With so much riding on the result of today’s Connacht final at Pearse Stadium, it’s not surprising that what we got to see in this behind-closed-doors provincial decider was short on quality but high on excitement. The Mayo/Galway rivalry is a close, keen one and there have been plenty of Connacht clashes between us that have been decided by razor-thin margins. Today’s was just the latest.
We arguably had the greater need to win today. Five years without a provincial crown and with the sting of Division One relegation yet to subside fully, defeat today would mark a sour end to the year for us. Victory, by contrast, allows all manner of flights of fancy to take to the air.
The fact that we prevailed by just a single point probably adds to the sweetness of the result from our perspective. We know – from all those All-Irelands – what it’s like to lose a high-stakes showdown by the minimum margin. Coming out on top by just one certainly feels satisfying.
We made one change to our named team before the ball was thrown in at a windy Pearse Stadium today. Ryan O’Donoghue started instead of Mark Moran, which meant that we fielded with the same fifteen who lined out against Roscommon. Gareth O’Donnell replaced Tom Flynn from the start for Galway.
Playing against the wind in the first half, they got the opener, debutant Conneely finishing a quick downfield move inside the first minute. Straight away after that we had a goal chance, Cillian O’Connor slipping Silke but Power was more than equal to the shot.
Tommy Conroy, with a fine strike on the run, opened our account. Cillian then swung a shot in off the wind from out the left as we took the lead.
We pretty much dominated the game up until the first water break. Galway, a sort of shawl deployed across their backline, sat deep as we probed for openings.
We found a few too. Tommy shot over off his left, Diarmuid O’Connor cracked one over from distance off the outside of the boot and Paddy Durcan raided forward to boom another over.
We should, though, have done more with all that ball. Our wide count was up to four by the water break and Mattie Ruane was guilty of a few misplaced passes that simply gifted possession to the grateful opposition.
Their second score came from a Shane Walsh free just before the water break. We added the next two, however, the first from a forward mark claimed by Ryan O’Donoghue and the second – after a long break when the injured Johnny Duane was treated on the pitch and then taken from it – from Mattie. That was a lovely score – Mattie started the move, did a neat one-two with Ryan and punched over.
An edge had entered into the contest before the break. Paddy picked up a ludicrous yellow card for what was a perfectly executed shoulder charge and then Paul Conroy followed through nastily on Aidan as he was on his knees. The TV replays showed just how nasty it was as Conroy stood on Aidan’s hand and then connected with his knee to the head. Tommy Conroy took a belt to the face as well after he was wrapped by two Galway defenders.
Two points from Walsh, the first from a free, cut the gap to three. Cillian popped over a free after a foul on Tommy but a Paul Kelly point for them left the margin at three on halfway.
That lead didn’t look sufficient, as Galway now had wind advantage in the second half. More to the point, though, we’d been on top for most of the opening half and should really have been much further ahead.
We made our first switch during the halftime break, with Ryan O’Donoghue giving way to Bryan Walsh. It was a good change – on a day for power and pace, the Ballintubber player enjoyed a very productive second half.
O’Donnell cut the gap to two straight after the resumption to underline the fact that this match was there to be won by both teams.
We righted ourselves nicely, though, hitting three without reply to stretch the lead back out to five. Mattie Ruane – who was excellent for us in the second half today – went on a great downfield run and fired over. Then Bryan Walsh found Tommy Conroy who still had plenty to do but he found the target. Shortly after that Bryan let fly himself, cutting elegantly across the ball from out on the right.
There was a period then when I felt we could have burst clear from them on the scoreboard. We had a long period of possession, moving the ball over and back as we sought a decent shooting opportunity. This lasted close on five minutes but we eventually coughed up the ball without adding to our tally.
Galway then reeled us back in. Points from play by Walsh and Conroy, followed by a Walsh free, brought the home team back within two points of us.
Another Cillian free, after Kevin McLoughlin was pulled back by the jersey, brought some much-needed respite for us. Comer then joined the fray for them – to much breathless gushing in the RTÉ commentary box – but he looked patently unfit and had no impact at all on proceedings.
We messed up a restart and Conroy punished us for it. That left the margin at just two points at the second water break.
It would be trite to claim that it was now a case of which team wanted it most. As the increasingly frantic finale played out it was pretty obvious that both sides craved the win and both did everything in their power to get it.
Mattie showed this in a wonderful cameo where he executed a perfect rob and then got hauled back as he headed for goal. It was another tap-over for Cillian who duly obliged.
We owned the ball for another longish period, which once again ended with nothing tangible to show for it. Paddy let fly off his left but it tailed off wide, our eighth of the afternoon.
Walsh hoisted a super score over the bar from distance for them but we then had a chance to put this game to bed. Eoghan McLaughlin burst through powerfully and his shot had ‘goal’ written all over it. Power had other ideas, though, as he superbly batted Eoghan’s piledriver out for a fifty.
Eoghan was back in the thick of it again straight away. He pulled off a great rob on Sice out the field and the swift break we instigated ended with Bryan Walsh sensibly punching over.
That was our final score of the game and, with injury time approaching, it was, as it turned out, a winning tally too. All that stood in the way of the Nestor Cup was a heart-stopping six minutes of injury time, in which Galway pared our lead right back to the minimum.
Conroy – always a threat for them today – cut the gap to two but Walsh then missed two difficult frees from way out on the right so with only seconds left we were still two to the good.
Galway claimed another restart and this time they came hunting for the goal that would seal the win for them. Seán Kelly – another strong performer for Galway today – took possession and bore down on goal.
He really should have been nailed earlier and when Eoghan got to him it was just outside the large parallelogram. The hit was late and it was cynical and it won us the Connacht final.
Eoghan was gone on a black, Walsh shaped up as if he was going for goal but he tapped the free over. After a bit of messing we won the ball from the restart and the ref eventually blew time.
So we’re once more Connacht champions, for the first time since 2015 and for the 47th time overall. We now lead Galway by one in the provincial roll of honour.
Eleven of our lads – Oisín Mullin, Stephen Coen, Eoghan McLaughlin, Conor Loftus, Mattie Ruane, Ryan O’Donoghue, Tommy Conroy, Bryan Walsh, Jordan Flynn, Mark Moran and Fionn McDonagh – won their first Connacht SFC medal today. James Horan deserves huge credit for bringing so many of these lads through, as, once again, he’s led us to the top of the hill in the west.
After five weeks on the road, we now have a three-week break. Next up it’s Croke Park – where we always play our best football – in which we’ll meet either Cork or Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final. For us, in this strangest of years, the plot thickens anew.
Mayo: David Clarke; Oisín Mullin, Chris Barrett, Lee Keegan; Paddy Durcan (0-1), Stephen Coen, Eoghan McLaughlin; Conor Loftus, Mattie Ruane (0-2); Kevin McLoughlin, Ryan O’Donoghue (0-1, mark), Diarmuid O’Connor (0-1); Tommy Conroy (0-3), Aidan O’Shea, Cillian O’Connor (0-4, three frees). Subs: Bryan Walsh (0-2) for O’Donoghue, Jordan Flynn for Loftus, Mark Moran for Conroy, Keith Higgins for McLoughlin, Fionn McDonagh for Ruane.
Who was our Man of the Match against Galway? Pick your top three performers
- Eoghan McLaughlin (32%, 1,452 Votes)
- Chris Barrett (17%, 770 Votes)
- Matthew Ruane (16%, 717 Votes)
- Tommy Conroy (5%, 228 Votes)
- Aidan O'Shea (5%, 213 Votes)
- Lee Keegan (4%, 171 Votes)
- Oisin Mullin (3%, 135 Votes)
- Bryan Walsh (3%, 120 Votes)
- Conor Loftus (3%, 119 Votes)
- Paddy Durcan (2%, 109 Votes)
- Cillian O'Connor (2%, 94 Votes)
- Diarmuid O'Connor (2%, 84 Votes)
- Stephen Coen (2%, 83 Votes)
- Keith Higgins (1%, 52 Votes)
- David Clarke (1%, 50 Votes)
- Ryan O'Donoghue (1%, 24 Votes)
- Kevin McLoughlin (0%, 20 Votes)
- Jordan Flynn (0%, 12 Votes)
- Mark Moran (0%, 12 Votes)
- Fionn McDonagh (0%, 9 Votes)
Total Voters: 2,332