By Mark Higgins
Ten years on from their initial breakthrough, Balllintubber just keep on doing what they do. The Abbeysiders retained their Mayo senior football title in MacHale Park on Saturday night as they withstood everything a defiant young Ballaghaderreen team could throw at them at came out smiling on the other side.
On the same day that New Zealand taught Ireland a lesson in the value of winning habits and collective experience of success, Ballintubber produced a performance that typified all the attributes that have now made them the undisputed team of the 2010s in Mayo club football. It wasn’t flashy and it wasn’t always pretty to watch, but when the game was there to be won in the final 15-odd minutes, Ballintubber just put Ballagh’ in the vice and squeezed until there was no resistance left.
It feels harsh to criticise Ballagh’ too severely here — certainly, we would never dream of comparing their performance on Saturday to that of the Irish rugby team — because the men from the east got so much right in what was their first county final for seven years, and a first-ever for ten of their starting 15 players.
Paul McHugh and his selectors got the majority of their match-ups spot-on; Ryan Lynch broke even, at the very least, with Diarmuid O’Connor in their midfield duel, Andy Moran gave Gary Loftus a torrid time of it in the inside line and David Drake did as much as could be expected of any full-back when trying to shackle Cillian O’Connor, who looked as sharp as he has been for a good while.
They were brave too; not many teams would go into a county final and play ‘Tubber completely man-for-man, with no sweepers, no extra defenders, no massing bodies back. Ballagh’ looked at the lay of the land and decided that their best chance of success was to attack the reigning champions from the gun, backing their running game and the scoring power of Moran and Cormac Doohan on the inside line.
It might well have worked but for their shooting to let them down badly when they needed it to be pretty much perfect. With a greasy ball and a changing wind swirling around MacHale Park, the point-kicking form that had left Castlebar Mitchels reeling in the semi-final deserted them here.
They kicked seven wides in the first half alone; Ballintubber, despite being second-best in most sectors of the play, kicked only two and went in at half-time level. Lynch, who landed four points from play in the first half of that semi-final, instead sent three kickable chances wide in the opening period here, while all of Dylan Feeney, Doohan and Kuba Callaghan also passed up decent opportunities. The wides cut them down at the knees. Those were the chances they simply had to take to beat a Ballintubber side who were always going to find their rhythm in the second half.
Even with those wides clocking up, Ballagh’ were in a healthy spot entering first-half injury time. Doohan’s poacher’s goal, finished off expertly off a long ball in from Darragh Kelly on 25 minutes, allied to three first-half Moran points had left them four clear at 1-6 to 0-5 as the clock ticked into the red. Had they gone into the interval with that lead intact, Ballintubber might have struggled to reel them in.
Instead, ‘Tubber produced a goal almost out of thin air; Michael Plunkett laid the ball off to Jason Gibbons and the Ballagh’ defence switched off for a fraction of a second, allowing Gibbons to flick the return over the top and Plunkett to calmly side-step the advancing Pat Sharkey and roll the ball home.
The game grew more claustrophobic as the conditions worsened in the second half and Ballintubber went about drawing the walls in. They began to halt Ballagh’s running game at source, pressing high on the full-back line and denying the likes of Akram and Cian Hanley the open runways they needed to drive Ballagh’ forward.
Gibbons grew in prominence in the middle third. He and Darragh Kelly had been banging into one another like tectonic plates in the first half but the former county man showed more of his craft in the second, controlling the pace of the play and gently drawing the sting from Ballagh’s tail.
They were level as late as the 48th minute, but once Ballintubber pulled two points clear five minutes later the writing was on the wall for Ballaghaderreen. As Paul McHugh wistfully noted after the game, a two-point lead for ‘Tubber is like a ten-point lead for your average team.
The way they manage an end-game is remarkable to watch and nigh-on impossible to coach. Their captain Damien Coleman reminded us after the game that 11 of their panel on Saturday evening were there in 2010 when they won their first-ever county title under James Horan. That is a reservoir of big-game know-how that this youthful Ballagh’ side simply does not yet possess.
And yet it was a player for whom this was an entirely new experience who made the most telling impact in those closing stages. Keelan McDonnell has been a huge find for Kevin Johnson this year and his two points from the bench, as well as an assist for Diarmuid O’Connor, were what finally pushed the game out of Ballaghaderren’s reach.
Those closing stages must have felt like playing in a straitjacket for Ballagh’. The more they twisted and turned, the more avenues they ploughed down looking for a score, the more Ballintubber tightened their grip. The champions brought the bodies back — at one point they had all 15 men inside their own ‘45 — and struck on the counter with that bloodless inevitability of theirs, Cillian O’Connor clipping two injury-time points to round out the scoring.
McHugh was adamant after the game that Ballagh’ should have been awarded at least one, if not two frees for fouls on Andy Moran in the scoring zone late on but in truth either one would have been a harsh call. Loftus, Coleman, Brian Murphy, Ruaidhri O’Connor, Gibbons and the rest of them just closed the game down like they’ve been closing down games for a decade.
The pain will linger in Ballagh’ through the winter but there is cause for genuine optimism in this team. They are still very young, and players like Seamus Cunniffe, David McBrien, Kelly, Lynch, Feeney, Luke O’Grady and Callaghan will only benefit from the experience of going eye-to-eye with the best in the county on the biggest night of the year. It’s a cliche, but it might prove true that they needed to lose one before they could win.
McHugh intimated after the match that he might be moving on after three years at the helm; if he does, he will be leaving his home club in a much better place than he found it, having brought them from the senior doldrums to the brink of the Moclair Cup. He has made Ballagh’ relevant in the senior championship again, as they should always be.
If someone new does take over the reins then there is a huge amount of talent there to work with. They definitely need more depth – Ballagh’ only used two subs on Saturday night, and none until the 51st minute — but if they can find a handful of players to add to what’s already there, there are county titles to be won in the 2020s.
But that’s for the future; the 2010s belong, without question or quibble, to Ballintubber. Their challenge now is to go on and do what they have so far failed to do (and what their great rivals Mitchels have managed twice); claim a Connacht title.
They should get over Glencar-Manorhamilon in two weeks’ time, with the greatest of respect to the Leitrim champions, before the big test arrives in the semi-final. Corofin will arrive, as inevitable as the sunrise, and ‘Tubber’s task will be to dislodge them as champions of Connacht and All-Ireland. If they can, there could yet be a glorious coda to this remarkable decade for the men from the Abbey.