Magnificent 7: A look back at the most memorable U21 finals
Dublin and Galway will bring down the curtain on the most competitive of GAA competitions
Fans interfere with the scoreboard during the All-Ireland under-21 final of 2002. Galway defeated Dublin by 0-15 to 0-7. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
First contested in 1964, with Kerry winning the inaugural title, the All-Ireland under-21 football championship has blossomed over the years in terms of both profile and importance. It’s not just the last grade before players break into the senior ranks, sometimes it’s the forum for the last pure expression of their talents as well.
It’s become increasingly competitive too: 16 counties have won the title outright, five more making finals, with Tyrone the last team to win back-to-back, in 2000-2001. Cork top the roll of honour with 11 titles, one of only two counties to achieve a three-in-a-row (1984-1986), along with Kerry (1975-1977).
On Saturday evening in Tullamore, Dublin and Galway will contest the last final, as from next year, it comes an All-Ireland under-20 championship. On that note, here are seven great All-Ireland under-21 football triumphs of recent years.
1. 1999: Westmeath beat Kerry, 0-12 to 0-9
Four years after their celebrated manager Luke Dempsey delivered a first ever minor title to Westmeath, he upped the ante again, guiding some of the same players to the county’s first and still only under-21 title.
Despite taking on a fancied Kerry team, who had won the under-21 title three times in the previous four years, Westmeath were comfortable winners too. If anything Kerry were lucky not to lose by more, despite their team featuring the likes of Paul Galvin and Tadhg Kennelly.
Westmeath’s two corner men, Dessie Dolan and Joe Fallon, finished with 0-9 between them. Afterwards Dempsey said that he saw “no logical reason” why this team of players couldn’t go on to achieve similar success in the senior grade.
He wasn’t far off, as in 2004 Westmeath won their first ever Leinster senior title, under the guidance of the late Páidí Ó Sé, Dolan scoring 0-3 in the reply win over Laois. However that ultimate All-Ireland senior success eluded them.
2. 2000: Tyrone beat Limerick, 3-12 to 0-13
Having dropped largely off the radar at senior level, and eight years without an under-21 title, Tyrone suddenly returned with real vengeance under a new manager named Mickey Harte.
Backboned by the likes of Stephen O’Neill, Owen Mulligan, Philip Jordan, Kevin Hughes and the late Cormac McAnallen, this Tyrone team was arguably the greatest of the under-21 generation, comfortably beating Limerick here, before defending the title in 2001 with a three-point win over Mayo.
They were back in the final again in 2003, losing to Dublin, but within months several players from those under-21 teams, including O’Neill and Mulligan, collected their first of three senior All-Irelands, defeating Armagh in the All-Ireland final that September.
3. 2002: Galway beat Dublin, 0-15 to 0-7
This was a brief golden period for Galway football, who hadn’t won an under-21 football All-Ireland since 1972. They weren’t fancied to win this one either, as Dublin looked both poised and determined to end their wait for a first ever title, under the management of Tommy Lyons, with star players such as Stephen Cluxton, Paul Casey, Barry Cahill, Darren Magee, Conal Keaney and Alan Brogan.
Instead, it was Galway who ruled the day, spurred on by the likes of Kieran Fitzgerald, who strangely enough was just one of their players who won a senior All-Ireland before an under-21 title, having been part of the Galway team that won the senior title in 2001.
Other players driving that Galway team included captain Joe Bergin plus Kieran Comer, plus a young Michael Meehan, no doubt aided by the fact they were also managed by the senior trio of John O’Mahony, Steven Joyce and Peter Warren.
4. 2003: Dublin beat Tyrone, 0-12 to 0-7
After the crushing defeat to Galway in the final the previous year, there was no stopping the young cubs of Tommy Lyons this time, his team now under the captaincy of Alan Brogan.
Tyrone went into the game as marginal favourites, but Dublin produced the better all-round performance, Brogan playing a starring role, with Conal Keaney and Declan O’Mahony also shining.
The expectation was Dublin would soon transfer that success to senior grade, but instead they had to wait another eight years before their 2011 All-Ireland final win over Kerry, that dream season for the metropolitans ending with Alan Brogan being named footballer of the year.
5. 2006: Mayo beat Cork, 1-13 to 1-11
Having last won this title in 1983, and increasingly starved of success at senior level too, Mayo needed this one, just a little more, it turned out, than a fancied Cork. Not that it was easy, Cork in the driving seat for a long while before Aidan Kilcoyne kick-started Mayo’s response.
Under the captaincy of Keith Higgins, with a team that also included Séamus O’Shea, Ger Cafferkey, Enda Varley and Michael Conroy, and managed by Pat Holmes, they drew on all that hunger: O’Shea’s second-half penalty, converted on the second attempt, was a pivotal score, and Mayo just held on in the end.
Cork actually had a chance to level late on, just before Conroy added the insurance point, prompting wild scenes of celebration for Mayo at the final whistle. Of course that elusive senior success still awaits them all.
6. 2007: Cork beat Laois, 2-10 to 0-15
Still wounded by the final defeat to Mayo the previous year, Cork returned in style, inspired throughout the campaign by the seamless accuracy of Daniel Goulding. After winning a fourth successive Munster title, they edged past Armagh by a single point to set up this decider against Laois.
Again, Goulding was to the fore, and with 13 of the team that had lost the previous year’s final, there was no denying the young Rebels this time. It was closer than expected, but with Goulding and the likes of Fintan Goold, Michael Shields and Eoin Cadogan already with senior experience, Cork held out.
Just three years later that under-21 team essentially backboned Cork’s senior All-Ireland success, Goulding scoring 0-9 in the one-point win over Down.
7. 2016: Mayo beat Cork, 5-7 to 1-14
Backed by several of their All-Ireland minor-winning side from 2013, Mayo helped to produce another classic final, scoring an amazing five goals in the end of what was actually a tight game.
Diarmuid O’Connor scored one of Mayo’s first-half goals, before a Peter Kelleher goal for Cork, and later a Brian Coakley free, tied things up in the 54th minute, before Mayo finished in style to secure their moment of triumph.
Conor Loftus dramatically intercepted a Cork kick-out to score a third goal, before Liam Irwin sealed the deal, and delivered Mayo’s fifth title in the grade, and second in 10 years. But still that senior success eludes them.