Saturday, November 28, 2020

Christy Moore was an umpire in Croke Park for the Nickey Rackard Cup final last weekend. We doubt it was the Christy Moore, although with the troubadour’s native Kildare appearing in the Christy Ring final that followed, you never know – folk are inclined to pull all sorts of stunts to get to see their team play these days.

Donegal’s Ritchie Ryan celebrates after scoring his side’s all-important third goal in the Nickey Rackard Cup final victory over Mayo in Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

Christy famously worked the year 1964 as a teller in the National Bank in Ballyhaunis where his digs were with Mrs Nestor above the barber’s shop. He returned to the town 20 years later as one of the best-known ballad singers in the business, to perform at The Midas Club.
“The first time I played there we sent posters that clearly stated ‘Concert at 9pm’,” he recalled in an interview with the Western People in 2004. “At 11pm the hall was completely empty and at 12 midnight it was full. Mayo people came to concerts when they were ready. Cows milked, children washed, confessions made, sufficient pints drunk and then we’ll go and see your man – when we are ready,” laughed Moore.
There’s no better man to turn a tragedy into song, so can you imagine if it really was the Christy who had an umpire’s view of the action on Sunday. I’d be fascinated to know what words he’d turn into verse to describe Mayo’s incredible collapse to Donegal. There was plenty of Go, Move, Shift about the Mayo forwards when as quick as you could say from Fatima to Bethlehem, from Lourdes to Kiltimagh, they had torn into an eight points lead, but all that was Before the Deluge (one for the more discerning of Christy fans perhaps) which saw Donegal romp to a six points victory.
Davin Flynn was no Ordinary Man in the second half, scoring 1-3 before laying on the ball that resulted in Donegal’s third and decisive goal five minutes from the end. Mayo’s Voyage was over.
Seriously though, scoring just three times from play in the second half was never likely to be enough of a return for Mayo to lift the Rackard for a second time in five years, albeit they did hold a three points lead at the halfway stage. Neither was failing to score a goal against a team that had conceded one in each of its three outings en route to the final. But sure enough, it was Sunday when Mayo had to draw a blank, when they had struck seven goals combined in their victories over Monaghan, Tyrone and Leitrim.
It’s not as though Derek Walsh’s team left a hatful of chances behind them – they pucked only one wide in the first half and two in the second – but once Donegal began to persuade Walsh’s men to play the game more on their terms, the smaller, lighter and nippier players of Mayo who had made such great gains in the early throes, struggled to live with the strength and physicality of the Ulster outfit, something that became particularly noticeable in the match-up between the Mayo full-back line and the Donegal full-forward line.
Where Mayo’s full-forward line was held scoreless from the sixth minute of the game, Donegal’s could hardly have finished the game any stronger, with the pair of goals by Davin Flynn and Ritchie Ryan in the 67th minute effectively settling the contest.
The easy thing, in analysing any defeat, is to be critical, but that can also be a lazy thing, so it would be remiss not to mention the style with which Mayo had played for so much of the first half – and to recognise that they did so despite the absence of some of the very best hurlers playing the game in the county. In fact, the manager deserves a fair amount of credit for how he settled upon his best preferred Mayo team this autumn.
As a staunch and proud son of Ballyhaunis, it would have been easy for Derek Walsh to use his club’s title win in the Mayo senior hurling championship as a reason to parachute more of that team into the county side than he did. But Walsh was able to look beyond one individual match between the great rivals of Ballyhaunis and Tooreen and so it was that at the throw-in on Sunday, ten players from the beaten Tooreen team were on the pitch compared to only three from the victorious Ballyhaunis side. In fact, were it not for Brian Hunt’s selection in place of Sean Mulroy of Castlebar Mitchels, in what was the only change to the Mayo team from that which started the semi-final against Leitrim, then things would have been skewed 10-2 in favour of the Tooreen club.
What Derek Walsh recognised was that those players from his neighbouring club held an awful lot of credit in the bag, enough that deserved not to be wiped out by one result in this year’s county final. He knew Tooreen hadn’t won two out of the previous three Connacht intermediate hurling titles by accident, nor were they found any way out of their depth when taking on Kilkenny and Cork opposition in the 2018 and 2020 All-Ireland semi-finals, so it was a serious amount of experience that Walsh was able to send onto Croke Park last Sunday – which is probably what makes the result all the more disappointing.

Mayo full-forward Brian Morley taking on Donegal’s Gavin Browne. Picture: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

Of course, the fact Walsh had so relatively few Ballyhaunis players on the Mayo team wasn’t entirely by choice. Those who in different circumstances would be first picks on any Mayo hurling team, Keith Higgins and Eoghan Collins, were both unavailable, Higgins because of his commitment to the still active Mayo footballers, Collins because of his to the Clare footballers, which continues to deny him the chance to represent his home county in the small ball game. Then again, there was also another hugely influential Tooreen player missing too. Indeed it should be considered a very disappointing footnote to the Nickey Rackard Cup that Higgins nor Fergal Boland, two of the very best hurlers at this level, were able to grace the competition at all.
So far in this autumn and winter of National Football League and Championship football, it has been a case of Fergal Boland not being considered good enough by James Horan to be in any of his 26-strong match-day squads but good enough to be included in his wider training panel, and it’s because of that that we didn’t get to see his sublime skills with the hurl in any of Mayo’s four matches in the Rackard Cup, against Monaghan, Tyrone, Leitrim and Donegal, last Sunday.
Consider the footballers’ five outings against Galway, twice, Tyrone, Leitrim and Roscommon, and that’s nine inter-county games Boland has had an interest in since October yet has featured in none whatsoever. Wanted by both but playing for neither. Nor did he see any action in the National Hurling League last spring. At least the services of Higgins, man of the match in this year’s county hurling final, have been availed of by football manager James Horan of late, albeit that still only amounts to a 10-minute cameo towards the end of the recent Connacht SFC final. Referring to Boland and Higgins as ‘dual stars’ is becoming more and more of a stretch when they are asked to serve just one master.

Fergal Boland in action for Tooreen against Four Roads in the 2019 Connacht IHC. Picture: David Farrell Photography

You’d wonder how difficult a watch it must have been for Fergal Boland last Sunday, to see his brother Shane, friends and club-mates get to hurl in Croke Park. That’s a rare enough experience for a Mayo man.
In what was the sixteenth season of the Nickey Rackard Cup, Mayo’s third time to play in it and their second time to reach the final, Sunday represented their first final defeat. But only Shane Boland, Sean Regan, David Kenny, Cathal Freeman and captain that day, Brian Hunt, are survivors from the victorious team of 2016, so for a newer generation to have seen slip the opportunity to claim Croke Park silverware last Sunday, you’d hope that will be the fuel for them to return next season that little bit meaner and keener.

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