We’re back. In truth we never really went anywhere except in the minds of those who dreamt up that lazy, inaccurate and hugely disrespectful narrative about this team being in sharp decline. Well, that particular world-view got its answer in Croke Park this afternoon.
The earth-shattering roar that went up from the large Mayo crowd at full-time was of a different order from anything I’ve experienced before. We’ve had other great days at Croke Park, we have – lest we need to remind ourselves – a fine collection of memorable wins at HQ to our credit but today’s victory was particularly satisfying. We went toe-to-toe all day with Tyrone and we sneaked home with our noses just in front.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as stressed out as I was in the final ten minutes today. When we went into keep-ball mode, it looked like we were dicing with disaster (because we were) but despite coughing up two scoring chances, Tyrone missed them both.
Then, to add to the fun, David Clarke got a hospital pass from, I think, Aidan O’Shea, in which the odds of his reaching the ball were no better than 50:50. But reach it he did and seconds later ref David Gough blew the final whistle and we could at last start to exhale. And go stone, mad, crazy.
In the days leading up to the game I was becoming increasingly bullish about our chances of doing the business today. The Juniors’ loss in the day’s opening match (a bit more on that anon) was a downer but once Stephen Rochford’s charges hit the turf, they looked like a bunch of gents who meant business.
We made two changes to the team named in advance. We opted to play without a specialist full-back, with Kevin Keane being replaced by Alan Dillon, while Keith Higgins operated in a more withdrawn role and Lee Keegan picked up Tyrone’s full-forward Sean Cavanagh. That selection decision proved to be the game’s tactical masterstroke.
Our other switch saw Jason Doherty start instead of Evan Regan, with Aidan O’Shea pushing up – not all the time, but often enough – to join Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor in a potent front line.
It was Aidan who got us motoring today too. An early bit of shadow-boxing between the teams took place first before Aido let fly with a screamer from over fifty yards out and we were off and running.
After they’d levelled up we then got the next two points, the first from Andy Moran and the second a free from Cillian O’Connor to leave us nicely poised at the end of the first quarter. Two Mattie Donnelly points in quick succession, however, restored parity soon after.
Cillian smashed over a glorious point from way out on the left to edge us back in front. It was Cillian again, following a lovely one-two with Andy Moran, who scored on the run cutting in from the left to put us ahead again after O’Neill had equalised for them.
Tyrone then enjoyed a good scoring burst, notching three points on the spin to establish a two-point lead. Two of these were frees and already a palpable air of frustration was growing in the Mayo crowd at the performance of the ref.
I like David Gough and I’d rate him as one of the game’s better officials. But he had a stinker today and we seemed to suffer from the worst of his many dodgy calls. At least this time bad reffing by a Meath official didn’t cost us our place in the championship.
A foul on Kevin McLoughlin finally earned us a free and Cillian gave the crowd something to cheer about by nailing it. The decibel levels rose further when Colm Boyle thumped over the equaliser, a vital score that left the game poised in the balance at halfway.
Tom Parsons replaced Alan Dillon on the resumption and we were first out of the blocks again, Cillian pointing from play. Peter Harte cancelled that one out but Tom Parsons coming round on the loop and shooting off his left put us back in front. Another Cillian free then edged us two clear.
There was a six or seven minute scoreless spell after this, one where I felt we had the chance to turn the screw on them but failed to add to our total. Instead it felt like a significant development when they eventually – on the 50th minute mark – reeled us back in with two pointed frees. When Peter Harte added one from play to put them one up, it looked momentarily like they were getting on top in this arm-wrestle.
Leeroy tamped down any such concerns, though, pointing on the run from out on the left to haul us level. We rang the changes, with Conor O’Shea on for Donal Vaughan and Chris Barrett replacing the yellow-carded Colm Boyle.
The ref was soon afterwards reaching for the yellow card again and the one he handed to Sean Cavanagh – which, having seen it again on TV, I can say with confidence was fully merited, for a foul on Aidan – was very significant. The Moy player had been booked earlier on after a tangle with Lee and so he was gone and the Red Hands were down to fourteen.
I have to say I was, at one level, saddened to see this great legend of the game being ordered off and I didn’t really like the loud roar of approval from our lot in the stands when the red card was flashed. At another level, though, I could see that this had the potential to be the game’s turning point and that’s how it played out in practice.
Cillian tapped over the free that led to the red card to put us back in front. Despite our numerical superiority we struggled to launch any kind of incisive move that would enable us to build on this slender lead and instead five minutes later a free at the other end brought the contest back all square.
Lee then smashed over a glorious point. An extremely glorious one as it turned out because it proved to be the game’s final score and our winning one but at the time it was merely a morale-boosting spectacular that put us ahead once more.
Soon after that we began playing keep-ball, which at the outset was fine because Tyrone strangely didn’t do much in the way of trying to take it off us. Normal time segued into injury time – have four minutes ever felt longer?
Two minutes of additional time had passed when we fumbled the ball and they ended up getting a long-range free. Goalie Niall Morgan trotted up and, not for the first time this afternoon, ballooned his placed ball attempt wide of the posts.
Back to keep-ball, the nerves amongst our supporters – my own included – getting ever more shredded. We couldn’t hold out this way – could we?
Another fumble, another scoring chance for them, this one snatched at and sailing harmlessly wide. Then that dramatic last-second incident which sent David Clarke – already a hero for his second half save on a one-on-one situation – racing out from his goal to intercept and gather the ball safely. And then the final whistle, at last the final whistle.
This felt like, and was, a huge win for us. We needed to put in a strong performance today to come out on top and this is exactly what we did. On a day when we had leaders all over the pitch, the displays put in by the likes of Lee Keegan, Aidan and Seamus O’Shea, David Clarke, Brendan Harrison, Paddy Durcan and Cillian O’Connor bordered on stellar. In truth, though, we had a whole team of heroes out there today.
And not just on the pitch either. Stephen Rochford and his colleagues on the line – where, one suspects, the magic of Tony McEntee had a hand in proceedings – played a blinder too. Mickey Harte is rightly lauded for his track record as a wily old fox on the sideline but he was thoroughly outmanoeuvred in that department today. And his post-match complaints aimed at Lee were as disappointing as they were hypocritical and risible.
The thing about going the qualifier route in the championship is that while you have to suck it up and do your penance for a while, eventually you get the chance to wash yourself clean of your provincial failings. That opportunity comes at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage and it was one we grasped with considerable relish today.
This afternoon’s win sends us forward to the All-Ireland semi-final, two weeks tomorrow, we would have been planning for all year. Sure, those plans would have been framed on the basis of progressing through the front door and meeting at that point the county we ended up dumping out of the championship today. But it’s the semi-final we expected to be in and, despite all that empty blather about this Mayo team being past it, be in it we will. We haven’t gone away, you know.
Mayo: David Clarke; Brendan Harrison, Alan Dillon, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan (0-2), Colm Boyle (0-1), Paddy Durcan; Seamus O’Shea, Donal Vaughan; Kevin McLoughlin, Aidan O’Shea (0-1), Diarmuid O’Connor; Jason Doherty, Andy Moran (0-1), Cillian O’Connor (0-7, four frees). Subs: Tom Parsons (0-1) for Dillon, Conor O’Shea for Vaughan, Chris Barrett for Boyle, Evan Regan for Moran, Conor Loftus for Doherty, Stephen Coen for Diarmuid O’Connor.
A quick mention for the Juniors whose All-Ireland final against Kerry in today’s curtain-raiser didn’t go according to plan. Leading by four points to two and going well early on, Sean McLoughlin’s charges got hit with a barrage of 2-8 without reply before the break, leaving them with an impossible task in the second half. Fair play to them, they kept plugging away and two goals helped them to cut the deficit back down to three points. That was as good as it got for them, however, as Kerry pulled away once more to win by eight.
Hard luck to the lads and well done on a campaign that saw them progress all the way to the final.
My post-match audio report and the MOTM poll are below.
Who was our MOTM against Tyrone?
- Lee Keegan (45%, 319 Votes)
- Brendan Harrison (11%, 79 Votes)
- Aidan O'Shea (11%, 78 Votes)
- Cillian O'Connor (9%, 66 Votes)
- David Clarke (8%, 56 Votes)
- Seamus O'Shea (6%, 39 Votes)
- Andy Moran (2%, 13 Votes)
- Colm Boyle (2%, 11 Votes)
- Paddy Durcan (1%, 9 Votes)
- Tom Parsons (1%, 6 Votes)
- Keith Higgins (1%, 5 Votes)
- Kevin McLoughlin (1%, 5 Votes)
- Alan Dillon (1%, 4 Votes)
- Conor O'Shea (1%, 4 Votes)
- Diarmuid O'Connor (0%, 3 Votes)
- Chris Barrett (0%, 3 Votes)
- Stephen Coen (0%, 2 Votes)
- Donal Vaughan (0%, 2 Votes)
- Evan Regan (0%, 1 Votes)
- Conor Loftus (0%, 1 Votes)
- Jason Doherty (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 706