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Mayo's terrace army to fight on

Mayo squandered a six-point lead to a flurry of late scores from a below-par Meath team, whose 12 points matched the Connaught side's goal (worth three points) and nine points to force a replay in yesterday's All-Ireland Gaelic Football Final.

Seeking their first title in 45 years, Mayo lived up to their promise of subduing an opposition lacking the physical bulk that had made them so formidable over the last 10 years.

Mayo's advantage was even greater on the terraces, where an ocean of green and red flags among the crowd of 63,898 reached around three sides of the ground. Dublin's Croke Park, now almost halfway through a IRpounds 110m reconstruction, increasingly resembles a Gaelic San Siro, and on completion it will seat 75,000.

Friction with soccer and rugby (along with cricket, the reviled "garrison sports" played by pre-Independence British Army teams) continues, with those games, and they are still barred from Gaelic Athletic Association pitches.

Today's antipathy reflects commercial as much as cultural competition with soccer. Press reports yesterday claim the GAA have rejected IRpounds 20m in state grants for Croke Park, conditional on their allowing soccer there.

Big-match fervour inevitably feeds eccentricity. In Mayo, a Meath-born farmer found his fields mowed neatly with the letters "UP MAYO!". Four fans arrived in Dublin in a lovingly built Mayo-mobile in kit colours of green and red, made from two Ford Fiestas.

Opposing fans included the Taoiseach, John Bruton, a Meath farmer, and his wife, Finola, a native of Mayo. Siding with her were Ballina-born Mary Robinson and her arch-adversary, the European Union Commissioner, Padraig Flynn - one of the few occasions that the President has agreed with him on a matter.

Further afield, satellite television nowadays beams the game to Irish exiles in the United States, to Lebanon (where Irish Army troops on United Nations duty invite bemused local Arabs to watch) and to London, where determined exiles in Kilburn once had to seek out Hampstead Heath's high ground to aim radio aerials at Dublin.

Gaelic football, a 15-a-side blend of handball and rugby with a round ball, is a near-cousin to Australian Rules football, with points earned like drop goals in rugby and goals scored beneath the bar, as in football.

Recently, football has commanded larger national audiences than its sister GAA sport of hurling. But stylish wins for the 1995 underdogs, Clare, and for Wexford two weeks ago have given hurling the edge in excitement in recent times.

Football depends more on power and territory. Thunderous body checks worthy of instant red cards in soccer are tolerated as long as the ball is somewhere nearby. A shocked Alex Ferguson, a guest at the 1994 final, reportedly asked if a riot on the pitch was imminent. "Ah no," the Manchester United manager was assured by his host. "They might kill each other, but they would never fight."

Tempers did boil over occasionally yesterday, notably after 10 minutes of growing dominance by the tall Mayo midfielders, led by the outstanding Liam McHale. His centre-back, James Nallen, was felled off the ball then angrily pulled up from the ground by Meath players, claiming that he was feigning injury. Eight players from both sides were involved in the ensuing fracas.

McHale and Nallen helped a well-organised defence, while Mayo's midfield were in control, disrupting Meath's passing and reaching higher than their opponents in aerial battles.

Mayo's forwards showed neat passing and linked better than Meath who, hunting in packs, hustled feverishly to get on the scoresheet in darting raids that held Mayo to a 7-4 lead at the interval.

Meath's Arsenal trialist, Graham Geraghty, almost stole a goal to swing the game after a dribbling run but shot wide.

Mayo remained on top after the restart but hit the post twice in quick succession, misses that would prove costly. But 10 minutes into the half, Mayo's Ray Dempsey buried the game's only goal after a stylish dribble to give his side a 1-8 (11 points) lead to Meath's six points. Meath dug in and, drawing on their fabled hill-training stamina, clawed back points amid fierce pressure. Brendan Reilly surged through with a strong run that yielded a crucial free-kick and a quick score. With 10 minutes to go, Mayo still led by four points.

Meath's forays reduced the deficit to a single point with scores from Trevor Giles and Reilly, who gave his all in the final moments.

With just seconds left, a hopeful, looping 40-yard shot from the Meath right-half back, Colm Coyne, bounced cruelly in front of Mayo's keeper, Conor Martin, and over the bar for the equaliser. Rueful Mayo hordes streamed away with long faces, knowing they may not be allowed such a clear sense of victory in the replay, which will take place on 29 September.

In another game yesterday, Laois beat Kerry in a fast-moving Minor (Under- 18) final by 2-11 (17) to 1-11 (14).