By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — After Meath’s extraordinary collapse and the equally unexpected humiliation of Kerry, surely the football season had squeezed itself dry of drama. Then two counties and 37 players produced a game that capped everything that has unfolded to date, and the outcome created jubilation as well as heartbreak in the same measure.
This time it was the turn of the women to play out an All-Ireland final that will live in the memory. It was Mayo going for three titles in a row, and Laois, beaten seven times in previous deciders.
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Neck and neck at Croke Park until two seconds from the end, when Mary Kirwan stepped up to kick a match-winning free that at last put Laois on the Ladies GAA map.
If Laois celebrated a historic success with a heady mixture of joy and relief, there was intense disappointment for Mayo, not just with the defeat, but with the nature of the defeat. So close themselves to victory, they deserved a draw. However, they had only themselves to blame for conceding that crucial free.
With a replay looking increasingly likely, Mayo’s goalkeeper and captain, Denise Horan, took a short kick-out to Cora Staunton, but referee Martin Duffy spotted that Staunton had encroached inside the 20-meter line to receive the ball. A tough call under the circumstances, but one in keeping with the rules. In terms of its distance and its position (straight in front of the goal), Kirwan will surely have more demanding frees in the remainder of her career. But she’ll hardly find the range with one as important.
The ball duly split the posts and Laois were champions for the first time.
“I took the last free casually because I really didn’t realize how much time there was left,” admitted Kirwan, who accounted for 1-7 of the winners’ total, including a penalty.
Meanwhile, Mayo’s coach, Jonathan Mullin, was magnanimous in defeat, accepting that the free was “the correct decision.”
Inspired by Staunton, Mayo had the best of the early exchanges, with Claire Egan finishing off some excellent approach work by Emma Mullin for a goal. Staunton was also proving accurate from placed balls — she finished with a total of 0-11 — but Laois struck back with a well-worked goal by Kathleen O’Reilly and Mayo led at the interval by 1-10 to 1-8.
With Sue Ramsbottom, who had played in six of Laois’ previous final defeats, coming good, Laois surged clear toward the end. But Mayo responded yet again and Staunton lofted over a magnificent point to level the scores with a minute remaining. A crowd of nearly 21,000 believed they were going to have a second installment, but Kirwan and Laois thought otherwise.
Meanwhile, in the junior final, Roscommon had a convincing 1-18 to 0-8 win over Kildare.