Corofin's extra-time zip too much for Castlebar
Ambitious clubs like this pair always think in terms of being in Croke Park on St. Patrick's Day so there was always likely to be a high drama content in their latest shoot-out.
Corofin 0-17 Castlebar 0-14
And so it proved in Elverys MacHale Park, where it took extra-time to separate the 2015 All-Ireland champions and the 2014-2016 runners-up. Ultimately, it was Corofin who kept their prospects of winning a second All-Ireland title in three seasons afloat with an energetic burst which enabled them to out-score the home side by 0-6 to 0-3 in the added period.
That immediately raised the question of whether Castlebar Mitchels' demanding schedule - this was their sixth game over consecutive weekends - left them vulnerable in the final energy-sapping 20 minutes.
"I won't be using it as an excuse. We all said we wouldn't. But against a top side like Corofin, it was difficult. Six weeks in a row - it had to have some impact. We tried to freshen it up by bringing on as many as we could but bodies were tired and sore out there," said Castlebar joint manager, Declan O'Reilly.
Corofin certainly had more zip about them in extra-time whereas Castlebar had been the livelier outfit for much of the second-half.
They trailed 0-6 to 0-4 at half-time but improved from there on and hit the front for the first time when Neil Douglas pointed a free in the 54th minute.
It looked as if they might have timed their run to perfection but Corofin jolted back into positive action and led again before Castlebar sub, David Stenson kicked the equaliser (0-11 each).
Man-of-the-match, Ian Burke kicked two early points in extra-time, giving the Galway champions an advantage they never surrendered.
They led by 0-14 to 0-12 at half-time and won the second period by 0-3 to 0-2, leaving the defending Connacht champions to ponder on how it might have been all so very different if they were less wasteful early on.
Castlebar kicked seven wides in the first half, whereas economical Corofin shot none. They led by 0-5 to 0-1 after 20 minutes before Castlebar gradually established a rhythm which had pared the deficit back to two points by half-time.
Neil Douglas, normally so accurate from placed balls, missed two frees and a '45' in the first half but, to his credit, refused to allow it define his day and eventually ended up with 0-10.
Still, a 7-0 wides count in the first half will long haunt Castlebar, especially after putting in such a well-structured effort in the second half. It would have been enough to beat most opposition but Corofin are underpinned by so many layers of experience that they know how to work their way through difficult periods.
Besides, they were driven by a fierce determination to finally beat opponents who had out-gunned them in their last two meetings.
"They have been something of a monkey on our back the last few times we played them so it's great to come to Castlebar and beat them. We dug in when we went a point down in the second half and we upped our game again in extra-time," said Corofin's veteran full-back, Kieran Fitzgerald.
His eagle-eye and general understanding of what it takes to lock out the opposition was very important for Corofin, who were powered by massive determination.
"We were really up for this. We lost to them twice (in recent years) so if we were any sort of team at all, we were going to be pumped up today," said Fitzgerald.
Corofin manager, Kevin O'Brien acknowledged that Castlebar's exertions - not just in recent weeks but over a longer period - may have come against them in extra-time.
"Great credit is due to them - they have been on the road for the last six weeks and they had a lot of players who had a long run in the All-Ireland series so the extra-time may have suited us a bit more than them," he said.
Corofin also had star quality when they needed it most, not least in corner-forward, Ian Burke, who kicked four excellent points from open play.
"There's a great sense of relief to have won. Castlebar are a very tough outfit - we've always known that so we came with our own game plan and had a go. Thankfully, it worked out for us in the end," he said.
While Corofin, who will play Roscommon champions, St.Brigid's in the final, were delighted to have finally got the better of their great Mayo rivals, they know that they are still some way from the super-slick outfit that won last year's All-Ireland title.
"We have a lot more work to do but the important thing is that we're still in there. Winning today means an awful lot to us," said Fitzgerald.
Scorers - Corofin: I Burke, J Leonard (2f) 0-4 each, G Sice 0-3 (3f), M Farragher 0-2, D Burke, R Steede, M Lundy, K Molloy 0-1 each.
Castlebar: N Douglas 0-10 (8f 1'45), D Stenson 0-2, Paddy Durcan, C Costello 0-1 each.
Corofin - B Power; C Silke, K Fitzgerald, L Silke; K Molloy, C McGrath, C Cunningham; D Burke, R Steede; G Sice, D Wall, M Lundy; I Burke, M Farragher, J Leonard.
Subs: Ciaran Brady for Steede (27 blood), Steede for Ciaran Brady (ht blood), Ciaran Brady for Steede (32 blood), Colin Brady for Ciaran Brady (34), B O'Donovan for Colin Brady (54), Steede for Wall (58), A Burke for Cunningham (64), G Higgins for Steede (65), Steede for Higgins (70).
Castlebar - R Byrne; S Irwin, G McDonagh, D Newcombe; R O'Malley, E O'Reilly, P Durcan; A Walsh, B Moran; F Durkan, C Costello, J Durcan; N Lydon, N Douglas, S Hopkins.
Subs:J Maughan for Irwin (41), D Kirby for Lydon (41), D Stenson for F Durkan (55), D Joyce for J Durcan (64), C Kyne for Hopkins (71), R Burke for O'Reilly (73).
Ref - P Neilan (Roscommon)