The sun was out, the sky was blue and there was more than a hint of summer at McHale Park this afternoon. But having led Cork for most of the seventy minutes only to see the game swiped from under our noses right at the death, this evening Mayo supporters could be forgiven for thinking that it’s raining in our hearts as we contemplate a third NFL defeat on the trot, one that sees us slip that bit nearer to the relegation trapdoor.
This was also the third match in succession that I’d failed to get to in person (is there any link there, I wonder?) with camogie matches my two girls were involved in up here earlier today – at two different venues – having to take precedence on this occasion. Well, the GAA is all about what happens close to home, isn’t it? As a result, I was barely back in the door by the time the ball was being thrown in at Castlebar as I scrambled to get Midwest going on the laptop.
It took a while for either side to trouble the umpires this afternoon. Eventually Alan Freeman (wearing a fourth different shirt number in this league campaign today) latched into a knock-down and landed the day’s opening score from well out.
Ten minutes had almost passed before Donncha O’Connor got their first of the day and a Colm O’Neill free, which took a deflection off the upright as it went over, put them briefly in front. Then Donie Vaughan went raiding forward to thump over a nice score from over on the stand side and Michael Conroy lashed over an even sweeter one from well out on the left to put us back in front.
Alan Dillon then ended a pass-the-parcel exercise as the ball went pinging around from one Mayo hand to the next about 30 yards out. Lee Keegan eventually fed Dillon who popped it over. The Westport man’s involvement in the match ended soon after, however, as injury forced him off with Peadar Gardiner replacing him.
Cork got one back but then Conroy skinned his man a second time and shot over from close range. We had made a second substitution by then, with Conor Mortimer coming on for a distinctly out-of-sorts Cillian O’Connor, the Ballintubber man having missed two fairly routine frees and having failed to make any impact on proceedings. Mort soon made his presence felt, though, pouncing on a loose ball and firing over to stretch our lead to three.
With the break approaching, the game took a dramatic turn as, for the second week in a row, the opposition had a man sent off on a straight red. It appears it was well merited too, with Cork’s centre-forward Mark Collins felling Donie off the ball with a knuckle sandwich and our old friend Joe McQuillan – having consulted his umpires – sent the Corkman on his way. We then closed out the first half with another Alan Dillon point to leave us four clear and a man to the good at the break.
We started the second half brightly too, with Conor feeding Andy who fairly belted it over to stretch the lead to five within two minutes of the restart. It should have been six right after that but Alan Freeman kicked a scoreable free well wide. Instead, the gap was back to four soon after with Donncha O’Connor pointing a free after Pearse O’Neill had been wrestled to the ground.
Kiely cut the deficit still further a few minutes later but not before we’d wasted a good opportunity when a series of short handpasses – each of them a tangible abdication of responsibility by players taking the easy option – led us to lose possession. Once they’d got it Cork moved the ball swiftly downfield, where it eventually reached Kiely who fired over from distance.
We then showed the benefits of taking a more direct approach with Andy picking out Conor who turned and fired over. Soon after that, the Mort inched to within two points of Joe Corcoran’s scoring record when he pointed a free after a foul on sub Danny Geraghty.
The big Ballintubber man had come on for Seamus O’Shea who’d pulled up with what looked like hamstring trouble. Another change had to be made not long after when Michael Conroy fell heavily after a challenge from Ray Carey and when he dived into a tackle himself soon after, he hurt himself again this time sufficiently so for him to have to leave the field. Jason Doherty came on to replace the Davitts man.
Donncha O’Connor from play kept the scoreboard ticking over for Cork but Kevin McLoughlin – steaming forward on a mazy run which evoked memoroes of the All-Ireland quarter-final last year – increased our lead to five once more with twenty to go.
Cork had a clear goal chance just after but Ger Cafferkey was alert to the danger and turned away Donncha O’Connor’s rasper for a fifty. The same player took it and his kick just made the distance, Barry Moran helping it over as he attempted to snatch it down from over the bar. Little did we know then how vital that one would be for the visitors.
A mistake by Danny Geraghty, who inadvertently passed the ball straight to a Cork player, was punished in full measure soon after that. The ball was fed to Paul Kerrigan who still had it all to do but he landed a glorious score from well out to bring the Rebels to within three of us. Andy responded in kind, though, with a monster of his own from way out on the right to keep us in the driving seat.
They cut through us with quite alarming ease, however, for the next score with a necklace of passes down the field ending with Kerrigan feeding sub O’Driscoll for the easiest of scores. Our next attack,although more laboured, ended with the unmarked Danny Geraghty having a clear shooting chance less than thirty yards out but he ballooned it badly wide.
Kelly turned the screw with another from play for them and so with 8 minutes to go we were now only two ahead and the first signs of panic were starting to appear. Jason Doherty did his best, though, to dampen down any such feelings with a fine score from out on the left.
I’m not a great believer in Cork’s experiment of playing out-and-out midfielder Aidan Walsh in the forwards, not least given the Kanturk man’s hit-and-miss record where it comes to shooting. When Kerrigan offloaded to him as Cork broke upfield right from the kick-out, however, Walsh thumped it over and the lead was immediately back to two.
A bad O’Driscoll wide was a let-off for us but it the game’s momentum was now all with Cork. Then our extra man advantage ended when Alan Dillon clumsily bundled over Alan O’Connor right in front of the ref, the stupidity of the challenge compounded by the fact that it was perpetrated well within scoring range. Not only did Dillon get a second yellow for his troubles but Donncha O’Connor nailed the free and we were now clinging on for dear life.
With the match going into injury time, Paul Kerrigan then smashed over a spectacular long-ranger to square it up. Worse was to follow as deep into stoppage time Donncha O’Connor caught a rebound off the upright and booted it over to complete Cork’s smash-and-grab win.
The manner of our defeat today was desperately cruel and, still in its immediate aftermath, there’s little point in going overboard about it. On the positive side, the lads gave a real performance today – something they palpably failed to do in Ballyshannon last Sunday – and for long periods this afternoon it looked like they might in fact win with some ease.
A mitigating factor today was the fate we suffered with injuries. Lee Keegan and Michael Conroy were big losses and while Danny Geraghty did fairly well when he came on for Seamus O’Shea, his rawness cost us, both in terms of poor shooting and ball given away. The only sub who strengthened us today was Conor whereas every replacement Cork brought on – and in particular Paul Kerrigan – seemed to add to the threat they posed us.
Another positive for us was on the sideline where James Nallen was a visible presence, thus showing that those stories that were circulating during the week about his supposed departure were wide of the mark. Note to rumour-mongers: “sources” can’t always be trusted.
But despite the day’s positives, it’s another defeat and the fact that, for the second match in a row, we failed to make any use of the extra man for virtually the whole of the second half is a fairly damning indictment of our tactical naivete. Looking at the deferred coverage of the game on TV earlier on, there’s no way you’d have any reason to think we had an extra man for all this time and the fact that we were once more badly outgunned in the second half (0-11 to 0-6 over the 35 minutes, 0-8 to 0-2 over the last twenty) would suggest fairly strongly that James Horan and his colleagues on the sideline learned precisely nothing from what happened Sunday in Ballyshannon.
As I said, though, there’s no point in going overboard about today’s defeat. We’ve still two matches to go – albeit ones against the two strongest teams in the country right now –and our fate still rests very much in our own hands. This league campaign has seen all kind of insane results and we just need to add one more mad one to the pile to secure our Division One place for next year.
So, instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, we need to make sure that we put in another committed performance next Saturday, only this time one that lasts the full seventy minutes. We’ll have Aidan O’Shea back for that one and I’ll be there too where I’ll be hoping to see the lads keep up their 100% success rate in matches I’ve attended this year. Well, you have to hope, haven’t you?
PS: Thanks, once again, to Mayo Mick for his great photos taken at the match today.
Mayo: David Clarke; Colm Boyle, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan (0-1), Shane McHale; Seamus O’Shea, Barry Moran; Kevin McLoughlin (0-1), Cillian O’Connor, Alan Dillon (0-2); Alan Freeman (0-1), Andy Moran (0-2), Michael Conroy (0-2). Subs: Peadar Gardiner for Keegan, Conor Mortimer (0-3, one free) for O’Connor, Danny Geraghty for O’Shea, Jason Doherty (0-1) for Conroy, Aidan Campbell for Boyle.