By Anthony Hennigan
As birthday presents go, Niall Heffernan received the best of all last Sunday: His Ballina Stephenites team ended the club’s 15-year hiatus from the biggest game in Mayo club football.
Not since 2007 have the Moyside outfit had the opportunity to lift the trophy that bears the name of their own club legend, but on Sunday week the Paddy Moclair Cup will reside either with the Stephenites, for a 37th time, or with Westport, for the first time, as both chiselled out hard-fought victories at MacHale Park.
Ballina hadn’t anything like the drama of ‘Port’s come-from-behind last-kick win against Castlebar Mitchels, but theirs was a tight enough squeeze all the same against a Ballintubber team that still came within a kick of the ball of forcing extra-time.
“I’m delighted we have achieved our target in getting to the final. We were up against a hugely experienced and really good Ballintubber team and we knew we were going to have to dig really deep to get a result,” said Niall Heffernan afterwards.
His side had trailed by three points at the end of the opening quarter, but a Ballintubber mix-up gifted Ballina an opportunity that Evan Regan stuck in the back of the net and by half-time the Stephenites had moved into a two-point lead, 1-5 to 0-6.
“We were a bit slow in getting off the mark and Ballintubber deservedly were in front. But then we upped our work-rate, which we’ve been doing really, really well in all the games. Forwards turned over ball and we got scores off it.
“We were a bit fortuitous: We had a penalty that the ’keeper saved, we stuck [the rebound] away. We had another shot that the goalkeeper saved; another day it would have gone out; we stuck [the rebound] in. So we had luck on our side, but, overall, you make your own luck by working hard and being in the right place to make sure that work pays off,” said Heffernan, an All-Ireland minor winner with Mayo in 1978.
Hailing the input of Mayo U20 footballer Frank Irwin, who scored 1-5, as “class”, and fondly referring to the exceptional Padraig O’Hora as “our dog”, the manager reserved particular praise for a substitute who kicked two crucial second-half points from distance.
“I’m so delighted for a guy like Mikey Murray, because he’s had a horrendous two years: two dislocated shoulders, two operations. He came back earlier this year and did everything so well to get back, picked up an injury, came back, picked up a calf injury, still never put his head down, kept working and working, he was part of the squad all the time. And to see that guy coming on and scoring two great points like that, it’s just magnificent.”
Dedicating the win to club chairman John Healy, who was absent for the game, Heffernan, a long-time resident of Claremorris, addressed the length of time it has taken for his hometown club to return to the final of the Mayo senior football championship.
“There’s been reasons for it,” Heffernan said. “A lot of work has gone in at underage level for several years and with the last few management teams at senior level to get us to this level. We have just added a bit to it and I’m just so delighted for the lads, that the work that has gone into it has paid off.”
Ballina captain Dylan Thornton paid tribute to the fighting spirit of the opposition after his side’s 3-10 to 1-13 victory. The Green and Red had led by seven points after 52-minutes, but a last-gasp, 20-metre Cillian O’Connor free would have forced extra-time were it not just a couple of inches wide of the top left corner of the Ballina goal.
“We’re delighted to get the result,” Thornton said. “We thought we had it in the bag, but it just shows the type of team Ballintubber are. We were six or seven ahead and they just kept clawing and clawing at us, and we just had to react. Thank God we just got over the line in the end.”
A member of the Mayo U20 team this year, it was a massive vote of confidence in Dylan Thornton’s maturity and ability that Niall Heffernan appointed the wing-forward as Ballina captain for this season.
“When Niall rang me that night, I think it was a Friday at 11 o’clock, and he said, ‘Dylan, I want you to be co-captain with Mike Murray’, it was an honour, really. They’re an incredible bunch of lads to play with.”
And of the team’s recovery from its sluggish start on Sunday, Thornton said: “Evan’s goal made a huge difference, it lifted the whole side, you could hear it from the bench, the crowd.
“The crowd just really got under us today and we just drove it on from then.”