Well, we won this must-win game.
If you’re the optimistic kind then that might be the point – a very important one, for sure – you’d want to focus on in the aftermath of today’s National League Division Two semi-final against Clare at Cusack Park today. We won alright but at what could prove to be a significant cost to us on the injury front as well as an equally high cost in terms of our growing reputation as a team that appears incapable of doing anything resembling competent defending.
At half-time it was only the first issue that was of concern to us. Diarmuid O’Connor pulled up with a suspected hamstring problem less than ten minutes in and, just before the break, Cillian limped off too.
By then, though, we’d pretty much laid waste to Clare’s challenge. We owned the ball for long stretches of the half and had found the net twice. We were eleven points up and we were cruising to the easiest of wins.
The third quarter was, though, an unmitigated disaster. Twice we coughed up goals, both of which came out of the troglodytic Junior B playbook, i.e. lamp it in to the big lad with the strapping on his knee loitering around the square. To concede one goal via this route was bad enough but to fall for the same trick twice was nothing short of mortifying.
For both goals our backline was posted missing. The anti-Hennelly brigade will point to the ‘keeper for the first goal but at least Robbie came and challenged Darren O’Neill for the ball. Three Mayo players were also in close attendance as it came sailing in from the wing but none of them made any effort to contest the ball.
The second goal was even worse. Aidan O’Shea was the sole player back when the ball was hoofed into O’Neill and the big midfielder did well to outfield the Breaffy player, pop the pass to the in-rushing Cooney who batted it to the net. The entire Mayo backline – and I mean entire, every bloody one of them – was posting missing for that one.
So, from a position at half-time where we were out the gate and disappearing over the hills we now found ourselves in grievous peril of getting dragged into a right dog-fight. We did enough, just about, to ensure that this didn’t happen but this game ended up being way, way closer than it had any right to become.
Let’s wind back the clock to the start.
We made two changes before throw-in. Aidan O’Shea started in place of Darren McHale while Fergal Boland made way for Kevin McLoughlin.
We started brightly, with a free from Cillian O’Connor and one from play by Matthew Ruane getting us going early doors. They hit back well, though, with three points in rapid succession to claim the lead for the first time.
Ryan O’Donoghue from a mark – he likes his marks, does Ryan – from a long ball in by Lee Keegan squared things up again. They got the next two scores, though, the first from a free and the second a superb, curling effort from way out by Tubridy.
We had a half-chance for a goal then. Kevin McLoughlin surged through the middle and probably should have just tapped it over. He passed to Ryan, though, for whom the goal chance wasn’t really on and his effort was blocked.
By now it was clear Diarmuid O’Connor was in trouble, as he’d pulled up with what appeared to be a hamstring problem. After Tommy Conroy shot over from the left wing to cut the deficit to one Diarmuid hobbled off, Jordan Flynn replacing him.
From then to the water break we moved to seize control of this contest. Tommy hit another one from the left wing from a great long ball in and then Bryan Walsh popped it over to put us back in front. That was the sensible thing to do after our efforts to walk the ball into the net had been thwarted.
We got our first big break from the restart. They butchered it and Cillian was hauled down in the square as he bore down on goal. There was no sign of a black card – indeed, no card of any colour – for the foul but Cillian make no mistake from the spot, even though the goalkeeper went the right way.
Aidan did see yellow soon after, the Clare midfielder O’Neill falling rather theatrically, and that was a worry as one more mistimed challenge could have ended his day. Aidan already seemed to be labouring but despite this was popping up in different areas of the field. It was hard, to be honest, to know what role he was meant to be playing today.
We had a second goal chance before the end of the first quarter. Ryan initiated the move with a superb rob out the field and Mattie drive hard into their danger zone but his final effort lacked conviction and the ‘keeper was well equal to it.
Cillian had the final say before the water was passed around. He claimed a ball in, shimmied this way and that before thumping it over to increase our lead to five.
From then to half-time we shot clear of them. Kevin McLoughlin wriggled clear of contact and fed Stephen Coen who knocked it over with ease. Kevin bagged the next one, Cillian finding him from a free out on the left wing and he did the rest.
Cillian then claimed a mark from a long ball in. He rose to fetch it and had the hand up before he tumbled over. The mark is an awful blight on the game but at least we’re using it to good effect and Cillian made no mistake from his free shot at the posts.
When Clare scored from a free soon after it was their first point for all of seventeen minutes. But they scored again straight away after as we looked to have taken a small breather.
We upped the gas again, though, bagging an excellent second goal. This was the product of brilliant teamwork between Tommy Conroy and his buddie Oisín Mullin, The Neale man doing the hard bit by breaking clear and offloading to the Kilmaine player who cut back and walloped it to the net off his left.
Now we were really flying. Lee rolled back the years with a lovely angled point on the run from out on the right and Cillian, from play, put further daylight between the teams.
But before the half-time whistle blew Cillian had left the field injured. It looked like he got his leg stuck under him and seemed to have gone over on his ankle. He was in obvious plan as he gingerly made his way from the pitch, Paul Towey coming on for him.
It was Ryan, though, who got to take the first free for us after Cillian’s departure. The ref made it an easier job for him by bringing the ball up and Ryan slotted it over.
The contest was over at that stage. All we needed to do now was to take the remaining air out the game and see out the comfortable win that was there on a plate for us.
But we didn’t do that. The first Clare goal was a major annoyance – killing our hopes of a long overdue clean sheet – but we responded well after it. Tommy Conroy pointed straight after the goal and then Paul Towey knocked a fifty-yard free over the bar from off the carpet.
When Rory Brickenden raided forward to slot over a point from out the right wing our lead was back in double figures. Not for long, though, as that came before our concession of that calamitous second goal, with Clare claiming that the ball had crossed the line in the move just before it.
Our backline was now flailing alarmingly and Clare must have begun to sense there might be a sensational way back for them in this contest. Paddy Durcan calmed the visitors’ nerves, though, by ending a searing downfield run with a fine score but they then hit three points on the spin to pare the gap to just five points at the second water break.
We were on the ropes at that stage. Whatever defensive structure we’d had earlier on was now shot to pieces, Clare were able run at the heart of our defence unchecked and their shooters weren’t being pressured either. Scores were drying up for us at the other end so, as the game entered the decisive quarter, it looked like we were in a race against clock. It may have sounded daft but the question uppermost in our minds now surely was: could we hold out?
We did. We lost the final quarter by a point as Clare continued to come at us but crucial points by Paul Towey (two, one a free), Darren McHale and, deep in stoppage time, the irrepressible Paddy Durcan helped to see us home by four points, on a scoreline of 2-22 to 2-18.
So we’re back in Division One at the first attempt. Achieving that was never a given but, four wins from four outings later, we’ve done it. We’ll be back playing in the top tier next spring, assuming that next year’s National League gets going on schedule then.
In the meantime, though, there’s the little matter of the Connacht Championship, in which the opening knockout match for us – against Division Four strugglers Sligo – takes place just two weeks from now. As today showed in spades we have loads to sort ahead of that, starting with how to shore up that porous defence of ours.
We also have to hope that the O’Connor brothers are okay. To lose one of them would be a serious setback but to be deprived of the services of both would put us into 2018 territory. No team can lose a talismanic player of Cillian’s class and carry on regardless and we’re no different there.
That’s in, then, for this year’s rapid-fire National League campaign. James Horan can, with justification claim that it’s been a success but he’ll know, as the rest of us do too, that, despite this success, we carry significant concerns with us as we turn our focus towards the Championship and all that awaits us there.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Enda Hession, Oisín Mullin (1-0), Lee Keegan (0-1); Rory Brickenden (0-1), Paddy Durcan (0-2), Stephen Coen (0-1); Matthew Ruane (0-2), Diarmuid O’Connor; Kevin McLoughlin (0-1), Aidan O’Shea, Bryan Walsh (0-1); Tommy Conroy (0-3), Cillian O’Connor (1-4, penalty goal, one free and one mark), Ryan O’Donoghue (0-2, one free and one mark). Subs: Jordan Flynn for Diarmuid O’Connor, Paul Towey (0-3, two frees) for Cillian O’Connor, Darren McHale (0-1) for Ryan O’Donoghue, Eoin O’Donoghue for Hession, Conor Loftus for Conroy, Eoghan McLaughlin for Brickenden.
Who was our MOTM against Clare? Pick your top three performers
- Oisin Mullin (25%, 511 Votes)
- Kevin McLoughlin (13%, 267 Votes)
- Paddy Durcan (12%, 255 Votes)
- Matthew Ruane (10%, 200 Votes)
- Aidan O'Shea (8%, 157 Votes)
- Lee Keegan (7%, 138 Votes)
- Cillian O'Connor (6%, 115 Votes)
- Tommy Conroy (5%, 103 Votes)
- Ryan O'Donoghue (5%, 97 Votes)
- Bryan Walsh (2%, 48 Votes)
- Robbie Hennelly (2%, 35 Votes)
- Stephen Coen (2%, 35 Votes)
- Paul Towey (1%, 26 Votes)
- Enda Hession (1%, 25 Votes)
- Conor Loftus (1%, 14 Votes)
- Diarmuid O'Connor (0%, 10 Votes)
- Rory Brickenden (0%, 9 Votes)
- Eoghan McLaughlin (0%, 9 Votes)
- Jordan Flynn (0%, 7 Votes)
- Darren McHale (0%, 7 Votes)
- Eoin O'Donoghue (0%, 5 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,040