hoban, J Gibbons; A Plunkett, A Dillon, G Dillon; C O’Connor, K McGuinness, P O’Connor.

Subs: D McGing for McGuinness; M Nestor for G Dillon.

CASTLEBAR: C Naughton; D Newcombe, A Feeney, E O’Reilly; S Ryder, R Feeney, T Cunniffe; B Moran, S Fitzmaurice; N Lydon, N Douglas, S Hopkins; A Walsh, D Kirby, K Filan.

Sub: A Roache for Hopkins.

Referee: R Gurren (Aghamore).

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