The chief protagonists in Mayo’s 2013 minor success made a conscious decision in the days and weeks after delivering the county’s first All-Ireland at that grade in 28-years; they vowed, on and off the field, to stick together.
Cross-referencing the minor and U21 finalists since the turn of the millennium would suggest it is far more common than uncommon for successful minor teams to disband in the years after their All-Ireland triumph.
Indeed, only the all-conquering Dublin minor class of 2012 succeeded in carrying their form through to U21 level — eight of said minor team were present inside the whitewash when Dublin trounced Roscommon in the 2014 U21 decider.
No other county from 2000 onwards, though, has managed to reach an U21 final in the two and three years after lifting the Tom Markham Cup.
These Mayo lads were determined to buck the trend. They didn’t want just four or five players making the cut at U21 level, and even less trickling through to senior level thereafter.
From the starting team which denied Roscommon a three in a row of Connacht U21 titles earlier this month, eight were graduates of the 2013 class — Eddie Doran, David Kenny, Michael Hall, Stephen Coen, Diarmuid O’Connor, Conor Loftus, Michael Plunkett, and Liam Irwin.
Two more present inside the whitewash in Markievicz Park were on the bench in Croker three years ago — Fionán Duffy and Matthew Flanagan. That’s a pretty healthy turnover.
Having ended a 28-year famine at minor level, the task now is to bridge a 10-year gap to the county’s most recent U21 win.
Manager Michael Solan says the closeness of his group has been a key factor in their run to tomorrow’s All-Ireland semi-final.
“These guys know each other very well. They’re together since they were 13 or 14 with development squads and U16 teams, the minor teams and now through to the U21’s,” he told the Western People.
“Obviously, that’s great for the cohesion in the group that these guys know each other so well. But there are other guys who have joined the squad who wouldn’t have been involved in the minor squad in 2013.
"The guys in the squad make sure that anybody who’s new to the group has no issues, everybody gels really well. We’ve got a good atmosphere at training, guys look forward to coming in.”
Goalkeeper Matthew Flanagan, one of the many survivors from 2013, takes up this last point.
“It’s a tight-knit group. Everyone of them goes looking for work. There are no free-loaders, no individuals. We’ve stayed friends over the past three years and it’s starting to show now. And we’ve had players come in and fitted in perfectly. Anyone who comes into this group, we welcome with open arms, as long as he can come in and do the business.”
This desire to work hard was no more evident than in their 1-11 to 1-10 provincial final win over Roscommon. Solan’s charges found themselves six points in arrears after just eight minutes of action, that gap barely narrowing come the interval break.
Liam Irwin produced the crucial score when he struck a late goal three minutes from time. Mayo had not led prior to that juncture. Never once, though, did they believe they were beaten.
“We all knew from minor and from last year that when we were in a losing position, we could always fight back,” continues Flanagan. “We have a really hard-working group. We knew that if we pulled together, we’d give ourselves a chance of winning the game. It was down to grit and hard work, really.
“We know we can’t continue with the slow starts. We’ll be working hard on that. If it does happen again, we know we’ve come out of it twice [Connacht final and semi-final versus Leitrim], so we’ll do alright.” And what of tomorrow’s opponents Dublin? Football’s present standard-bearers are chasing a fourth U21 All-Ireland in seven years.
“They’re after coming off their third provincial title in a row in Leinster. They had a tight game there with Kildare, but they’ve certainly got a lot of quality in their team,” remarked Solan.
“Obviously, they’re a pretty dominant force now in the GAA, at all levels. They have three senior All-Irelands won since 2011 and they’ve won under U21 titles in that time as well. So we’re under no illusions about the task ahead of us. But it’s something we’ll prepare very well for and something that we’re looking forward to.
“I’d be confident that the footballers in Mayo are well able to compete with footballers from anywhere in the country.”
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