IT seems ages since Castlebar Mitchels ousted champions Corofin from the seat of power in that memorable Connacht final last November. The interim, straddling two seasons, has felt inordinately long, as if in meeting Crossmaglen in the semi-final on Saturday evening they are embarking on a new competition – or beginning at the end, as it were.
The long interruption gives some weight to the call for this championship to be completed in the one calendar year. How that might be implemented is a different kettle of fish, of course, since most county championships run into October and later.
Either side in their hunt for the All-Ireland crown, however, will not have wasted the interval, and it’s familiar territory for Crossmaglen. They are old hands at winning All-Irelands.
Since 1996 their enviable record boasts a total of 36 triumphs: 19 Armagh county titles, 11 Ulster and six All-Irelands from 37 appearances. Their only All-Ireland loss was to Kilmacud Crokes in 2009.
In comparison, the Mitchels paint a picture of modest achievement: 29 county titles, to be sure, but no All-Irelands. In Mayo, Crossmolina and Ballina have beaten them to that tape, and the proud old Mitchels are desperately trying to close the gap.
Having emerged in 2013 from a 20-year long hiatus, they stumbled through the final, but surprised Corofin at Tuam in the Connacht battle. With consummate ease they then overcame Dr Crokes in the semi-final, but lost the All-Ireland decider to a resurgent St Vincents.
Not a wisp of uncertainty has stained their performances in the current campaign. From the moment the championship commenced last May the Mitchels have been singularly productive. Nothing in Mayo offered them serious opposition, and fancied Corofin also failed to derail their progress.
Now comes the litmus test. And it would be fair to say that if they surmount the challenge that Crossmaglen pose in Breffni Park on Saturday, no other side will deny them their ultimate ambition.
The northern champions are clear favourites to clinch another title, and they have been boosted by a brilliant recovery in extra time against Monaghan’s Scotstown in the Ulster final.
In those extra 20 minutes, they availed fully of quality reinforcements from the bench. Over the 80 minutes of that unforgiving, hard-hitting encounter, they used 25 players, which mainly contributed to the downfall of their opponents.
Honour-laden though the Armagh champions are, the Mitchels will not be overawed. An unprecedented spirit of familiarity and trust has cemented their togetherness these past few years. They have come through the wars, have grown as a unit in power and resistance and are now too experienced to fritter it all away.
Their defence will come under pressure from star corner forward Jamie Clarke and from Tony Kernan, and Kyle and Gavan Carragher. But Tom Cunniffe, Eoghan O’Reilly and player of the year Paddy Durcan are more than capable of rising to the challenge.
Nor have many won their duels with Donie Newcombe, a defender fearlessly committed in the tackle, or against Ray O’Malley or full-back Alan Feeney. And behind them in goal, their captain Rory Byrne embodies the character that resonates through the side.
Ger McDonagh and Barry Moran at midfield have been the source of some inspired football by the Mitchels throughout the competition. All of their combined guile and commitment will be required to offset the hard running of Crossmaglen’s Johnny Hanratty and Rico Kelly, and no two are more capable of succeeding.
Astute use of Cian Costello disrupted the Corofin defence in the Connacht final. Before the Galway champions cottoned onto the Mitchels tactics, they were already pulled out of place and vulnerable.
Costello is smart and tricky, and together with Neil Douglas, Niall Lydon, Danny Kirby, Richie Feeney and Shane Hopkins collectively are made of the right stuff not just to find ways round the opposing defence but also to curb the propensity of half-backs Martin Aherne, Aaron Kernan and Paul McKeown to push dangerously forward.
A tight one this is, and undoubtedly difficult.
But Mitchels thrive as outsiders and I take them to advance.
A league defeat that felt a bit like a victory
IN the context of Cork and the fears we harboured, this seemed like a victory. It puts no points on the table, but it allowed Stephen Rochford a modicum of promise for better days ahead.
The Dubs came spoiling for a repeat of last year’s debacle at the same venue. They went home with a few questions looming over a performance that wobbled at times under the testing aggressiveness of this strung-together Mayo side.
“You are in for a long night,” whispered a colleague when it was announced before the start that Jason Gibbons had been added to the long list of casualties. To be sure it was ominous, and the presence of the Dublin sporting press added to the occasion a sense of foreboding as if they had gathered for another killing.
Mayo supporters among the attendance of 10,520 had come with mixed expectations in the wake of a heavy defeat to Cork and the hiding meted out by Dublin at the same venue last spring.
Injuries have confined hopes this season to no more than the retention of Division 1 status, and you winced on Saturday night at the thought of an inexperienced defence struggling to cope with Dublin’s Connolly and company.
But to a man, they held their own. Hurled into the full-back line in what seemed a stopgap emergency, Caolan Crowe outflanked Dean Rock and his fearless intervention on one occasion denied Dublin any early comfort. His Garrymore clubmate Shane Nally was equally impressive at left wing back, maintaining the form he had shown in the FBD League.
The match-ups were splendidly planned, Brendan Harrison’s pace negating Paul Mannion’s cuteness, Ger Cafferkey, conceding no inch to Paddy Andrews; Colm Boyle confining Diarmuid Connolly to a single point from play, and Donal Vaughan outsmarting Ciaran Kilkenny.
Not once did anyone flinch. Throughout the 70 minutes, that defence held their composure and intensity admirably. In support, Mayo pulled 13 players behind the ball, erecting an instant impenetrable wall.
The pity was that Mayo hadn’t a forward line to match the efficiency of their defence, nor a marksman with the competence of Dublin’s Dean Rock. Midfield – weakened by the absence of Jason Gibbons – wasn’t much of a help either since Dublin were intent on breaking the ball.
Gibbons did replace the injured Tom Parsons in the second half and some scoreable chances were manufactured, but a noticeable lack of physique and accuracy left Dublin off the hook. The game was there to be won and Dublin, out of Croke Park, were vulnerable.
Aidan O’Shea, still a little off the pace, might have won a penalty, but with four defenders hanging out of him, referee Pádraig Hughes thought otherwise. Conor O’Shea and Jason Doherty worked hard. But by far their most industrious player was Diarmuid O’Connor, who covered a considerable amount of ground and whose stamina and intensity had Dublin defending desperately on occasions.
There’s a three-week break now before Mayo’s next game, time for more preparation and more team strengthening.