Sunday, October 30, 2022

By Mark Higgins

A wet Saturday afternoon in the late September of 2014 and two of the biggest clubs in Mayo football are scrapping for their lives, battling tooth-and-nail to avoid the indignity of being relegated to intermediate football for the following season.

In one corner stand Ballina Stephenites, the most successful club in the history of Mayo football, protectors of a proud record of never having played outside the senior ranks, a record that is now within one defeat of being erased for good.

In the other are Westport, a club already growing at a rate of knots thanks to swelling underage numbers, seeking to preserve their senior status and safeguard the opportunity for those young players to come through and play at the highest level of club football the county has to offer.

So high stakes, if not exactly high quality. As Anthony Hennigan put it in these pages in his report on the game: “It hadn’t been hard to grasp the desire of the Ballina and Westport players to remain in the top flight but that’s not to say the quality of the play was anything to get excited about.”

The lack of real quality perhaps shouldn’t have come as a major surprise; this was a relegation play-off, after all, and teams who end up in relegation play-offs don’t tend to be playing great football. Ballina had finished bottom of their group without winning a match and had already been beaten by double-digits in a relegation semi-final against Kiltane (a result which would seem beyond the realms these days, given the directions the two clubs have travelled in the meantime). Westport, similarly, had finished bottom of their group with two defeats from three matches and had lost a semi-final by nine points to Crossmolina, another outcome you’d struggle to imagine occurring today.

Among the footballers in action that day at MacHale Park were three players who had, less than a month earlier, played central roles in one of the great modern epics of inter-county football, Mayo’s semi-final draw and replay defeat to Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. But for Ballina’s Ger Cafferkey and Westport’s Lee Keegan and Kevin Keane, this was a far less glamorous occasion.

The game went the way of the Stephenites, 2-7 to 0-10, with the goals coming from Evan Regan and Alex Corduff, and while the Ballina boys were obviously delighted and intensely relived at the final whistle, few could deny that the bigger picture for the club did not look good.

They had lost a group stage game in that year’s championship to Claremorris on the stark scoreline of 0-16 to 1-2. And this had been a second relegation final in three seasons, following on from their beating Kiltane to stay up in 2012. From the glory days of the mid-noughties, to be battling for senior survival less than a decade later: something needed to change, and fast.

Something clearly did. Ballina haven’t finished bottom of their group in any of the eight seasons since that close shave in 2014. They reached quarter-finals in three of the next five years but were knocked out in the last eight on each occasion, generally failing to break through against the West Mayo triarchy that dominated the senior championship through the latter half of the 2010s.

2020 represented a major step forward as, under Enda Gilvarry, they reached a first county semi-final since 2011. Knockmore proved too good on that occasion but the Stephenites had an undeniable momentum behind them, and after being stunned at the death by Westport in last year’s quarter-final, they have looked this year like a group of players ready to accept nothing less than a county title.

That determination was evident the last day against Ballintubber, as the Stephenites recovered from a poor start to fire three goals on their way to what was, remarkably, Ballina’s first win over Ballintubber in a knockout championship game since the Abbeysiders emerged as a force at senior in 2010.

Niall Heffernan took over from Gilvarry in 2021 and decided to place his cihips on youth. A crop of teenage players – Frank Irwin, Sam Callinan, Ciaran Boland, Dylan Thornton, Niall Feeney and Rory Morrin – were drafted en-masse into the senior team. After a couple of harsh lessons last year, they have made the senior championship their own in 2022.

For Westport, relegation on that day seven years ago, disappointing though it undoubtably was, didn’t carry the same aura of doom as it would have for the Stephenites. They had won the intermediate championship as recently as 2009 and knew that they had the tools at their disposal to win it again in fairly short order. As it turned out it only took them two seasons at the second tier before they bounced back up, beating Kiltimagh in the 2016 county final on their way to winning their Connacht and All-Ireland titles early in the new year.

In hindsight, that factory reset was the making of the Westport team that now stands within one game of claiming the club’s first-ever county senior crown. As often happens in the wake of relegation, the club took the opportunity to overhaul the team and infuse it with young players from the club’s thriving underage system.

By the time they resurfaced at senior level in 2017, players such as Paddy O’Malley, Niall McManamon, Brian O’Malley, Fionn McDonagh, Pat Lambert, Colm Moran and Oisin McLaughlin, none of whom were involved in 2014, had been blooded into the side. Today, alongside a few old stagers like Keegan, Keane, Brian McDermott and Shane Scott, that cohort forms the foundation of the Westport team.

Many observers of Mayo club football have regarded it as simply a matter of time before Westport make the breakthrough and win a senior title. It was a question of mathematics as much as anything else: huge underage numbers plus solid coaching structures plus economic resources eventually equals a Moclair Cup.

But it hasn’t been quite as simple as that. In five seasons at the senior grade between 2017 and 2021, Westport have made two semi-finals (in 2020 and 2021) and one quarter-final (in 2018), but there have also been two more flirtations with the relegation play-offs (in 2017 and 2019), although both of those play-offs were navigated with the bare minimum of fuss.

It takes time to establish yourself as a force at senior level, is the point. Consecutive semi-final appearances in the last two seasons suggested Westport were gradually figuring out the right formula and this year, with young players like Conal Dawson and Finbar McLaughlin playing key roles, they have finally broken through and reached a first county final since losing to Hollymount back in 1991.

The man primarily responsible for orchestrating that breakthrough is Martin Connolly, the Westport manager who, incidentally, lined out at centre-forward for Westport in that final against Hollymount 31 years ago. Connolly is a stalwart of Westport GAA and it is fitting that one of their own will be the man to lead them into MacHale Park this Sunday, and quite possibly lead them to a first-ever county title after over a century of trying.

Perhaps the dramatic changes these two teams have undergone since that relegation game eight years ago are best demonstrated by the turnover in personnel in both sides. If both teams start Sunday’s final with the same fifteens as in their semi-final wins, then only six players, three on each side, will have started both games.

They are Ballina’s David Clarke, Evan Regan and Padraig O’Hora (who actually played at centre-forward in 2014) and Westport’s Lee Keegan, Kevin Keane and Brian McDermott. Ballina’s David O’Mahoney and Westport’s Shane Scott both came in as substitutes in that game and both will probably do so again this Sunday.

But that clutch of veterans are the only remaining links to the more difficult days of the past, for both clubs. In the here and now, both the Stephenites and Westport are one game away from the pinnacle of Mayo club football. Considering the roads the two teams have travelled since that rainy afternoon eight years ago, it’s been quite the journey.

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