Underdogs though they were going into this All-Ireland semi-final, there was little in the way of ecstatic celebration among players, coaches and supporters afterwards. Not a joyless victory – far from it – but one clearly constrained by the sense of business still to be done.
It was an impression confirmed by their manager Pat Holmes afterwards.
“Any time you win a football match it’s satisfying, but when it’s an All-Ireland semi-final against a team like Dr Crokes you get great satisfaction,” said the man who led Mayo to a league title in 2001 and the county U21s to an All-Ireland five years later.
“You’d have to be proud of the group of players who were out there, the guys that started and the guys that came in were absolutely fantastic. They worked their socks off, they made plenty of mistakes as every team does and they worked hard to retrieve those mistakes.”
That said, they clearly got most things right.
They mixed their game up cleverly, alternating long balls in towards converted midfielder Barry Moran on the edge of the square with more considered diagonal deliveries and forceful runs from further out. And they defended like limpets, too.
Crucially, they kept their noses in front for most of it. Patrick Durcan’s first goal was cancelled out immediately by Kieran O’Leary’s in the first half but Tom King’s midway through the second half was key in diluting the damage from a concerted period of pressure and scores from Crokes.
Durcan ended up with the man of the match award but the collective effort of the Mayo men was evidenced by their nine scorers and a 52-minute stint from a clearly unfit Richie Feeney — though Crokes had their performers too.
The grand prize eludes Kerry’s flag-bearers but their talent remains obvious and nowhere was that more obvious than that 47th minute score that started with corner-back Fionn Fitzgerald on his own end line, filtered through countless hands and ended with a sublime effort from Alan O’Sullivan.
All of which makes Mitchels’ triumph better.
They have now reached the decider on the back of a first Mayo title in 20 years and victories over the reigning All-Ireland champions from St Brigid’s and a Dr Crokes side looking to clear this penultimate hurdle for the first time in three years.
And they did it via a game of considerable class.
There were 13 scores on the board before the first arrived from a dead ball and only two more pointed frees followed. The football flowed, frees were limited in number though some inevitably caused debate and Cormac Reilly hardly had to search his pockets for a card of any colour all day.
The first stoppage of any significance was 19 minutes in the making but the effects of it would ripple through the remainder of the game given Colm Cooper was helped from the field after being tackled in the act of scoring his second point from play.
A scan some time this week will reveal the full extent of the injury – and the required period of convalescence — but knee ligaments appear to be the cause for concern. His replacement, teenager Michael Burns, made a considerable impact, but Cooper’s loss was incalculable.
Holmes accepted as much.
“As far as I’m concerned, and I am watching football 30 years, he’s the best player I have ever seen playing Gaelic football. He will go down in time as the best player ever to play Gaelic football because he’s got unbelievable, unbelievable talent.
“No team can afford to lose a player like him, particularly when you build your team around him and he never fails to deliver. He kicked two points from play before he got injured and it was just unfortunate. That’s the only stain on the win, that a player like that suffers a serious injury.”
Crokes were hobbled again 10 minutes from time when midfielder Ambrose O’Donovan succumbed to a groin problem. A driving force all afternoon, his departure brought to an end a period of burgeoning momentum for Crokes as they reeled Castlebar in.
Without Cooper and O’Donovan, Crokes fell away entirely towards the finish, conceding an unanswered 1-4 down the final straight, Durcan finishing the scoring with his second goal of the day.
“We got the goal at the end that really put the icing on the cake,” said Holmes. “I don’t think [the final score] was a reflection on the game and I would have settled for a one-point win. That would have been more reflective of the game.”
Scorers for Castlebar Mitchels: P Durcan (2-0); King (1-3, 0-3 frees), A Walsh, R Feeney, B Moran (0-2 each), D Newcombe, G McDonagh, N Lydon, D Kirby (0-1 each).
Scorers for Dr Crokes: K O’Leary (1-1), A O’Sullivan (0-3), C Cooper, A O’Donovan (0-2 each), F Fitzgerald, J Buckley, D Casey (0-1 each).
CASTLEBAR MITCHELS: C Naughton; D Newcombe, T Cunniffe, A Feeney; P Durcan, E O’Reilly, R O’Malley; G McDonagh, D Kirby; R Feeney, A Walsh, N Douglas; N Lydon, B Moran, T King.
Subs: J Durcan for R Feeney (51), D Joyce for A Feeney (52).
DR CROKES: D Moloney; F Fitzgerald, E Brosnan, L Quinn; K Ward, M Moloney, D O’Leary; A O’Donovan, J Buckley; S Doolan, D Casey, A O’Sullivan; K O’Leary, C Cooper, B Looney.
Subs: M Burns for Cooper (inj, 20), S Meyers for Ward (ht), G O’Shea for O’Donovan (50), C Brady for Looney (55).
Referee: C Reilly (Meath).