This had been emotional as it had been epic and exhilarating for these young Mayo men. Darragh Doherty, a team-mate for so many of them in the 2013 All-Ireland minor success tragically killed in a car crash last year, was at the forefront of their minds.
As a memoriam to him, it was a momentous performance. Where Cork landed jabs, Mayo delivered straight punches and yet it wasn’t until their fifth goal at the death that they could finally realise this scintillating game was theirs.
Three times, they hit Cork with goals but Sean Hayes’ men were able to absorb them, drawing level with five minutes of normal time remaining having trailed by five after Conor Loftus’ delightful first goal in the 37th minute. But more thumps were to follow: Loftus added a second with a majestic left-footed finish to the top corner after stealing a short Cork kick-out. The killer blow came with Liam Irwin’s second in injury-time when he palmed in after a through ball from substitute Morgan Lyons.
Victory confirmed, the significant Mayo presence in the 7,567 Cusack Park crowd were in raptures. Such a feeling seemed distant in the first half when Cork contradicted their wind disadvantage in building up a three-point lead and Mayo had racked up nine first-half wides.
Manager Mike Solan never lost faith, though. “We felt the game was going to ebb and flow and that if we got our few minutes, if we got a steady supply of ball from the middle of the field, we felt we could do a bit of damage up front. At half-time, we felt there were various avenues through the middle of the defence that we weren’t exploiting as much as we should have done. Thankfully, we were able to exploit them in the second half.”
In the first half, Peter Kelleher and Brian Coakley were causing havoc in the Mayo full-back line as Cork threatened to break through. Mayo’s shooting left a lot to be desired before the first minute of additional time when Diarmuid O’Connor ghosted in at the back to palm the ball to the net. It was an O’Connor turnover that initiated the move, which ended with Michael Plunkett again assisting for Irwin to goal.
Mayo mightn’t have been full value for their 2-5 to 0-7 command but they made a lot of it and Loftus’ first goal was a thing of beauty, even better when it appeared the attack had broken down.
Cork’s recovery was steady, though, punctuated by Kelleher’s fisting Seán O’Donoghue’s 45 to the net in the 45th minute.
Kelleher had been a torment throughout; Coakley to a slightly less extent.
“Peter Kelleher is a fine footballer,” commended Solan.
“He is one of the guys we would have been doing an awful lot of work on in the last couple of weeks.
“He caused us a fair bit of trouble in the air, Brian Coakley in there too is another good guy.”
Entering the final 10 minutes, Sean White’s black card didn’t seem to deter Cork as Michael Hurley and Coakley from a free, won by Kelleher, followed up a Loftus free to ties matters and extra-time looked odds on.
Only Loftus and Irwin had other ideas.
“Sometimes people commit to attacking and the ball gets turned over unexpectedly when two or three guys have gone,” explained Solan. “There just turns out to be a bit of space. It happened to us a few times where we had a little too much space in front of our full-back line.
“You can make a plan, sometimes it can be hard to follow everything to the letter when the game is going.”
In a grander context, Mayo’s victory went some way to improving the county’s record in national finals but Solan wasn’t concerned with that. “I think you take every game on its own merits. People talk about Mayo and finals. We didn’t buy into that; I would never buy into that. Anything that happened in any other year gone by had zero relevance on what happened.”
As it so proved as Coen walked up the steps to claim the silverware, the first man since Cormac McAnallen to lift minor and U21 All-Ireland titles. It had been epic. It had exhilarating. It had been emotional.
L. Irwin (0-1 free, 0-1 45), C. Loftus (0-2 frees) (2-2 each); D. O’Connor (1-0); M. Plunkett (0-2); M. Ruane (0-1).
B. Coakley (0-5, 3 frees); S. O’Donoghue (0-4, 3 frees, 1 45); P. Kelleher (1-0); R. Harkin (0-2); S. Powter, R. O’Toole, M Hurley (0-1 each).
M. Flanagan; E. O’Donoghue, S. Cunniffe, D. Kenny; S. Akram, M. Hall, J. Kelly; M. Ruane, S. Coen; F. Boland, C. Loftus, D. O’Connor; L. Irwin, M Plunkett, F. Duffy.
J. Carr for F. Duffy (44); B. Duffy for J. Kelly, M. Lyons for M. Plunkett (both 56).
A. Casey; J. Mullins, M. McSweeney, K. Histon; K. Flahive, S. Cronin, E. Lavers; S. White, R. O’Toole; S. O’Donoghue, S. Powter, R. Harkin; B. Coakley, P. Kelleher, M. Hurley.
S. O’Leary for R O’Toole (inj 39); D. Ó Dúinín for S. White (black, 45); C. Kiely for R. Harkin (53); S. Sherlock for M. Hurley (58); D. Quinn for M. McSweeney (60+2).
P Hughes (Armagh)