The day we thumped Galway two years ago at Pearse Stadium was one that no Mayo fan will forget for a long time. Today’s win at Salthill – our fifth successive championship win over the Tribesmen, the first time we’d managed this in over a hundred years – was an historic one but had none of the coruscating exhilaration of the trouncing we meted out that day. We weren’t overly convincing today, they were for sure overly physical but in the end we did enough to dig out the win.
Pearse Stadium will never be my favourite place on earth but I have to say that the place looked its best in the bright sunshine this afternoon. The pitch was in great condition and there was a super atmosphere in the packed ground as throw-in time approached.
Once the match got underway, the script became clear right from the start. A tangle just after the throw-in between Lee Keegan and Michael Lundy saw both pick up yellow cards from ref Padraig Hughes before there was a minute on the clock. This kind of off-the-ball messing – the bulk of it, from what I could see, being instigated by their lads trying to play the hard man – continued on and off for much of the opening half.
Although this resulted in most of our scores in the opening thirty five minutes coming from placed balls, our opening score was an audacious one from play by Andy Moran that was squeezed over from way out on the right wing.
A feature of last year’s championship was how Aidan O’Shea couldn’t buy frees but our next two scores – both pointed by Cillian O’Connor – came after fouls on Aidan. In between those two scores came Galway’s opening point, also a free, scored by Paul Conroy after a foul on Danny Cummins. The Galway corner-forward was in the book after ten minutes, and so too were Gary Sice and Colm Boyle after another tangle.
Sice got a nice one from play for them but we tacked on two more, the first a tap-over free by Cillian, awarded from where the ball landed after Andy was fouled and the second also from Cillian, this one from play, a lovely inswinging effort to push us three clear.
It looked like we were establishing a bit of dominance on proceedings after what had been a fairly tetchy opening quarter but Galway then hit back quickly, scoring three points in as many minutes to draw the contest level. These scores came via a Conroy free, one from play by Cummins after we lost the ball from the kickout and one from play from the combustible Damien Comer.
Andy, who looked like he’d picked up a knock (and would be replaced soon after by Alan Dillon), guided over a neat point to edge us back in front. Then came the score of the day, though, with Gary Sice knifing right through our rearguard and burying it to the net. It was a cracking goal and it put the home side into the lead for the first and only time.
The goal came with the 35 minutes up and it looked as if it would be enough to leave Galway with a morale-boosting lead at the break. However, another foul by them at the back, this one resulting in a yellow for Finian Hanley, presented Cillian with an easy opportunity to square it up and he made no mistake from the close-in free.
I was fairly chilled out at the break. Galway’s tactic of fouling at every opportunity was annoying but they didn’t look like they’d have enough nous to take us once the match began to stretch a bit after the break. That said, we looked anything like a team with a clear idea of how we wanted to win the match either.
Right from the restart, though, we started to impose ourselves on the contest with intent and within two minutes we had burst clear from them. Aidan caught the ball from the throw-in and pumped it into Diarmuid O’Connor who – you’ve guessed it – was promptly fouled, with Cillian tapping over the resultant free.
In our next attack, Aidan O’Shea charged towards their goal, lost control of the ball but then, as it bobbled around loose, Galway’s keeper Manus Breathnach pulled on it only for it to ricochet off Finian Hanley into his own team’s net.
Yet another free from Cillian, this one a long-ranger that he floated up delightfully into the wind and over, put us five up. Then Aidan got fouled, was given advantage and slipped the ball over. Six up with half an hour to go and we looked in complete control.
The next ten minutes were messy, with horrendous wides from Mark Ronaldson (who’d replaced short-lived sub Alan Dillon soon after the break) for us and Comer for them. Lundy pointed a free for them and Jason Doherty got one from play for us after good link play by Mark and Cillian.
Then Paul Conroy executed one dumb foul too many and the influential midfielder was shown a deserved black card. That looked like the last straw for them but, in fairness, this setback prompted them onto the offensive and a good move ended with Cummins pawing the ball beyond David Clarke for the home team’s second goal of the day.
A free from Sice cut the gap to just two and with fifteen minutes still to go it was clear that, at the third time of asking, Galway were at last going to keep a championship contest against us live into the last quarter.
But they never got closer to us from then on either. Donal Vaughan, on for Boyler, made a super burst through the middle and offloaded to Ronaldson who pointed neatly to steady the ship for us.
A minute later Seamus O’Shea bore down on goal at speed. He might arguably have gone for glory but instead – correctly in my view – lashed it over to stretch the lead once more to four points.
We had to survive just one more scare when a needlessly conceded ball – from a free for us, kicked straight to them – led to a dangerous ball into the square. Cummins connected with it but Clarke deflected it away for a fifty that they ballooned wide.
With time running out, Galway were reduced to fourteen men when Hanley, already on yellow, dragged down Aidan and the resultant black meant he was off on red. Once more, Cillian was unerring from the free – his eighth placed ball score of the day.
A Sice free for them finished the day’s scoring – with us four points to the good – but the game’s denouement was a multi-player fracas down in front of the stand. This one was instigated by us with the clear aim – in the style of Kerry down in Limerick last year – of ensuring that the four minutes of injury time wouldn’t be used for kicking ball.
Lee Keegan held onto the ball like a terrier, Comer assaulted him – having attacked Aidan in the middle of the field just before, on a day when the same player put himself about like a bull in a china shop in what was ultimately a pointless and self-defeating hard chaw act – and everyone and anyone joined in. Eventually order was restored, Lee got a second yellow, Comer finally got an overdue first yellow and most of the injury time had been used up. Seconds later, the match was over and we had Galway beaten for the fifth successive time in the championship and the third time on the trot at Pearse Stadium to boot.
Our performance may not have been hectic today but, after a ten-week lay-off, this was only to be expected. Faced with an opposition determined to hit hard and foul all day long, we stood up to the challenge and eventually came through playing well within ourselves.
In truth, I never thought we looked like losing today. Galway had two chances to put it up to us – which came right after their two goals – but on both occasions we dug in and turned the match back in our favour. That, for me, was the most impressive thing about today’s hard-fought win.
What was also good about today was how the workload was spread out, with all of the lads putting significant effort in while a few – such as Keith Higgins, Cillian O’Connor and the peerless Aidan O’Shea – really stood out. Aidan, in particular, put in another storming championship performance and the only way Galway could stop him was to foul him. Which they did frequently but at least today those fouls produced frees, which in turn produced a fair few scores.
The other positive about today – which The Brother mentioned just now – was how we used the bench. All of our substitutions made sense and were made at the right time. That’s not something we’ve always done in recent years.
And finally, the nature of our win today should mean that we’re able to continue flying under the radar for a while longer. We’ll be favourites, of course, to win the Connacht final, whether it’s Roscommon or Sligo we’re facing, but because today’s win wasn’t a demolition job, talk about our decline will most likely continue – and perhaps even grow louder – in the lead-in to the provincial decider. That’s okay: we can leave our talking till the lads take the field in pursuit of an unprecedented fifth successive Nestor Cup success.
Mayo: David Clarke; Chris Barrett, Kevin Keane, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Tom Cunniffe, Colm Boyle; Seamus O’Shea (0-1), Tom Parsons; Diarmuid O’Connor, Aidan O’Shea (0-1), Kevin McLoughlin; Andy Moran (0-2), Cillian O’Connor (0-9, eight frees), Jason Doherty (0-1). Subs: Alan Dillon for Andy Moran, Mark Ronaldson (0-1) for Dillon, Donal Vaughan for Boyle, Barry Moran for Parsons, Alan Freeman for Cillian O’Connor. (Mayo goal an o.g. by Finian Hanley).