Friday, October 28, 2022

Mayo teammates Lee Keegan and Padraig O’Hora were able to see the funny side of their coming together for Westport and Ballina Stephenites in last season’s Mayo SFC quarter-final – but who’ll be having the last laugh next Sunday? Picture: Kim Robertson

By Aonghus Ó Maicín

It’s the rivalry that never was. The thriving tourist destination of the West versus the forgotten market town of the North, the Covies versus the Stephenites, the Realm of Ring versus Calleary Country.

It also remains the most puzzling of mysteries: that the towns at the end of the railway lines never carved out a storied rivalry between themselves within the kaleidoscopic tapestry that is Mayo club football.

It’s especially mysterious given they match up so well in history and culture and life. If one gave us Mary Robinson, the other produced John MacBride.

One has the world famous Ridge Pool, but few places boast the variety of angling in the waters of Clew Bay. Jack Charlton called one his second home, most of the Pale wished they could say the same for the other.

If Westport House rose from the soil on a plot of land near Clew Bay, the equally majestic Mount Falcon did likewise near the banks of the Moy. Westport has Reek Sunday, Ballina has Heritage Day. Westport had a Viscount, Ballina a baronet.

Little beats dancing to jigs in the back of Matt Molloy’s, but the pearly porter in Rouse’s is known to have made mute men chatter like a willow warbler in the morning. Both have their newspapers. Both have their characters.

Even as both towns enjoyed their respective halcyon days in sport, they did so simultaneously.

When Ballina won the All-Ireland senior club title in 2005, Westport triumphed in the FAI Junior Cup a couple of months later.

And when the Covies finally had their day in the 2017 All-Ireland intermediate club final, Ballina found a reason to emit their own sense of pride a couple of weeks later.

Westport could enjoy their triumph but with Dave Heffernan receiving his first call-up to the Irish rugby team, Ballina’s own sporting tradition had been bolstered by another grand conquest.

No town has ever given the other an inch.

The burghers of both have that intrinsic ability to listlessly sail through their lives, embracing the serenity of it all along the western seaboard, unperturbed by events outside the confines of their town.

Until, that is, the matter of sport rears its head. For sport is by no means a mere social outlet to either.

Whether you were cycling the Great Western Greenway or sailing up the Moy Estuary over the past week, locals have been talking nineteen to the dozen about the same topics ad nauseam – starting line-ups, tactics, the inevitable celebrations and the likes. It wouldn’t have mattered if South Sligo and Connemara had been invaded by Attila the Hun, there was room only for one item on the agenda.

Now, after 93 years of avoiding one another, the towns will go head-to-head in the senior county decider. For whatever reason, Westport have taken their time to get motoring within the harsh and unforgiving senior club ecosystem.

In the meantime, Ballina have become the county’s most successful club, though their current fifteen-year drought without clinching the Moclair Cup is akin to Cork’s struggles to regain the Liam MacCarthy Cup. It’s their longest stretch without the trophy since the barren 1970s.

Ballina children have grown up without seeing the famous cup residing off Lord Edward Street which for many older generations would’ve been considered an unforgivable offence.

Westport, on the other hand, must go all the way back to 1991 for memories of their last appearance in the county’s most significant game in club football.

Back then, it was a tour de force performance from a late call-up who helped push the Covies over the line in the semi-final against the Stephenites.

The wily centre-forward who plundered 1-2 on that afternoon in the match-defining performance that helped Westport brazenly brush past the high priests of Mayo club football on a scoreline of 2-9 to 0-8 was none other than current manager Martin Connolly.

On that afternoon the composed and never-flustered Connolly proved as troublesome as a vexed goat let loose on a vegetable patch, impossible to pin down as he hungrily tore into his newly-inherited kingdom, perhaps giving a whole different meaning to the term G.O.A.T.

It was one of those performances where the man of the hour was always a move or two ahead of his opponents like a chess grandmaster.

That uncanny ability was in evidence as Ballina players protested a free against them as they were emerging out of their own defence. With the ball turned over and Ballina players otherwise occupied, Connolly made his move, collecting the quick free before making the Stephenites netting dance.

If only Ballina had a defender with the required nous to marshal the veteran, perhaps a 1978 All-Ireland minor winner. But by the early 1990s, Niall Heffernan, Ballina’s current manager, had already upped sticks and pitched his tent in Claremorris with a new business. Nevertheless, 21 years later, opportunity knocks – Connolly and Heffernan will finally pit their wits against one another on the MacHale Park sideline this Sunday afternoon.

It wasn’t the final that was anticipated when the championship draw was made a couple of months ago, but following two flawless campaigns from the finalists it’s the pairing we’ve been gifted.

And if being truthful, it’s the pairing for which every neutral has yearned. They’re the clubs that have played the best football. They’re the clubs that have shown the greatest ability and creativity in attack.

And they’ve both got the luxury of youth on their side, therefore offering a renewed hope in the county’s eternal quest at intercounty level.

They’ve both buried the widely accepted belief that experience is a prerequisite for effective leadership on the pitch. Neither of Westport joint captains, Oisin McLaughlin or Niall McManamon, had been born when Westport last found themselves in a county final.

Ballina captain Dylan Thornton had meanwhile just began his formal education when Ballina last appeared in the county decider back in 2007.

All the ingredients are there not only for an electrifying final, but for a decade of fascinating duels between the towns that, in truth, haven’t seen enough of one other at this level.

The rivalry that never was. Or is this just the beginning?

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By Western People
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