Sunday, October 30, 2022

Brian McDermott of Westport takes on Ballina’s Conor McStay in last year’s Mayo SFC quarter-final clash at the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence, a day where Westport sneaked a narrow victory only to lose the county semi-final to Belmullet. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Connacht Gold Mayo SFC Final

Ballina Stephenites v Westport

Sunday, October 30, 2.30pm at Hastings Insurance MacHale Park 

Ref: Paul Lydon (Kiltimagh).

Preview by Mark Higgins

For the first time since 1929, the final of the Mayo senior football championship will be contested between Ballina Stephenites and Westport. The clubs from two of the county’s biggest towns will meet in Castlebar this Sunday for the right to lift the Paddy Moclair Cup in a final which intrigues on a number of different levels.

First of all we have the contrasting winning traditions of these two clubs. The Stephenites are the most successful club in the 130-plus years of Mayo football with a record 36 county titles to their name, five more than their nearest challengers from Castlebar Mitchels. The Ballina boys may not have got their hands on the crown since 2007 but they remain the standard-bearers in terms of championship successes.

Westport, on the other hand, will be going in search of their first-ever county senior title when they take to the field at MacHale Park this Sunday. The West Mayo club have contested seven county finals in their history, the first way back in 1905 and the most recent in 1991, but they are yet to get over the line and take the title.

The Stephenites qualified for their first final since they last lifted the trophy fifteen years ago with a semi-final win over Ballintubber last Sunday week, while Westport sealed their spot in a first decider in 31 years with a dramatic last-gasp win over Mitchels. Both clubs remain undefeated in this championship campaign: Westport have a 100 percent winning record in their five matches to date, while the Stephenites have won their last four after drawing away to Ballaghaderreen on the opening weekend.

Ballina defender Padraig O’Hora is congratulated by Ballintubber manager – and fellow Stephenite – Enda Gilvarry following the Moyside club’s semi-final victory at MacHale Park earlier this month. Picture: Conor McKeown

The Stephenites have improved with every game they’ve played. After a so-so performance in that Round 1 tie with Ballagh’, they announced themselves as serious championship contenders by defeating the reigning two-time champions from Knockmore in Round 2. An emphatic Round 3 win over Aghamore sealed their progression to the quarter-finals as group winners and they have maintained and built on that momentum through the knockout rounds.

Claremorris were dispatched with the bare minimum of fuss in the last eight and they came through their stiffest test to date in the semi-final win over Ballintubber, recovering from a slow start to win out by three points.

Evan Regan pulls the trigger to score a goal against Claremorris in this season’s county quarter-final, one of four the ex-Mayo attacker has scored in Ballina’s last four championship matches. Picture: David Farrell Photography

Key to their success so far in this campaign has been their ability to score goals. After drawing a blank against Ballagh’, they hit the net three times against Knockmore, four times against Aghamore, four times against Claremorris and three times against Ballintubber. That’s fourteen goals over the course of four games, or 3.5 per game. If they keep up that hit-rate in the final, it’ll go a long way toward winning the game. And equally encouraging from a Ballina point of view has been the spread of those goalscorers; seven different players have found the net over the course of the last four games. Evan Regan leads the way with four goals, co-captain Dylan Thornton has three, Frank Irwin and Luke Doherty both have two and Conor McStay, Padraig O’Hora and Mark Birrane have one apiece. It won’t just be a case of shutting down one or two men for Westport; the Stephenites have goal threats all over the field.

Thornton and Irwin are two of the crop of 19- and 20-year-olds Niall Heffernan has thrown into the deep end of senior football over the last two seasons. They, and the likes of Sam Callinan, Ciaran Boland, Niall Feeney and Rory Morrin, were all playing in a county minor final for the Stephenites as recently as 2020. Now, barely two years on, they will line out in the club’s first senior decider in a decade and a half.

Heffernan gave all these lads their first taste of senior ball last year and while it wasn’t necessarily a smooth baptism – they were well-beaten by Ballintubber in the group stages and went out in heart-wrenching fashion to Westport in the last eight – the potential within the team was obvious. This year, with experienced heads like Regan, O’Hora, Conor McStay and David Tighe guiding the ship, the full force of all that young talent has been unleashed.

Ciaran Sweeney and Sam Callinan of Ballina Stephenites join forces to halt the run of Lee Keegan in last year’s championship encounter. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

That quarter-final between the teams last year is an interesting point of comparison ahead of the county final. A quick scan of the teams from that afternoon in Bekan shows that both teams have made some significant changes in the twelve months since. For Ballina, Ger Cafferkey, Sean Regan and Ciaran Treacy, all big players who started last year, have played no part whatsoever in this year’s campaign. In their steads players such as Rory Tighe and Feeney have stepped up to the plate and made starting places their own. But Westport too have undergone some changes, since losing at the semi-final stage of last year’s championship. Injuries to Keelan Dever, Eoghan McLaughlin and Colm Moran have forced Martin Connolly to reshuffle his pack. Liam Shevlin and Joe Grady have been useful new additions in the half-back line but the promotion of underage stars Conal Dawson and Finbar McLaughlin in the forward division has been of even more significance. McLaughlin is understood to be a doubt for the final but Dawson has looked like a star in the making, a Mayo under-20 this year who can’t be too far away from a senior call-up.

The Coveys began their championship at a ferocious clip, hammering The Neale in Round 1 before taking care of Ballintubber in Round 2. Their knockout wins have been less dominant; a two-point win over Garrymore in the quarter-final and that last-minute rescue mission against Mitchels last time out. But as Fionn McDonagh rightly pointed out after the semi-final, those are precisely the sorts of games Westport have been losing in recent years – think of Belmullet last season, and Breaffy the year before. The ability to grind out results, even when playing below their best, is a habit all champions must develop and there are signs this year to suggest Westport have finally cracked it.

But as good as the young players have been, the soul of this Westport team still resides in its veteran corps. Brian McDermott, Shane Scott, Kevin Keane, the force of nature that is Lee Keegan, and even the mid-20s players like McDonagh, Paddy O’Malley, Niall McManamon and Oisin McLaughlin, were all starters back in 2017, when Westport won their All-Ireland intermediate title with victory over St Colmcille’s of Meath at Croke Park.

They have had to wait a bit longer than they might have hoped and expected to really break through at senior level, but after those consecutive semi-final defeats over the last two years, they have stepped up another level this season.

The experience of a senior county final will be new to them, but the same can be said of Ballina, for whom only the evergreen David Clarke has played on the biggest day in club football before. You could even make a reasonable argument that Westport are the more experienced team here, despite this being their first senior final in over three decades.

So how will it all play out? The hope, for spectators at least, is that this should be a relatively open, attacking game. The Stephenites certainly have no fear of going forward in numbers, as their big tallies against Aghamore, Claremorris and Ballintubber prove. The likes of O’Hora and Keith Tighe will drive the machine from the half-back line and the running power of Callinan, Thornton and the Irwin boys, Jack and Frank, will provide Ballina with endless thrust from the middle third of the pitch. The priority will be to work the ball into the hands of McStay and Regan, the two most natural forwards on the Stephenites team. Frank Irwin’s excellent form over the dead balls will also be a key weapon in the North Mayo men’s arsenal.

Westport are also primarily an attack-minded team. They too have big, mobile operators in the middle in the shapes of Brian O’Malley, Rory Brickenden and McDonagh, whose task will be to secure enough primary ball to keep Westport’s main creators, like Mark Moran and Oisin McLaughlin, amply supplied. They made judicious use of long balls into Kevin Keane at full-forward in the semi-final and found it an effective means of bypassing Mitchels’ massed defence; expect to see the tactic used again in the final against a Ballina full-back line that may be slightly vulnerable in the air. Keane will serve as a foil to Pat Lambert and Dawson, but the former county defender is also more than capable of finishing his own scores.

Then we come to the headline duel of this final: Keegan and O’Hora. The county colleagues are the beating hearts of their respective clubs and whichever of the pair can best impose his will on this final will likely end up with a county medal in his pocket. They will play similar roles here, nominal centre-backs or third midfielders with license to drive forward. Keep an eye out for the first collision between the pair, because their teammates will take their lead from the Mayo stars. O’Hora’s charisma is integral to the Stephenites but there can hardly be a Mayo football supporter – outside of Ballina, at least – who wouldn’t love to see Lee Keegan get his hands on the Moclair Cup.

It’s a very tricky game to call. Much will hinge on how the two sets of players respond to the unique pressures and anxieties a county final brings, and also on the respective substitute benches. The Stephenites have a fit-again Mikey Murray, the energetic Luke Doherty and Rory Morrin, amongst others, to call upon from the sideline. Westport, meanwhile, will have the scoring threats of Killian Kilkelly and Alan Kennedy, the vast experience of Shane Scott and possibly Finbar McLaughlin waiting in the wings. Westport will feel as though their time is now, and it’s not hard to envisage a scenario in which Keegan simply puts the game on his back and drives the Coveys to victory, as he has done countless times over his illustrious Mayo career. But the Stephenites’ goal threat and the fearlessness of their young core might be just enough. The Ballina boys to end fifteen years of waiting, but not by much.

Verdict: Ballina Stephenites

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