Two Connacht finals, two cups secured. That has to count as a good day’s work for the county no matter how you cut it. The minors (more about them in a bit) secured back-to-back provincial honours with a fair bit of dash in the day’s curtain raiser at MacHale Park this afternoon, while the seniors won pretty much at their ease in a Nestor Cup decider that never really came to the boil in the way that championship tussles between Mayo and Galway have done so often in the past.
As we surveyed the two teams’ warm-ups for the big game, it felt like Groundhog Day, with the visitors doing the same twenty-yard sprints and pot-shots at the posts that they’d done prior to the disembowelment they suffered at our hands in Salthill last year while we were doing our usual busy, small-sided matches routine. Once the ball was thrown-in, though, it quickly became clear that this much-changed Galway team wasn’t going to collapse in the craven manner that the 2013 variant had done.
The most visible change was the more defensive set-up the visitors deployed, with almost their whole team camped in our half in the opening ten minutes. They still got the scoreboard moving first, though, via a Shane Walsh free, but we quickly responded with a nice point from play by Cillian O’Connor into the Bacon Factory end, where we had the wind with us in that opening half. The Ballintubber man hoisted over a long-range free soon after to edge us in front. It was a lead we’d never lose from then on.
Even at this stage, Galway’s shooting was proving to be a bit on the wild side, with Cummins and Hoare both missing the target by some distance. Despite the way we had Andy deployed (far too) deep – leaving Cillian alone up top – we began to put distance between us on the scoreboard, with Alan Dillon played in nicely by Kevin McLoughlin for our third, following which Kevin landed a super solo effort following a looping run in from the right.
But we weren’t exactly motoring either, with Donal Vaughan shooting wide and Lee Keegan dropping a shot into the ‘keeper’s hands. In this early often-frantic period, we also had a plethora of misplaced passes, handling errors and all the rest.
Galway posted their first score from play when Lundy fisted over after a scorching run from out the right wing straight into our danger zone. As the first quarter gave way to the second, however, we continued to pull clear with a free from Cillian followed by another one from play from Kevin, who reacted quickly after a shot from Jason Doherty came back off the upright.
Galway’s response was two shocking wides, again from Cummins and Hoare, and we made them pay for this profligacy in our next attack, which yielded the game’s first goal. Cillian set it up, winning the ball in the corner and advancing in along the end-line before squaring it for the inrushing Lee Keegan to palm home.
Photo: Mayo Mick
A Shane Walsh free gave the Galway contingent something to cheer about but we could have had a second goal soon after when Jason Doc burst through but was hauled down by sub Kavanagh as he was about to feed the unmarked Cillian O’Connor. This was a textbook black card offence but ref Rory Hickey – who was even worse today than he usually is – failed to produce any card. Cillian tapped over the resultant free, though, to restore our seven-point lead.
Two more bad wides for the Tribesmen followed before Paul Conroy – who went on to excel in the second half for them – posted his first point from play. Alan Dillon hooked a shot badly wide from a good scoring position before Cillian notched his second point from play from an excellent Aidan O’Shea pass.
Kevin Mc arrowed over a superb point to extend our lead but wides from Alan and Cillian pushed our count on that metric to five (Galway had eight by then) before Cummins finally landed a score to leave seven points between the sides at the break.
Although Galway had the strong enough wind in their favour in the second half, I wouldn’t say there would have been too much worry among the Mayo faithful as they queued for their teas and coffees (and the jacks) at the interval. We hadn’t filleted them in the way we’d done at the same stage of last year’s contest but we were comfortably in charge and looked well placed to finish the job without an awful lot of bother.
It was the visitors, though, who raised a bit of a gallop from the restart. A Barry Moran error from the throw-in led to a goal effort from Walsh, whose shot rocketed back off the crossbar with Robbie well beaten and the same player then claimed the rebound and slotted it over. Points from play by Conroy and Bradshaw followed and so suddenly the gap was down to four.
We should have had a penalty from our first attack of the half, when Lee was hauled down in the square, having taken an offload from Colm Boyle after the burst upfield by the Davitts man. Incredibly, however the useless Clare official waved play on.
Cummins hit a bad wide – Galway’s third since the break – before Doc pointed for us following a great surge by Chris Barrett. A Seamus O’Shea wide was then followed by another point from play from the increasing influential Paul Conroy, with whom Ger Cafferkey was having a right old tussle.
Galway made a double substitution early in the half and we made our first switch then too, with Alan Dillon – who never really got into the game at all – replaced by Michael Conroy. Soon after, Cillian – shooting into a tricky wind – knocked over a free to restore our five-point advantage.
We then had a goal ruled out, incorrectly I thought, when Aidan O’Shea pulled off an excellent rob and Doc thumped it home. By now, the home crowd was getting increasingly exercised at Hickey’s abject incompetence.
We had ourselves to blame, though, for the next goal chance we missed. Lee Keegan, loitering completely unmarked close to their goal, was picked out with a beautiful pass but he blasted his effort off the crossbar and over.
It was a case of third time lucky, however, with Jason burying the next chance that came his way. Nine up with twenty minutes to play, this was now another Mayo-Galway clash that wasn’t going to go down to the wire.
Photo: Mayo Mick
In fairness to the Herrin Chokers, they clawed back that goal over the next few minutes, with two frees from Walsh and another point from play (I’m not sure who got that one). Alan Freeman came on for Andy – who, in truth, should have been taken off much earlier – before Cillian pointed another from play. At the other end, another Walsh free cut the gap back to six.
But it was back out to nine soon after. The sideline were readying to replace Barry Moran with Jason Gibbons but had to postpone the switch when Bird got on the end of a move to bat the ball into the net from point-blank range. I mean, it wouldn’t really have been kosher, now would it, to sub a man who has just scored a goal?
Photo: Mayo Mick
In the event, Barry was gone and Jason was on a few minutes later. It was an enforced change too when he pulled down Conroy (I think) inside the square. It was a bang-to-rights black card – as was the penalty award – but then so too was Kavanagh’s in the first half.
The result was already beyond doubt at this stage, with ten minutes or so left on the clock, but a goal for the Tribesmen then would at least have made for an interesting finale to the contest. Walsh’s spot kick was, though, expertly turned away by Robbie and, to add insult to injury, Walsh then thumped the resultant ’45 well wide.
From then on, the game petered out tamely. We made more switches, with Kevin Keane replacing Boyler, Diarmuid O’Connor coming on for Doc and then Mikie Sweeney getting a bizarre 10-second cameo in place of Aidan O’Shea just before the final whistle was blown.
Before that happened, they’d got two further points from play, we’d added another from a Cillian free – after a great burst from Aido – and we even managed to miss another goal chance when Kevin McLoughlin’s close-in shot was bundled away by Galway goalie Breathnach. None of this was of any real consequence, however, as we saw out the win pretty much at our ease.
This wasn’t a perfect performance, either on the field or on the sideline (with the latter once again failing to make changes quickly enough and then making ones that, to be honest, hadn’t a whole pile of logic), but it was one that was more than good enough to clinch our fourth Connacht title in a row without our having to battle too hard for the spoils. It was also a win that earns us our ticket back to HQ in August, back to where the real championship action starts.
We had several strong performers today. Robbie had his best match in goal for ages, varying his kickouts to great effect and then pulling off that superb penalty save. Chris Barrett had his hands full at times early on with Cummins but the Belmullet man came into the game more and more the longer it went on. Ger Cafferkey also had plenty to do with Paul Conroy but it was a contest in which he gave as much as he got. Keith Higgins was excellent in the other corner.
Lee Keegan – who could easily have ended up with three goals to his credit – put in a much improved shift and Colm Boyle had a storming match at centre-back, where he set out his stall early on with a shuddering shoulder charge (for which he was incorrectly penalised) on one of the Galway forwards. Donal Vaughan put in a strong and steady performance too on the other wing.
The two O’Sheas, especially Aidan, did well around the middle. I know Aidan was named at 11 and partly operated there but he did most of his productive work operating at midfield where he showed once again that this is where he plays with greatest effect. Barry Moran took a long while to get into the game and never dominated around the middle in the way he often has but he did get a goal to his credit before getting black-carded.
Kevin McLoughlin was great, just great, lending further weight to the proposition that when the Knockmore man is going well, so too is the team as a whole. On the other wing, Jason Doherty put in arguably his best ever championship performance, one that saw him right in the thick of things in the forward line, bagging 1-1 in the process.
Cillian was excellent at corner-forward and it was great to see him knocking over scores from play – three in all – as well as his dependable return from placed balls. Neither Andy Moran nor Alan Dillon enjoyed productive outings, however, and both should really have been replaced prior to the start of the second half.
But today isn’t a day for carping. Instead we should be celebrating the successful completion of a Connacht four-in-a-row by the county for the first time in over sixty years and the fact that we’re now definitely ahead of Galway in terms of provincial titles won. And once again we can start planning for Croke Park and an All-Ireland quarter-final date with either Cork or Sligo at HQ in three weeks time. The summer starts here.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Chris Barrett, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan (1-1), Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan; Seamus O’Shea, Barry Moran (1-0); Kevin McLoughlin (0-3), Aidan O’Shea, Jason Doherty (1-1); Cillian O’Connor (0-8, five frees), Andy Moran, Alan Dillon (0-1). Subs: Michael Conroy for Dillon, Alan Freeman for Andy Moran, Jason Gibbons for Barry Moran (black card), Diarmuid O’Connor for Doherty, Mikie Sweeney for Aidan O’Shea.
The day wouldn’t be complete without a quick mention of Enda Gilvarry’s mighty minors. The defending Connacht and All-Ireland champions got the day going in the best possible way by securing back-to-back provincial honours when they quelled a gutsy Roscommon fightback to win the minor decider by eight points.
Our lads seized control of the match from the outset, leading by 1-2 to 0-0 inside ten minutes, but the young Rossie lads hung in there to the break and beyond. When they pointed to go one up with ten minutes or so left, it looked as if the visitors might do it but instead Enda’s lads hit the gas coming down the closing stretch, scoring 1-6 without reply – with 1-3 of that coming from the excellent Brian Reape at corner-forward – to win on a scoreline of 2-16 to 0-14.
Both of today’s minor teams now head for the All-Ireland quarter-finals where both will face Ulster opposition, with our lads playing the losing finalists from up north while the Rossies will face the winners. There’s a good chance we’ll be seeing more of both teams in HQ, I reckon, a bit later in the year.