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There is something unreal about Drom, the home of Salthill Devon, and the annual Macron Galway Cup. The sullen vistas drawing the eye in every direction appear to locate the four neighbouring pitches and adjacent clubhouse in a west of Ireland drawn straight from the works of J.M. Synge. Or as if in some corner of Middle Earth there existed a tribe unmoved by the ceaseless struggle between good and evil, having discovered something much more important.
After the searing sunshine of day one, days two and three have seen the sky become a moody watercolour, and a whipping wind move in off the Corrib, over Gortacleva and across Corcullen, before carrying both high ball and Supermac’s bag alike on its path.
In truth, this tournament has been remarkable for its lack of high balls. It is no exaggeration to say that virtually every team present at this year’s competition has been resolutely determined to play the ball to feet from back to front. And it’s made for some incredible games.
Thursday’s 1pm kick-off in the 2002 Elite competition saw Leeds United, led by former Player of the Tournament winner Nohan Kenneh, twice come from behind to defeat Leixlip 3-2. Striker Max McMillan was dangerous throughout for the English side; finishing the game with two assists, one of which was for Kenneh. That result set up a fascinating clash on Friday between Leeds and Damien Duff’s Shamrock Rovers, who had drawn their Thursday game 0-0 with Dungannon Swifts.
Rovers dominated the opening half amid the swirling wind and rain, bossing possession having taken the early lead, and showing the sort of courage on the ball which has been such a dominant feature of the tournament as a whole. The conditions did triumph briefly in the second half however, as the Rovers goalkeeper came to collect a floated free-kick only for the breeze to reach it first and carry the ball through his hands and into the net.
Things seemed to get even worse for the young ‘keeper just minutes later as he conceded a penalty for tripping McMillan inside the box. Leeds skipper Charlie Creswell came forward from centre-back to take the kick, but saw it well saved by the ‘keeper in a rare moment of instant redemption. The game ultimately finished one apiece, and these two teams will now meet again on Saturday in the final.
In the tournament’s other showpiece bracket, the 2004 Elite Cup, the final will be played between Sligo/Leitrim and the Colorado Rapids. Sligo/Leitrim had a relatively straightforward semi-final experience on Friday, overcoming Carlow by two goals to nil. It was not an easy passage however, as Carlow were unlucky to fall behind, following a mishit clearance inside the box which dropped kindly for their opponents to tap home.
Carlow had even looked to have levelled the scores just before half time, when a goalkeeping error saw the ball bounce towards the line and then be bundled over it by a combination of attacker and defender, but the referee quickly ruled that the former had fouled the latter in the process. The game remained tightly contested until a second-half header from the Sligo/Leitrim striker put the result beyond doubt, and booked them a place in Saturday’s final.
That result allowed the Sligo/Leitrim players to take their place in the crowd for the bracket’s other semi-final, which would decide whether Colorado Rapids or Galway District League would be their opponents on the final day.
It is at this point that I must, for the sake of journalistic integrity, make a humbling confession. Interested readers will recall my caricature of the Rapids’ ponytailed, Geez-Louising head coach from the opening day; well, it turns out that this man is none other than Marcelo Balboa, a 127-cap international for the United States who played every minute of the 1994 World Cup for the hosts. This oversight on my part may only be qualified by my very tender age at the time of Balboa’s peak, and that one does not traditionally expect to find USMNT hall of famers patrolling the sidelines of an underage tournament in semi-rural Galway.
This thrilling discovery also means that one of the two managers in both of Saturday’s glamour finals will have played at least one hundred times for their country. It speaks to the level of performance and organisation which has characterised this year’s tournament, where virtually every team has displayed a level of tactical understanding and flexibility which I had not expected to find in players so young.
Balboa’s Rapids did not, however, enjoy a comfortable semi-final experience. Despite taking an early two-nil lead over the Galway side, they were pegged back deep into the second-half. The Rapids seemed to take their foot off the pedal slightly as the game wore on and Galway refused to abandon their final dream, even taking a deserved lead with just minutes to go.
Colorado seemed stunned by the concession of three unanswered goals and I had already begun to give up all hope of making a pun around Coach Balboa and his pugilistic namesake, Rocky, when, with Galway dropping deeper, the Rapids calmly worked the ball down the right flank and cut it back for a controlled finish on the volley to nestle in the far bottom corner of the goal. Three-Three.
Penalties followed to decide Sligo/Leitrim’s opponents, and their players gathered behind the goal, trying to decide who they’d rather face. Ultimately it was decided by the ten takers and, having reached eight penalties taken and both teams having missed once, Galway missed top-right and Colorado scored bottom-left to seal the deal. A devastating way to lose for a side who dragged themselves back from the abyss and were sucked back in at the death, but a fitting game to close out the third day of action at what has been a tremendous tournament thus far.
It all means that Saturday’s deciding games are beautifully poised, and each of the finalists has had to earn their right to play for the top prize. Whether we see a return to sunshine or the rain reigns and remains, the sky will lower and the hills draw in around Drom to provide once again a fittingly dramatic backdrop.
The full results of days two and three of the Macron Galway Cup can be found here: http://galway-cup.squarespace.
Check back in tomorrow on Extratime.ie to find out who will emerge as champions after four days of incredible football.