Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Game of Three Thirds - Mayo Minors Denied at the Death

An Spailpín Fánach is flattered once more to be allowed the pages of the Mayo News to sing the praises of Ray Dempsey's minor team. The team played in their manager's own image and were desperately unlucky not to bring the Cup home when they had one hand clasped on it going into injury time. They will close the deal on Saturday in Longford at half-two, with the grace and help of God.

Mayo 0-14
Tyrone 0-14

In the end, the 2008 All-Ireland Minor Football Final proved to be a game of three thirds. Mayo dominated the play for the first twenty minutes only for Tyrone to come back into the game up until half-time and on ten minutes into the second half. Then came the denouement of the final twenty minutes, when Mayo had one hand on the Tom Markham cup only to see it dashed agonisingly from their grasp with the second-last kick of the game.

Mayo made a start that was as bright as the suddenly sunny weather, with tasty points zipping over the black spot from the wings. Inspired by the imperious Aidan O’Shea at centre-forward, the forwards buzzed like bees before Hill 16 and Mayo found themselves seven points to three up and cruising after twenty minutes.

The Tyrone senior team, however, have not redefined Gaelic football in these early years of the century without their young men having noticed, and fancying a drink from the cup of glory for themselves. Like young bulls that had been disturbed while grazing, Tyrone roared right back into contention, scoring five unanswered points and cutting through the Mayo defence with punishing runs from midfield and deeper. Tyrone were slicing Mayo to ribbons and the half-time whistle came as a blessed relief to the harried Mayo rearguard, as Mayo were now trailing by eight points to seven in a worrying turnaround.

Mayo manager Ray Dempsey has made much of how character is forged by adversity and the team proved him right in the way they responded to Tyrone’s challenge. Captain Shane Nally scored a point one minute into the second half to remind Tyrone that Mayo hadn’t gone away you know and, after Robert Hennelly made a super save on the 37th minute to deny a certain goal at the cost of a point, the game entered into its third and final stage.

For those final twenty minutes then it was war of no quarter between Mayo and Tyrone, as each checking move was checkmated by the other. Dark clouds rolled across Dublin 7 as the final minutes were played out – the sun had to go away, not being up to Championship pace itself after so few appearances this summer.

With ten minutes to go, it was honours even. Aiden O’Shea lamped a huge point into the Canal End from a distance that would have done credit to a senior hurler, to say nothing of a minor footballer, giving Mayo a one point lead with eight minutes left. Tyrone equalised, and then went one ahead. Six minutes left. Mayo struck back with a Dean Gavin point and then, on the sixtieth minute, Aidan Walsh had a free from the shadow of the Cusack Stand to give Mayo the lead going into garbage time in an All-Ireland final.

Walsh stroked it over and all Mayo had to do was sit on it and they were champions. Sadly, it was not to be – the ball was turned over, Tyrone swept forward and hit the equalising point into their relieved legion of supporters on the Hill. Mr Hickey blew for full-time and the Mayo boys were stretched on the field, disconsolate and desolate that they were so near to glory, and still so far away.

But a draw is not a defeat and once the sting dies a little, they can take comfort in the fact that Mayo were the better team on the day. The team has got better in every game that it played and now it has been forged some more in yet another fire. No reason not to push on and close the deal next weekend.

Not least as they have Aiden O’Shea wearing the green above the red. It’s unfair to single out players in a team game, especially minor players, but Aiden O’Shea is an outstanding prospect. So much so that a Kerryman told me during half-time of the senior game that he was O’Shea’s cousin, and they’d love to have him in the Kingdom. “Goodness gracious,” said your correspondent, or words to that effect, “have you not got plenty as it is?”

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