FALLON’S MATCH TALK:
Sometimes fans look back on a match and wonder what might have been. They sift through the crucial moments and identify when the game could have turned in their team’s favour – football’s equivalent of the film ‘Sliding Doors’.
By Noel Fallon
Last year’s Connacht minor final was such a match but this year it was different. Watching the U-18 footballers of Roscommon and Mayo battling in MacHale Park for the Connacht title in brilliant sunshine was reminiscent of the golden summer of 2013. The victors were the same. Yet this time the result was emphatic.
Mayo’s final winning margin of eight points was harsh on a wonderfully brave Roscommon team but there aren’t any quibbles about the result. The home team were better balanced, physically stronger and they overpowered Roscommon in the last ten minutes in a mirror-image of what Fergal O’Donnell’s team did to Leitrim in the semi-final.
That Hubert Darcy’s point put the Rossies ahead with 12 minutes remaining was a marvellous achievement given the way they had struggled throughout most of the first half. In that opening 30 minutes, it was the excellent Noel Gately who had kept Roscommon in contention with an all-action display that yielded four points from play.
The introduction of Conor Murray in the 23rd minute broke the stranglehold Mayo had exerted at midfield and Martin Flannery curbed the influence of Cian Hanley who had dictated the play in the opening period.
However, having tamed one match-winner, Roscommon were undone by another. Brian Reape slotted the equaliser within seconds of the visitors hitting the front. One minute later, the dynamic corner-forward finished a sweeping move to the net.
It was the game-breaking score and Mayo kicked on from there. It’s tempting to say that is the kind of confidence that comes from being champions but just three of the starting 15 – Hanley, Seamus Cunniffe and Seán Conlon – were regulars on last year’s All-Ireland winning team and Hanley didn’t play in the final because of injury.
Mayo are now developing the kind of conveyor belt that Roscommon have nurtured over the last nine years. Eight Connacht final appearances have yielded three victories. At first glance, it’s a disappointing strike rate but the essence of Roscommon minor football since 2006 is that every team that takes the field, irrespective of the opposition, will be competitive. Thus it was last Sunday.
Some of those Connacht final defeats were titles that were let slip away but this year was not one of them. In the modern era this match was most reminiscent of the All-Ireland quarter-final of 2008 when Roscommon kept pace with a clearly superior Tyrone team for 50 minutes before eventually falling short. It was a Tyrone team that went on to win the All-Ireland.
Within five minutes of the throw-in, the Rossies were on the back foot. Unlike last year it took the home team until the ninth minute to find the net when Hanley finished calmly. Also, unlike last year, Roscommon couldn’t change the flow of the game. Mayo mopped up possession in the middle third but hit seven first-half wides, many from scoreable chances, which should have put them out of sight.
Against Leitrim, the Roscommon attack looked dangerous every time they got the ball. For much of the opening half they were starved of possession although Gately made the most of the scraps with his trademark darting runs, which yielded 0-4. Luke Carty took the physical battle to Mayo, causing discomfort by running in direct lines while target-man Hubert Darcy kicked two good points on limited possession. Tigerish wing-back Fergal Lennon also faced down the odds. However, it was the introduction of Murray that changed the trend of the game.
Roscommon started the second half full of courage and fight. Yet all they had to show for early pressure was two frees from Kevin Smyth. Team captain Eoin Fallon cut through the home defence but his rising shot veered outside the right post. It was a rare goal chance in a match in which the visitors found it difficult to breach the Mayo defence.
And still they battled, and the spirit that has become the hallmark of Roscommon underage teams put them in front. However, Mayo found the extra gear and rediscovered their rhythm. The virtuosity of Reape, Sharoize Akram and the re-introduced Matthew Ruane…well…’reaped’ its reward in the crucial closing stages which were dominated by the defending champions.
In the notoriously unpredictable minor championship, it’s impossible to say if Mayo will complete the rare feat of retaining the Tom Markham Cup. This team have more swagger at this stage than their 2013 counterparts although Roscommon provided more formidable opposition last year. More importantly, Mayo were transformed by that provincial title win and grew substantially thereafter in a manner that evoked Roscommon in 2006. The rest of the championship will tell if this year’s team grows in the same way.
Roscommon have more modest ambitions. When Fergal O’Donnell said after the match that it was “a huge achievement” for the class of 2014 to reach the Connacht final, he wasn’t gilding the lily. A cursory glance would suggest Roscommon are starting to falter in the battle for supremacy in underage provincial football. Deeper analysis shows that the extended run of challenging for Connacht titles is coming to a natural end and, hopefully, the thread will be picked up soon again. Time may show that O’Donnell and his management have got the most from their resources this year.
The minor final wasn’t the only Roscommon involvement as the double Connacht title-winning side of 1990/91 were the jubilee team last Sunday. It was quite a shock to many of us to realise that almost a quarter of a century had passed since that very good team was in its pomp.