Burke the star turn as Corofin march on
IT'S fair to wonder if the good people of Corofin fully understand what truly halcyon days their current crop of footballers are giving them.
Ballintubber threw the kitchen sink at them in Castlebar yesterday, yet the Galway champions still held on, using all their guile and experience to qualify for their third final in four years.
For the two-in-a-row Mayo champions, there was heartbreak at losing in Connacht by just a single point for the second consecutive year.
With the game moving into injury-time, teenage county star Cillian O'Connor bore down on the Corofin goal but, not for the first time, David Morris was alert and saved his shot.
Yet it was much earlier that Ballintubber let their best opportunity slip and Anthony McGarry and his management could only scratch their heads afterwards and wonder how their team had squandered such a brilliant start by then going completely AWOL for 20 minutes before the interval.
Within 12 minutes of the throw-in, O'Connor had proved why he's the hottest young property in Gaelic football right now. By then the 19-year-old, who won the national Young Footballer of the Year title last month, had already racked up 1-3 (0-2f) and was making Corofin's usually dependent Kieran McGrath look very ill at ease.
O'Connor's 11th-minute goal, off a pinpoint 40-metre pass from Jason Gibbons, was brilliantly taken and put Ballintubber six points up (1-4 to 0-1) and the 2008 and '09 Connacht champions, who only won their 14th county title last week, were looking extremely flat-footed.
But then the Galway side started to completely dominate midfield and it was another teenager who caught the eye, 18-year-old Daithi Burke, who starred for Galway's minor hurlers when they won the All-Ireland in '09.
He certainly didn't lick his football skills off the stones, as his dad Gerry played a key role in Corofin's All-Ireland club title in 1998, but hurling is his main game.
"Daithi plays midfield with the Turloughmore hurlers and this is probably only his fourth or fifth senior championship match with us," said Corofin boss Brian Silke. "But he certainly showed huge maturity out there today."
Burke wasn't the winners' only hero as they had other serious man-of-the- match contenders in Alan Burke, Michael Comer and top-scorer Alan O'Donovan, but the honour went the way of the young NUIG Arts student and few quibbled after the way he pulled his side back into the first half after such a disastrous start.
The management can also take some credit for switching Alan Burke to mark O'Connor.
Between that and their midfield improvement, Corofin suddenly roared into the game, holding Ballintubber scoreless for a full 21 minutes while their pacy off-loading game racked up an unanswered 1-7 to go in four points up (1-8 to 1-4) at half-time.
As usual, O'Donovan's free-taking was metronomic, as he racked up 0-5 (including one from play) of his 0-8 before half-time.
But their most vital score came in the dying minutes of the first half when, with the sides level, centre-back Gary Delaney equalled Gibbons' passing accuracy with a beautifully floated long ball to set up county senior star Gary Sice for his 32nd-minute goal.
On resumption, any hopes of just hitting the cruise control button were quickly arrested when midfielder Michael Hoban immediately hit back with a great long-range point, Ballintubber's first score since the 11th minute.
And then Corofin wasted two great goal chances -- O'Donovan bursting through but swinging it wide and young Burke's chance stopped by Brendan Walsh -- to throw Ballintubber a lifeline of which they took full advantage.
Mayo senior star Alan Dillon had been relatively anonymous in the first half but once he dropped deeper, he and Gibbons began to wrestle back midfield and the momentum.
Substitute Damien McGing was only off the bench when he scored and then Dillon threaded through a great pass to find O'Connor in a crowded goalmouth and the teenager cleverly went low to level the game in the 42nd minute and bring his personal tally to 2-3.
An off-the-ball foul then yielded Corofin the lead again thanks to an O'Donovan free and the concession of another silly free saw him extend the lead to two by the 52nd minute, but when Gibbons scored an inspirational '45' with just three minutes left it was edge-of-the-seat stuff, especially when Damien Coleman put O'Connor through for his late chance.
In those late stages Ballintubber suffered from a few marginal calls, but Corofin had more scoring chances and wasted them and needed all their experience to hold on.
"I'd be concerned about the way we started both halves, particularly the first one," Silke said. "You could blame the fact that we only won the county final last week but I wouldn't use any excuse whatsoever, it was a terrible start and we missed two gilt-edged goal chances there in the second half too.
"But we're there now and it's one step at a time, as always," he said as they looked forward to facing St Brigid's of Roscommon in the Connacht final.
Scorers -- Corofin: A O'Donovan 0-8 (7f), G Sice 1-1, M Lundy, K Comer 0-1 each. Ballintubber: C O'Connor 2-3 (2f), M Hoban, A Dillon, D McGing J Gibbons ('45') 0-1 each.
Corofin -- D Morris; K McGrath, K Fitzgerald, Alan Burke; P Kelly, M Comer, G Delaney; Daithi Burke, G Higgins; G Sice, Damien Burke, A O'Donovan; M Lundy, M Farragher, K Comer. Subs: J Burke for K Comer (47), A Donnellan for Lundy (57).
Ballintubber -- B Walsh; G Loftus, C Hallinan, M Kelly; T Earley, D Geraghty, R O'Connor; M Hoban, J Gibbons; G Dillon, A Plunkett, P O'Connor; A Dillon, K McGuinness, C O'Connor. Subs: D McGing for P O'Connor (39), M Nestor for Earley (47), D Coleman for Plunkett (57).
REF -- Marty Duffy (Sligo).