With the sun shining brightly and the temperature not far off 20 degrees, it felt very much like the first day of summer down in Cork this afternoon. The sun shone on Mayo too as the lads eased into the NFL final, seeing off a listless home team on a scoreline of 0-16 to 0-11. But happy and all as we were to lap up all that post-match plámás from the locals (they’ve learned a thing or two from their next door neighbours in this respect, it would appear), we knew damn well that this wasn’t anything like the kind of attitude we can expect to see from Cork when we meet at Croke Park in a fortnight’s time to decide this year’s NFL spoils.
The drive down from Dublin in the hazy spring sunshine was, with motorway most of the way, a complete breeze and we were parked up less than ten minutes walk from Páirc Uí Chaoimh by one o’clock. “Ye’re going the wrong way, lads!” Seán Bán Breathnach called to us, screeching to a halt when he saw all the Mayo jerseys heading up the hill away from the ground. “You’re going to the wrong game!” we shot back, explaining to SBB that we were in search of a pre-match feed, followed by the locals for dessert. The chow, at the Silver Key, went down a treat and so did the dessert.
Páirc Uí Chaoimh was empty enough when we took our seats in the stand but when the team emerged it was obvious that there was a good, vocal Mayo crowd there, so much so that – apart from the red and white goalposts – it never felt too much like an away game. The Cork crowd, like their team on the field, were probably keeping their powder dry for HQ in a fortnight’s time but we knew we had a job of work to do this afternoon and it was good to see that the Mayo supporters had travelled the long distance in sizeable numbers to help get the team over the line.
We started with Chris Barrett in the corner instead of Keith Higgins, Ger Cafferkey back instead of Kieran Conroy at full-back and Mark Ronaldson on at corner-forward in place of Enda Varley. Otherwise, the side was the same as the one that had started against Monaghan the last day. For Cork, both Michael Shields and Anthony Lynch cried off before throw-in, with Jamie O’Sullivan and Brian O’Regan replacing them.
Shortly before hostilities commenced, Johnno and Conor Counihan met up down in front of us for a little chat and such was the lack of urgency displayed by both teams in that opening 35 minutes that it would have been easy to conclude that the two chiefs had concluded some kind of verbal non-aggression pact. The sides went in level at seven points each following that soporific half, with Cork – despite all their changes – looking the more lively and inventive of the two.
We grabbed the lead with Alan Dillon pointing from play within 40 seconds of the throw-in and, after Fintan Goold cancelled this out with a point from play, the Ballintubber man restored our lead five minutes later from a free, following a foul on Aidan O’Shea. Goold was quick enough to cancel this one out too.
Frees from Conor Mortimer and Dillon put us two ahead but a point from play from Kevin McMahon and a long-range free from Donncha O’Connor – whose strong, direct running was already causing Trevor Howley some bother – levelled it up at the end of the first quarter.
A Colm O’Neill free was cancelled out by Conor Mort, who sent a beauty sailing over from way out on the right following some neat interplay with Aidan O’Shea. The two lads were combining effectively in the full-forward line and they continued to do so all afternoon, with the Cork backs struggling to come up with any clear plan about how to stop them.
The match then entered an odd scoreless phase, which lasted at least ten minutes and which saw chances spurned at both ends. Eventually, John Hayes landed one for Cork and the same player then got away with two hops before knocking over a second in as many minutes to send the home side two clear with half-time approaching. We made good use of the two minutes of added time, though, with Chris Barrett sprinting upfield to land a fine point from distance and then Seamie O’Shea, claiming the ball straight from the kickout, lamped over the equaliser. There was even time for Tom Parsons and Trevor Mortimer to kick two poor wides before the short whistle sounded.
The news from Omagh that the Dubs were beating Tyrone out the gate was what was concerning most of us during the break and one suspects that it was top of the agenda underneath us in the dressing room as well. Few had expected such a turn of events – I was convinced Tyrone would win that one with a bit to spare – but the Dubs’ strong display up north meant that if we wanted to make the league final, we’d have to get up and dance for the right to be there. And, as the world and its spouse now knows, this is exactly what we did.
The outcome of the match was, to all intents and purposes, decided in that opening five minute spell at the start of the second half. The lads were back out on the field early chomping at the bit to get going and once the ball was thrown in, we tore into Cork with some real intensity all over the field. Every ball was fought for, every challenge made was a fully committed one and every time we got possession, we had men making themselves available and seeking to exploit what openings were available.
Mark Ronaldson set us on our way with a point from play within seconds of the restart and Andy Moran added a second just after. Conor Mort smashed over a third from a possible goal chance soon after when the rampaging Donie Vaughan combined brilliantly with Trevor to unlock the creaking Cork backline. Aidan O’Shea then turned over possession and fed Andy who punched over to send us four clear and an Alan Dillon free stretched the lead to five.
The seriousness of our intentions was emphasised just after this scoring barrage as Tom Parsons, who was struggling a bit on the influential Nicholas Murphy, was withdrawn in favour of Pat Harte. Johnno was clearly in no mood to see this potential match-winning lead compromised and Harte’s more combative approach around the middle third made it more difficult from then on for the home team to create any kind of attacking platform from out around the middle.
Ciaran Sheehan finally got a point back for Cork but at the other end Donie Vaughan should have put us out of sight when he knifed his way clean through and should have simply waltzed around Alan Quirke in the Cork goal and tapped the ball into the net. Instead, he went for power and blazed his shot over the bar.
Donncha O’Connor, whom Trevor Howley had now largely quietened, then pointed a free for them but Aidan O’Shea – now clearly enjoying his day out by the Lee – responded with two fine efforts from play, as we pulled six clear.
Three frees – two for them and one for us from Conor Mort – closed out the scoring, although sub Alan Freeman (who’d come on for Alan Dillon) almost had a goal for us right at the death. In truth, it wouldn’t have mattered as we won pulling up at the end, with Cork having visibly lost interest in the contest after our point-fest just after the restart.
Cork’s failure to engage in the second half obviously devalues today’s win somewhat but we shouldn’t let that concern us tonight. The important thing from today was that at half-time the lads were faced with the prospect of missing out on a place in the league final unless they went out and took the game by the scruff of the neck. The efficient way they went about doing this was very impressive and that intense ten-minute spell early in the second half was enough to win the game for us today. It wouldn’t be enough to win the league final, of course, but then again we weren’t playing in the league final today.
We had strong performances all over the pitch today. David Clarke was very solid between the sticks but the highpoint of his day was the way he took out one of their forwards who’d come bearing down on goal in the second half. I’m not sure if he got a card for his efforts but Clarke’s take-no-prisoners attitude averted what could have been a goalscoring chance.
The full-back line did well throughout, with Liam O’Malley getting bugger all gip from the highly vaunted Colm O’Neill and where Chris Barrett was good both defending and going forward, notching a fine point in the process at the end of the first half. It was good too to see Ger Cafferkey come back in and enjoy a comfortable enough seventy minutes.
The half-backs had a tough enough first half, especially Trevor Howley who found Donncha O’Connor a bit of a handful. It’ll be very interesting to see how this match-up goes at Croke Park in two weeks time. All three lads enjoyed a better second half, in particular Donie Vaughan who came forward with all guns blazing more than once.
Seamus O’Shea had another immense game at midfield, where he worked hard all day and kept a good supply of ball going into the forwards, notably to his kid brother. Tom Parsons faded when Nicholas Murphy came on but Johnno at least had the good sense to see this and Pat Harte did well to neutralise Murphy’s influence when he came on for the Charlestown man.
Andy Moran was his usual busy self, scoring two important points early in the second half, but his most noteworthy contribution was when Graham Canty came barrelling into him in the first half and came off very much second-best from the challenge, leaving the field injured soon after. Alan Dillon was in the thick of things throughout but looked to be still feeling the effect of that injury and he should probably have been allowed to put his feet up a bit earlier than he was. Trevor had a fitful first half but put in a very strong second half, where he roamed wide, hit hard and linked effectively as we moved the ball forward.
Mark Ronaldson, who played much of the day in the ‘hole’ between the half-forward and full-forward lines had a quieter day than he would have liked but he did get the first point in that purple patch at the start of the second half.
Conor Mortimer and Aidan O’Shea played well off each other, even if the ball into them was a bit uneven, especially in the first half. What was really noticeable was that the Cork backs didn’t seem to have the first notion how to handle them and they ended up conceding several frees within scoring range, almost all of which we converted. Throw Enda Varley into that mix at HQ the next day and we could have great fun entirely.
We went down to Páirc Uí Chaoimh with one aim today, which was to secure our place in the league final. In going there, we knew that Tyrone might well do the job for us but the fact that they didn’t makes our achievement all the sweeter to savour, as we’re in the final on merit and we’ve made it there as a result of our own efforts. A twelfth NFL title is now within our grasp and while we can expect Cork to fight a whole load harder the next day at Croke Park, we know our lads can up it too and up it they surely will.
That’s one for another day; today was all about making that day possible. In that sense, it was a good day’s work today and the lads deserve our praise for doing the job that was put in front of them. If they handle the task facing them in the final with the same commendable attitude, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t find ourselves in the unusual position of leaving Croke Park with smiles on our faces.
MAYO: David Clarke; Chris Barrett (0-1), Ger Cafferkey, Liam O’Malley; Donal Vaughan (0-1), Trevor Howley, Kevin McLoughlin; Tom Parsons, Seamus O’Shea (0-1); Andy Moran (0-2), Alan Dillon (0-4, three frees), Trevor Mortimer; Mark Ronaldson (0-1), Aidan O’Shea (0-2), Conor Mortimer (0-4, two frees). Subs: Pat Harte for Parsons, Alan Freeman for Dillon.
PS: The lack of photos with this report wasn’t, by the way, due to my not having a camera with me today. Instead, it’s explained by my ongoing laptop problems – this venerable old dame’s USB ports are no longer functioning so I can’t get the pics off the camera. Hopefully normal service will resume in time for the final.