Saturday, October 08, 2022

Mayo manager Kevin McStay was joined by his management team of Donie Buckley, Damien Mulligan, Stephen Rochford and, out of picture, Liam McHale in MacHale Park last Sunday where they watched wins for Castlebar Mitchels and Ballintubber over defending champions Knockmore and Breaffy respectively. Pictures: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

More than likely, the winners of this year’s Moclair Cup will come from one of Mayo’s three most populous towns. For Castlebar, Ballina, and Westport it is a numbers game as each of these three powerhouses have a conveyor belt of exciting, young talent coming through that will take stopping.

It would not surprise me but that the trio could share out a lot of the big prizes in adult Mayo club football in the coming years but where will the Paddy Moclair trophy end up this year?

It was a cakewalk for Ballina Stephenites in Charlestown early on Sunday morning but, nonetheless, I was hugely impressed with their performance. Many will point to the red card for David Reilly as the decisive moment in the game but, truth be told, the game was well and truly over before Reilly’s 32nd minute dismissal.

Ballina’s pace and power saw them blitz Claremorris in a marauding first-half display. They are a very balanced team but are particularly strong around the middle where the Irwins, Sam Callinan, Padraig O’Hora, and Dylan Thornton have a very dominant physical presence.

They moved the ball slickly to their dangerous inside forwards and totally snuffed out the threat of Claremorris’ main players around the middle, James McCormack and Conor Diskin.

It’s a tale as old as time but James Shaughnessy was the South Mayo men’s only real scoring threat and even he was shepherded well by the Stephenites. Evan Regan looked as sharp as tack up top and Conor McStay is a wonderfully balanced and creative player.

I first saw Sam Callinan play in last season’s quarter-final against Westport and was blown away by his physicality, ball skills and game intelligence. A year later, he has developed nicely and could easily be earmarked as a player with intercounty potential and quality.

I am sure the watching Kevin McStay took note. What was most impressive about Ballina’s victory, though, was their forwards’ work-rate. Skilful players like Regan, McStay and Mark Birrane tackled like dogs and this augurs very well for Ballina’s chances. It shows a hungry team that are in a good place. They’ll take beating.

I had heard a lot about the exciting new team that Barry Moran and Niall Lydon were developing in Castlebar and I was not disappointed on Sunday. Against a seasoned and hardened team like Knockmore, the Mitchels were excellent and full value for their victory.

In all honesty, they should have won more comprehensively but Knockmore are doughty opponents and hung in there when Castlebar missed some scoreable chances in the first-half.

Castlebar Mitchels’ Ultan O’Reilly dives on a shot by Knockmore’s Pearse Ruttledge during Castlebar Mitchels’ win against the two-in-a-row senior champions.

Of course, Castlebar can rely on some experienced and dependable heads like Paddy Durcan, Ger McDonagh, and Donie Newcombe but the way many of their younger guns stood up in the heat of battle will have warmed their supporters’ hearts.

Ethan Gibbons was sensational and kicked several beauties. The list of their talented youngsters is long and we’ll be hearing much more from the likes of Sean Morahan, Joe Tuohy, Anthony O’Boyle, and Mark Cunningham in the coming years and months.

Joint-managers Moran and Lydon need to be given huge credit for giving these young guns their head and trusting them to go forth and prosper. The easy option for the management duo would have been to stick with some of their peers and friends who they soldiered with to win the three-in-a-row a few years back.

Big calls were made and Castlebar will reap the benefits of these for years to come. They are an exceptionally talented young group who may fall just short this year but the future is bright for Castlebar Mitchels.

Although they were not their usual free-scoring and dazzling selves, Westport’s win against Garrymore was noteworthy for a number of reasons. That fixture had banana-skin written all over it for the Coveys but they found a way to squeeze through.

I think Westport will be much more dangerous and free-flowing on a slick surface like the new MacHale Park one and reaching the semi-finals will afford them that opportunity.

The Ballinrobe pitch was looking well but it has never been the hardest or fastest surface and contributed to a slow and tight game which would not necessarily suit Martin Connolly’s men.

To eke out a result when down to 13 men could be the making of them as they look to finally get their hands on Mayo club football’s top prize.

While Regan and Gibbons lit it up for Ballina and Castlebar, Westport spread the scores around more evenly which could also be an encouraging sign.

Oisin McLaughlin and Conal Dawson chipped in with some lovely points from the half-forward line which shows that Westport’s attacking threats can come from a number of different sources and areas on any given day.

They won’t be red hot favourites for their last-four encounter against Castlebar like they were for last year’s semi against Belmullet and that will suit them just fine as hype has not been their friend in recent seasons.

You may think I am being dismissive of Ballintubber’s chances but I just cannot see them coming out on top in this year’s championship given the quality, legs, and youth in the other sides.

Don’t get me wrong, their win against Breaffy with a man less was an outstanding showing of courage, mettle and determination. There is no team better than Ballintubber to dig in deep and come out on the right side of a tight tussle. However, the loss of Jason Gibbons to a straight red card will be a huge blow for a team that are a long time on the road.

Gibbons has been one of the leading midfielders in Mayo club football for a decade and his absence will severely hamper their middle-third efforts and dry up the supply line to Cillian O’Connor. But you can never write them off and they will relish being cast as outsiders.

On a weekend chock-full of do-or-die quarter-final battles, it takes something special for the story of the weekend to come from a relegation playoff. Not to be upstaged by the new young Turks on the scene, Andy Moran reminded everyone of his class in his last game of Gaelic football with a splendid hat-trick.

How apt that one of Mayo’s most legendary footballing figures should bow out in such a stunning manner. Even more fitting was that Andy exited stage left in a blaze of goalscoring glory. He has always been one of the game’s true “goaladors” and bagging three in his last ever outing will give him enormous satisfaction.

I noticed on social media that Ballaghaderreen officials presented him with his number 14 jersey after the match but let’s hope that he got to keep the match-ball too.

By winning Footballer of the Year at 34, Andy always had the canny knack of proving that age is just a number and Saturday’s heroic feat at almost 39 has given all us thirty-somethings hope.

Has there ever before been a Gael who has scored a hat-trick in a senior club championship match while being a current senior inter-county manager? It would take Andy to create that memorable stat which will be a corker of a quiz question in a few years.

There were many promising, youthful talents on display at the weekend but it was great to see one of our elder, iconic statesmen still burning so bright.

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By Western People
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