With every game this bunch of footballers play, my admiration for them grows. I know that we were far from perfect today – either on the pitch or on the sideline – and that we came far too close to defeat for comfort. But we won, we’re still in it and now we’ve got an All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry to look forward to in three weeks time.
James Horan said in one of the interviews leading up to the game that his aim has been to make the county “consistently competitive”. With four successive All-Ireland semi-final appearances and the possibility of a hat-trick of All-Ireland final days to come, it’s beyond doubt that he’s achieved this.
We all know, of course, that this isn’t enough and that we’ll only ever be fully satisfied by winning the thing out. But being in the mix all the time is something we’re simply not used to and we’ve James and the lads to thank for getting us to the point where this is now what we expect on an annual basis. We can also point to this big-time experience as one of the main reasons why we prevailed today.
The quick straw poll I did at HQ while waiting for our match to come around confirmed that the rumour I’d heard the other day about switches to the team named was pretty much an open secret. It was no surprise, then, when Barry Moran wasn’t named to start, Tom Cunniffe was and Donal Vaughan was shifted away from defensive duties. Donie took up position at centre-forward from the throw-in, with Aidan O’Shea joining brother Seamus in midfield.
Almost from the throw-in, there was an edge to this game. There’s been no love lost between the teams in recent meetings and some of the early physical exchanges confirmed that this was going to be another robust encounter.
What was also clear from early on was that Cork were deploying the same suffocating blanket as they’d used to effect against Sligo last weekend. Cahalane and Collins sat back deep as double sweepers and we spent most of the first half huffing and puffing trying to break them down.
In fact, I felt we played that opening half very much on their terms. They let us come at them but then swallowed up our attacks once we hit the 50-yard mark and our attempts to break their cover repeatedly broke down. Time and again we somewhat surprisingly used Andy Moran as our sole go-to man inside but the balls sent into Andy didn’t stick the way they needed to and Cork were able to break at speed and feed their danger men.
We went from 0-2 to 0-1 up after seven minutes (our points a great opener from Jason Doherty and another one from play by Cillian O’Connor) to 0-5 to 0-2 down after 15 and in that tetchy opening phase we’d also temporarily lost Kevin McLoughlin. He got taken out of it as an attack broke down and he had to go off, with Michael Conroy coming on as a blood sub.
Once Seamus O’Shea boomed over our third point, we then went on to enjoy a more fruitful period, with Cillian also smashing one over from play and another from a free to haul us level. That came after the rampaging Aidan O’Shea was wrestled to the ground, earning Cork’s centre-back Tom Clancy a deserved black card.
Sheamie then fisted over our fourth point on the trot to put us ahead but Colm O’Neill pointed at the other end to level it up. We were still on level terms when the half-time whistle blew, both sides having added two points to their totals, our two knocked over from play by the industrous and effective Alan Dillon.
Cork would have been very happy at the break, I’m sure. Their blanket had worked pretty much to perfection, they’d got in our faces and had prevented us getting into any kind of meaningful rhythm. This one was all to play for, then, as the second half got underway.
We needed to take control of the contest and over the course of a very positive third quarter for us, this was exactly what we did. Doc had posted the opening score of the first half and he did the same on the resumption, when Aido fed Andy who lost it, got it back and provided the assist to Jason who belted it over.
A fisted effort from Donie followed and then Andy added another, with Doc setting it up at the end of a move that began with Aidan winning the kick-out and feeding Alan Dillon.
The Ballintubber man then banged over another one from well out to put us four clear and although another O’Neill point cut the gap to three Kevin Mc quickly responded at the other end. That was a cracking point and so too was the next one, from Andy, as we surged five clear.
That was Andy’s last involvement in the game, however, as he made way for Enda Varley. It was Alan Dillon who was to the fore again soon after though, with his fourth point from play and when Cillian was fouled and pointed the resultant free himself we were seven clear with twenty minutes to play and really motoring.
I thought then that it was only a matter of time before the goal that would kill them off arrived. Their blanket strategy was in tatters, now they had to chase the game and surely our strong running game would be enough to finish the job.
Only that’s not how it happened. Instead, we shipped three points in as many minutes, with sub Donncha O’Connor starting to make his presence felt.
A harsh free given against us when Tom Cunniffe was penalised for a challenge that was no more than a collision in a race to a 50:50 ball gave O’Connor an easy free to knock over. Now the gap was down to three, we were in trouble all over the field and suddenly it looked as if this match was running away from us.
We needed a score to settle us but a wild Varley effort that went well wide did nothing to help the nerves. Neither did the lack of movement on the sideline – aside from Enda the only switch we’d made was when Chris Barrett was replaced by Brendan Harrison and, with the game in the balance and time running out, we had no-one warming up either.
Cork smelled blood and went for us. Donncha O’Connor’s goal was, from our perspective, wholly preventable (by fair means or, more likely, foul) but he was allowed to shoot from a range which gave Robbie no chance. With the match now back at all-square, it looked then like we were going to be engulfed by the rampant red tide washing over us.
But we weren’t. Cillian had taken a knock (to his shoulder from what I saw) in the lead-up to the goal but even though he was obviously wobbling, he was ice-cool as he guided over a tricky free from out on the right – after Aidan had been poleaxed again – to edge us back in front.
Immediately after this hugely important score, the Ballintubber man was replaced by Alan Freeman. The Aghamore man was given the chance to shine straight away, when a super rob on Walsh led to Aidan feeding Freezer but he blazed it badly wide.
The next attack, though, saw us make what looked like the decisive breakthrough. A now rampant Aidan O’Shea jiggled through the Cork backline with the finesse of a ballet dancer before passing the ball gently to the net. It felt like the dam had burst and, with a four-point cushion and less than five minutes left to play, it felt too like we had the job done.
Only we hadn’t. Cork came right down the other end from the kick-out and Hurley smashed a screamer into our net. It was a fabulous goal but for us deliverance had been snatched away before we’d had the chance to enjoy it.
Alan Dillon then hit a wide and the ghosts of defeats past now began to dance in front of our eyes. Rarely have we extricated ourselves from a situation like this – think back to last year’s final, for example – but extricate ourselves we did, posting two more points to stretch our lead to three.
Donie got the first of these, an outrageous boomer, thumped like a garryowen high into the sky which finally dropped over the bar. Jason Gibbons came on for the titanic Aidan O’Shea and his first touch was massively important in getting us home, playing in Lee Keegan who pointed with calm efficiency.
The frantic denouement saw Cork whittling that lead back to the minimum with two close-in frees from O’Neill. In a situation strangely reminiscent of how last year’s final ended, the Corkman decided to tap over the last one but ref Cormac Reilly blew time on the kick-out and the day was ours.
As I said, it was a far from perfect performance today but it was still a day where we saw some truly heroic shifts put in. Both O’Sheas were superb but I think Aidan’s contribution today exceeded even the mammoth display he put in against Donegal at the same stage last year. Sheamie meanwhile continues to improve on the big stage and he put in a real storming performance over the seventy minutes.
Alan Dillon proved all the doubters wrong with his best display for ages. His four points from play were all top-class and he was busy and inventive throughout. Jason Doherty also put in a huge performance, aggressive as a terrier in the tackle but also full of purpose in attack. With Cillian O’Connor and, in particular, Kevin McLoughlin having been singled out for special treatment by the Cork backs, we really needed fresh impetus in attack and the two lads gave it to us, as did Donal Vaughan who came into the match strongly as the contest came to the boil in the final quarter.
Our back line wasn’t as assured as it’s been in the campaign to date. Tom Cunniffe, Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle and, when he came on, Brendan Harrison did well but Ger Cafferkey had a torrid time and Chris Barrett was labouring badly for much of the time too. Behind them Robbie was fine and there was nothing he could do to prevent the two goals.
The sideline didn’t have a great day. Enda Varley didn’t spark when he came on and while Brendan Harrison’s introduction helped at the back, the other switches came far too late to have any effect.
On a day of such narrow margins, it’s not surprising that there are good points and bad ones to ponder one. The bottom line, though, is that coming out one-point victors is a hell of a lot better than doing so having lost by the minimum margin. We weren’t perfect, we’ve loads to improve on but we’re still standing and we now have a fourth successive All-Ireland semi to prepare for. In so many ways, you know, these are days of wonder for us.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Tom Cunniffe, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan (0-1), Colm Boyle, Chris Barrett; Donal Vaughan (0-2), Seamus O’Shea (0-1); Kevin McLoughlin (0-1), Aidan O’Shea (1-0), Jason Doherty (0-2); Cillian O’Connor (0-5, three frees), Andy Moran (0-1), Alan Dillon (0-4). Subs: Michael Conroy (blood) for Kevin McLoughlin, Brendan Harrison for Barrett, Alan Freeman for O’Connor, Jason Gibbons for Aidan O’Shea.
Finally, a very quick word on our marvellous minors who stormed to victory over Armagh in the day’s opening match at HQ this afternoon. I was full of good intentions to be in my seat ten minutes before throw-in but I have to confess that the half-time break was on by the time I reached the Cusack Stand.
By then, Enda Gilvarry’s lads were already five points to the good and they surged to a facile win in the second half. Brian Reape was the star of the show after the break, weighing in with 2-1, but there’s a lovely balance to the entire team and they play with no little amount of confidence too.
I was told in Bowe’s the night before the All-Ireland last year that it was the class of 2014 rather than the 2013 vintage that was expected to challenge strongly for major honours. On today’s evidence, that certainly appears to be the case and even though we’re still only fourth favourites tonight to lift back-to-back Markham Cup victories this year, it’s pretty clear that it’ll take a very good team to stop this one. More power to you lads.