Loftus holds nerve to send Mayo into final
Mayo 1-15 Dublin 1-14
By any comparison, All-Ireland final appearances aren’t rare occasions in Mayo but wins therein, painfully and infamously, are.
Which is why their U-21 team, the one that beat Dublin in such determined and exhilarating style in Tullamore on Saturday, bear such a tonnage of hope spread across their collective shoulders.
With 11 of the team who broke the mould and won an All-Ireland minor title in 2013, Michael Solan’s team flirted skittishly with the bleak prospect of a throw-away defeat to Dublin in O’Connor Park but managed to chisel out a brilliant win.
“That’s not something that would come into our mind at all, positive or negative experiences or anything,” the Mayo manager said afterwards of his team’s very obvious recent and pleasant experience with occasions such as the one they face on April 30 against Cork in this year’s All-Ireland U-21 final.
“This U-21 team is just this U-21 team, you know, that’s all we’re concerned about. We’re not really worried about anything else.”
Though worried was exactly how Solan looked with 10 minutes to go on Saturday on a fresh day in Tullamore when the U-21 grade again mocked those who binned it.
Euphoric was his demeanour after Conor Loftus held his nerve to kick the winning free in the fourth minute of injury-time.
“He’s got as good a strike of the ball as you’d find,” Solan praised. “I’m sure Conor felt the pressure certainly but it didn’t show in his execution.”
Earlier, Mayo had studiously and skilfully managed to construct a six-point half-time lead (it was seven at two different stages in the first period) yet stood dishevelled as Dublin kicked 1-9 to two Mayo points in the first 20 minutes after the break.
The same Dublin who hadn’t managed to score from play until the final minute of the first half and were, in all truth, charmed to be just six points off Mayo by half-time.
“Ah you always worry,” Solan confirmed with a smile.
“I think you spend 60 minutes worrying on the sideline to be honest with you.
“Look, we were worried about various things but knowing the character of these boys, we were hoping that there was always going to be a push in them. Thankfully, it turned out that way.”
Character wasn’t Mayo’s problem here. Getting out of their own half amid crushing pressure on their kick-out was.
A stiff and direct wind partly contributed to the odd fact that at different stages in this match, both teams looked like they might get hammered, but that didn’t fully explain it either.
Mayo and Dublin almost seemed to take it in turns to be the superior team and Mayo just made slightly more of theirs.
Predictably for anyone who has followed his career closely, Diarmuid O’Connor was the game’s most compelling force.
The current Young Footballer of the Year creatively flicked a pass from Liam Irwin past Lorcan Molloy in the 10th minute to confirm that Mayo were going to be the first half’s dominant side and only a couple of late Dublin points against the grain stopped the heavy bleeding before it became terminal.
“I think that breeze was a little harder to deal with than we were giving it credit for,” Dessie Farrell noted afterwards.
“We were just slow and lethargic. We just looked out on our feet early.
“There was none of the coming off the shoulder and opening them up – that wasn’t happening at all.
“It started happening in the second half. We sort of threw the shackles off a bit and went for it. But I don’t know why we didn’t do it in the first half.
“It was never our intention to be conservative. But they just looked flat for some reason and they didn’t have the energy.
“We set ourselves a huge mountain to climb.”
But climb it, they did.
Dublin were level within 11 minutes, leading by the 12th of the half.
Con O’Callaghan (1-5, 3f), this young Dublin team’s outstanding prospect, netted but, equally, Colm Basquel and Mick Deegan (0-3 each) flourished in a period when it looked like Dublin couldn’t miss if they wanted.
“We were expecting them to come at us very hard at the start of the second half and that’s what transpired,” Solan noted, though he couldn’t have envisaged how helpless his team looked during that near-fatal spell.
“Look, it’s no shock to us. It still takes an awful lot of work on the field from the lads to be able to turn that stuff around.”
Irwin kicked three frees as Mayo belatedly reeled Dublin in and in a frantic finish, O’Connor seized possession once more and was fouled 30 yards out at an angle.
Cue Loftus’s cool winner.
“I said after the Connacht final that there’s an awful lot of heart and guts in these boys,” Solan recalled, “and thankfully they were able to show that again today.”
Scorers – Mayo: C Loftus (4f), L Irwin (3f) 0-4 each, D O’Connor 1-1, F Boland 0-2, S Akram, M Ruane, S Coen, F Duffy 0-1 each. Dublin: C O’Callaghan 1-5 (3f), M Deegan, C Basquel 0-3 each, P Small (f), E Murchan, G O’Reilly 0-1 each.
Mayo – M Flanagan; E O’Donoghue, S Cunniffe, D Kenny; M Plunkett, M Hall, S Akram; M Ruane, S Coen; F Boland, C Loftus, D O’Connor; L Irwin, F Duffy, B Reape. Subs: E Doran for Cunniffe (h-t), J Carr for Duffy (47), J Kelly for Plunkett (52).
Dublin – L Molloy; S McMahon, E Smith, S Clayton; C O’Shea, M Cahilan, B Howard; K Deeley, A Foley; T Lahiff, C Basquel, G O’Reilly; P Small, C O’Callaghan, M Deegan. Subs: E Murchan for Cahilan (25), D Spillane for Small (43), K Doherty for Deeley (46), A Elliott for O’Reilly (56), D Monaghan for Smith (60).
Ref – N Cullen (Fermanagh)