When Anthony O’Boyle kicked an excellent point to push Castlebar Mitchels three points ahead of Knockmore in yesterday’s Mayo senior quarter-final, the reigning champions who were seeking three-in-a-row, really had their backs pressed hard against the wall. There were only nine minutes of normal time remaining but it was still more than enough time for Knockmore, who had far more experience on the field.
Outside of Donie Newcombe and Ger McDonagh, the average age of the Mitchels starting team was just 21. Newcombe, McDonagh and goalkeeper Rory Byrne have four county titles but most of the panel have none. Could they hold out? Could they withstand the impending Knockmore onslaught? Castlebar didn’t score again but holding on to win by one point underlined how a young team is maturing into the force Castlebar always believe they can be at this level.
Knockmore had a chance to level the match with their last attack, which Aidan Orme kicked wide, but the Mitchels still managed the game smartly late on. In those last 13 minutes, including injury-time, the Mitchels had possession for just three minutes and four seconds. They failed to convert their three shots in that closing period, while they also turned the ball over on three occasions in that time.
Knockmore had got to within one point with nearly four minutes of normal time still remaining. Knockmore had possession for two minutes and 46 seconds of the four minutes of injury-time but the Mitchels were supremely disciplined in not coughing up cheap frees or the space for Knockmore to generate those final scoring chances, even if Orme did get his last shot off inside the D. Rory Byrne also delivered a kickout exhibition in those final 13 minutes, pinging three laser long-range kickouts into the arms of his team-mates.
It was that kind of a performance – disciplined with increasing maturity. The Mitchels only conceded two points from frees. Ethan Gibbons, who scored seven points, five from play, is one of those new young players who is making his mark. Gibbons didn’t even start last week’s game against Garrymore but he came on and scored four points in that match, three from play.
After dominating the last decade with Ballintubber, with the Mitchels winning four titles and Ballintubber securing five, Knockmore had stolen a march on them both over the last two years.
Ballintubber also had a good win yesterday against Breaffy. But the Mitchels are back. And evolving nicely.
At the end of August, James Stephen’s were in a rut. Their form was poor. Some of their inter-county players were struggling to discover their form and mojo after the disappointment of losing the All-Ireland senior final to Limerick. Injuries were also stacking up.
‘The Village’ had a quality management set-up in place, with Seamus Dwyer as manager, with former Kerry football coach and Laois manager John Sugrue also involved, but they still felt they needed a spark from somewhere. So Dwyer asked Brian Cody to get involved.
In James Stephens’ first match back with Cody on board, they went into the game against O’Loughlin Gaels with just one victory in the league format and in desperate need of a result to ignite their season. They lost by three points. They lost again to Dicksboro in their next game, which put ‘The Village’ under big pressure in their opening championship match against Lisdowney as the losers were facing a relegation playoff. Yet ‘The Village’ won by seven points. The had five points to spare over Bennettsbridge in last weekend’s quarter-final while they carried that momentum into yesterday’s semi-final against Dicksboro, which ‘The Village’ won by three points.
This will be the club’s third final appearance in the last six years but James Stephens are now trying to end a drought that extends back to 2011 since their last county title win. Losing the 2019 final to Ballyhale Shamrocks was the beginning of three successive years that ended in defeat to the Shamrocks, having also lost the last two semi-finals.
Ballyhale play Tullaroan next weekend in the other semi-final, with the Shamrocks expected to reach another final. Whoever they meet though, having Cody in the other corner will imbue ‘The Village’ with absolute belief and conviction that they can get the job done.
That’s the kind of effect Cody has long had on players.
Last week, the journalist Niall McCoy sent out a brilliant tweet, which summed up just how competitive and tight the games in the province have been, especially last weekend. McCoy noted how 44% of the senior club football championship knockout games played in Ulster between Thursday and Monday went to extra-time. In total, ten of 23 games needed those extra periods to separate them.
The fare and excitement in some counties was off the charts. In Antrim, Aghagallon won their senior semi-final against Portglenone with a goal from Adam Loughran four minutes into injury-time at the end of extra-time. In the other semi-final, Cargin also advanced to the decider with the last kick of the match in extra-time. Elsewhere, Kilcoo, the reigning All-Ireland champions, escaped with their lives on penalties. So did Scotstown, who are going for three-in-a-row in Monaghan, and seven titles in eight years.
Cavan has been unique in that they have been using replays rather than extra-time in their knockout championship games but the quality has still been first-class. On Saturday evening, Gowna and Crosserlough played out an excellent and entertaining match, with Gowna scraping over the line by one point, with an injury-time free from Oisin Pierson proving the difference. Crosserlough scored two goals but they could have raised five or six green flags, having created a handful of opportunities in the closing minutes.
Gowna will now meet Killygarry, who will line out in a first senior championship final for 51 years after they dethroned Ramor United in yesterday’s absorbing semi-final.
The final winning margin was one point. No surprise there given how close the championship games have been in Ulster.
In the history of Gaelic games, there has never been a club team like Ballymacarbry, who secured their 41st Waterford ladies football title in-a-row yesterday. Clubs have dominated championships right across the association in the past but the scale of Ballymac’s dominance is unheard off.
In county championships right across the country at this time of the year, there are shocks and standout results, glorious breakthroughs and devastating defeats. Everywhere. Ballymac are immunised from all those sights and sounds. They expect to win. They don’t lose. It’s part of their DNA now.
It’s easy to see why. A lot of the current players are daughters of mothers who played before them. Some of those players were growing up when Ballymac won ten All-Ireland club titles between 1987 and 1998. They won 14 Munster club titles in 16 years. The club were so strong that they effectively were Waterford ladies football. When Waterford won their first All-Ireland ladies senior title in 1991, there were 14 Ballymacarbry women on the team. When they retained it a year later, there were 13 on the side.
Fewer than 1,000 people live in the parish. The club’s radius covers only a five mile distance from the pitch. Some players have two dozen county titles now but this team is also loaded with young talent, some of which were trained by the older crew when they were on underage teams.
The relentless cycle continues. So does the dominance.