Frustration is rapidly becoming the dominant emotion where it comes to following the Mayo team at the moment. There was plenty to be exasperated about up in Pairc Esler tonight where, in cold and misty conditions, we threw away yet another winnable NFL match, this time against a mediocre and very limited Down team. I know the league isn’t a target for us this year but I think it’s also fair to conclude that relegation isn’t on our spring agenda either. Now, however, having lost three matches – all of which we should have won – on the trot, we’re in a real dogfight to stay up and it’s becoming ever harder to see where the points needed for Division One survival are going to come from.
I guess the most frustrating thing about tonight – more annoying that Down’s incessant cynicality and play-acting, a bigger pain in the hole than David Coldrick’s shocking failure to ref the match properly – was that, for long stretches, it looked as if we’d learned nothing from that brain-dead second half display in Croke Park a week ago. For the first 50 minutes or so tonight, we continued to rain high ball inside, wasting chance after chance as we did so. At least the lads eventually copped on and started to vary their approach from then on and it’s no coincidence that this was when we played our best football. But then having reeled in our unremarkable opponents, we contrived – with that idiot ref Coldrick’s help – to let them get away again and to steal the points in the process.
Tonight’s match was played at a far lower pace than the often frantic exchanges witnessed at HQ seven nights ago and while we took a while to settle down, when we eased into an 0-4 to 0-2 lead after 15 minutes or so – the points coming from Jason Doherty (one a free), Michael Conroy (should have gone for goal?) and Cathal Carolan (a real belter to mark his full debut) – we looked as if we were well placed to dominate proceedings. There was plenty of huffing and puffing from the home side but little end product and their attempts to unsettle Ger Cafferkey with high balls pumped into Benny Coulter plainly weren’t working.
Incredibly, however, we then went the best part of half an hour without scoring, by which time Down had tacked on seven points either side of the break to pull five clear. One – Down’s fifth – was clearly wide and the umpire hesitated before putting up the flag, seemingly at the ref’s behest.
Down led by two at the break but a significant incident shortly before half-time saw the end of Ger Cafferkey’s night. He had just won yet another mano a mano with the all-mouth-and-no-trousers Coulter when Laverty smashed into him. Ger left the field, replaced by Kevin Keane, with blood pumping out of his nose and the little scut Laverty should have gone too but he escaped with a yellow for what was by any standards a fairly disgusting and cowardly assault.
Photo: Mayo Mick
We needed an improved showing in the second half but three points conceded shortly after the restart left us in a real hole. By then we’d missed a glorious chance for a goal, with McVeigh turning away Barry Moran’s point-blank effort, and shortly afterwards Poland stretched the home side’s lead to five.
Finally, we began to stir ourselves and wave after wave of attack yielded five points in reasonably quick succession, with two pointed frees from Jason, one from play from Barry Moran and two more from play by Cathal Carolan, whose sparkling debut was one of the few highlights tonight.
We then conceded two rather needless frees up the other end and O’Hare – who ended with eight points, all but one from frees, to his credit tonight – pointed both of them to edge them back in front. Kevin McLoughlin replied with a free for us and then Kenneth O’Malley drew a loud roar from the big Mayo following when he landed this ’45 to square the match up once more.
A draw was now looking likely but then with time almost up, Coldrick made a crucial intervention, one that swung the game back in Down’s favour. O’Hare was readying to take a free from well out when Keane and Coulter came dashing out together, tangling as they did so. Down went Coulter and even though O’Hare hadn’t taken the free further out, Coldrick awarded the home team another free, this time on the 21-yard line. As regards the rules of the game this was utter bollocks but it had a decisive bearing on the outcome of the contest. O’Hare pointed it and then followed up with another from further out soon after and that was that.
In terms of performances tonight, the backs had a better night compared to the torrid time they’d endured at Croke Park last weekend. Ger Cafferkey won all his battles before he got pole-axed and Kevin Keane did okay when he came on in place of him. Keith Higgins was solid enough, as was Chris Barrett and our goal – where Kenneth O’Malley was fine, apart from one bizarre decision early on to punch clear a ball he should have caught – was never in danger of being breached.
In the half-backs, Lee Keegan – who started at 6 and alternated between there and the half-forwards – was superb and Colm Boyle was also prominent. Donal Vaughan, though, had another night to forget and perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that injury might now force James’ hand in doing some long-overdue reshuffling to this sector.
Midfield was so-so. We got cleaned out early on but gradually won more and more ball there, with both Aidan and Barry winning a fair bit of clean possession. Aidan was targeted all night, with the Down lads transparently out to provoke him at every opportunity in an attempt to engineer a sending-off, as happened in the corresponding fixture last year. This included Kieran McKernan wrestling Aidan to the ground, with us on the attack and the match deep in stoppage time. Sometimes – especially when Nordie teams are involved – you do really wonder if it’s Gaelic football you’re watching at all.
Kevin McLoughlin hadn’t one of his most productive nights and Richie Feeney was all at sea too. But Cathal Carolan put in a real eye-catching debut display, nailing three excellent points from play, in a performance that showed he could well prove to be a real addition to the side. On a night when precious little went right for us, Cathal’s positive showing was a significant plus.
Photo: Mayo Mick
Jason Doherty also continued his good form, keeping the scoreboard ticking over from frees and play, and was in the thick of the action as we sought to pull the fat from the fire in the second half. Michael Conroy had his moments but not a lot worked out for him and Enda Varley hadn’t the happiest of games either.
Subs Kevin Keane and Tom Cunniffe did well but Alan Freeman almost certainly played himself out of the reckoning for a first fifteen place, with an utterly disinterested second half cameo. Evan Regan came on late and made little or no impact.
Overall, then, another disappointing night. Tactically, we don’t seem to know what we’re at and I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll ever see a Mayo team score a goal again. I’m also starting to wonder – and worry – about our place in Division One, which now looks under real threat.
Maybe – as he’s done in each of the last two years – James Horan will be able to engineer another late escape to safety but the way his team is performing right now, I have my doubts about his capability of doing so. And if he fails in that, it then becomes more difficult to see how he’ll be able to succeed when faced with the far bigger summer challenges that lie ahead.
Questioned about the increased pressure following the Dublin defeat a week ago, James was quoted as saying “we like that.” It’s just as well he does because, after this latest setback, the pressure is really on now and if we draw another blank next weekend it’ll ratchet up still further. Hang onto your hats, hombres, I fear we could well be in for a bumpy ride over the coming weeks.
Mayo: Kenneth O’Malley (0-1, a ’45); Chris Barrett, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle; Barry Moran (0-1), Aidan O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-1, free), Richie Feeney, Cathal Carolan (0-3); Enda Varley, Jason Doherty (0-4, three frees), Michael Conroy (0-1). Subs: Kevin Keane for Cafferkey (inj.), Tom Cunniffe for Feeney, Alan Freeman for Vaughan, Evan Regan for Varley.