When John Cunnane scored this goal for Ballyhaunis against Dunmore MacHales in Saturday’s AIB Connacht GAA club intermediate football semi-final, it looked promising for the Mayo champions. However, Dunmore were spurred on more by the concession of the score and turned the game around completely in a devastating spell thereafter. PHOTO: DAVID FARRELL

MARTIN CARNEY: Can't attribute Dunmore’s win solely to a Ballyhaunis meltdown

INTERMEDIATE football is close to my heart. For the past two years I have had the privilege of acting as a selector on the Castlebar Mitchels intermediate team under manager Kevin Filan’s watchful eye.

That this was a team that made life difficult for whoever they met without, alas, qualifying for the knockout stages is an accurate summary of the period. Squad members responded well to Kevin’s excellent coaching and were active participants in a group that set high standards.

In general, most of the participating teams in the grade come from clubs with smaller selection bases. Exceptions like Castlebar Mitchels and Ballina Stephenites, clubs from bigger urban areas, can afford to enter teams in the grade with a mix of players who are deemed either surplus to senior management plans or who are cutting their teeth at senior level.

Some things are certain: demands are never-ending, standards are high and the quality on offer in the grade, for whatever reason, often comes packaged free from the defensive shackles that too often blight the senior grade.

Ballyhaunis, then, are a team that I am more than familiar with. Over the course of thrilling championship encounters, Mitchels drew and lost by a point to their east Mayo opponents in the last 15 months.

With this close-up knowledge of their team, it was with a level of anticipation that I awaited their game with Galway champions Dunmore. Apart from anything else, the incentive of reaching their first ever provincial final should have been enough to bring the best out in them. Their famed opponents, Dunmore, for years now in the intermediate grade, equally should have been primed and loaded. With their recent success in the competitive local championship followed with a win over Sligo’s St. Molaise (amazingly their first ever win in a Connacht club game), their confidence was high.

Well, to the strains of The Rolling Stones' ‘Start Me Up’, Dunmore took to the pitch full of purpose and determination. Backed by the diagonal near gale force wind in the opening period, this dash didn’t last long and after a tentative opening quarter Ballyhaunis began to look the more likely winners.

The Coyne brothers, Jack and Jason, a marauding Joe Sutton, the effervescent Keith Higgins and a foraging John Cunnane ensured the Mayo champions enjoyed dominance. Carrying the ball well into the wind, guarding possession jealously and finding men in support positions, they ground Dunmore into a state of frustration. Not even a 16th minute goal from Thomas Gleeson did much to relieve Dunmore’s gloom. Though it may have given them a two-point lead, it still failed to rattle the Ballyhaunis men.

A calm response culminating in a necklace of scores from Jack Coyne, Adrian Philips and Morgan Lyons gave Ballyhaunis a deserved one-point interval lead. Indeed, had the latter not spurned a good goal-scoring chance midway through the half, Dunmore’s task could have been nigh on impossible after the break.

Over the course of the half Ballyhaunis appeared to grow in confidence. Their teamwork was the superior brand. This, coupled with their ability to outwit Dunmore and cause them to chase shadows all over the pitch, seemed to leave them in a very strong position. That one-point interval lead was little more than they deserved.

What could go wrong for the Mayo champions I asked myself at the break? By any known football matrix they were in the ascendency and when Johnny Cunnane rattled the Dunmore net seven minutes into the second half, the road to recovery for the Galway champs looked long and circuitous.

Remarkably, and contrary to everything that had previously happened, this goal just marked the prelude to a period of football that turned the game on its head. It may have been a few minutes coming but by the time Padraig Costello, Jamie Coen, the outstanding Jamie McGrath, Tomas Gleeson and Jake Slattery added eight points without reply in a 15-minutes period, the result was as good as decided.

Rather than buckle under the hammer blow of the goal, the score appeared to issue a challenge to the Dunmore lads to which they responded admirably. In every sector of the pitch they began to win their individual duels and win breaking balls, both from restarts and in broken play. Quite simply, Ballyhaunis couldn’t get their hands on the ball. Support runners became a rarity and individual errors began to multiply. Misplaced handpasses, handling errors and poor decision-making became the norm.

I thought at the time that giving Keith Higgins a more advanced assignment might have had the effect of inspiring a midfield sector that had run out of ideas and energy. In retrospect, due to so many of his colleagues underperforming, it mightn’t have mattered at all.

Offering the excuse that the wind advantage enjoyed by Dunmore in the first half never materialised in the second half would be clutching at straws. For some unexplained reason, the competitive instincts, sound organisation and all-out effort that fortified them earlier simply dissolved into the dark November sky in the last quarter. Late points by Adrian Philips and Jason Coyne reduced the deficit to one score but try as they did, there was never a whiff that the badly-needed equalising goal would materialise.

It would be unfair to the winners Dunmore to attribute their win solely to a Ballyhaunis meltdown. They deserve the highest credit for refusing to accept was looked an ominous fate early in the second half. For lengthy periods up to then they were unable to get their hands on the ball and due to an overall lack of intensity, they allowed Ballyhaunis dictate the rules of engagement.

Once they established a collective toehold, different individuals began to shine. Not to salute the place-kicking reliability of Pauric Costello, the industry of Matthew Reddington, who reigned supreme when moved to midfield, and the scores of Jamie Coen and Shane McGrath would be wrong. Overall they were the better team, stayed in the contest when all seemed lost and found the necessary response when the game was in the balance.