A funny thing happened on the way to our expected defeat to Kerry down in Tralee this afternoon. After we’d dominated the opening half but had somehow managed to reach the break a point in arrears, Kerry twice came close to rattling David Clarke’s net and it only seemed like a matter of time before the All-Ireland champions asserted control and closed out their anticipated win. Instead, however, we suddenly took a vice-like grip on proceedings and in a dazzling fifteen-minute spell, scored 1-5 without reply to put the game beyond Kerry’s reach. The home fans were spilling out of Austin Stack Park with a full five minutes left to play in today’s match and although the Kingdom – like Derry last weekend – ended up nabbing a goal with the final kick of the game, all that did was put an undeserved patina of respectability on what was a decisive victory for our lads, one that elevates us to the top of Division 1 of the NFL.
We had plenty of heroes today, like the energetic Enda Varley in attack, the stalwart Seamus O’Shea in midfield and the vigilant Keith Higgins at the back but all tomorrow morning’s headlines will, with plenty of justification, be claimed by the evergreen Conor Mortimer who replaced Mark Ronaldson early in the second half and who knocked over four stunning points from play in an eight-minute spell, enabling us to storm clear of the Kerrymen when the spoils were very much up for grabs in Tralee.
The Thriller’s intervention into the day’s proceedings at that juncture was unexpected and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one puzzled by Johnno’s decision to replace the industrious Mark Ronaldson with his attacking clubmate shortly after the restart. Within seconds, however, Conor had the ball over the bar, in the process winning his first duel with his 2006 All-Ireland final tormentor, Tom O’Sullivan. The Rathmore man had already had a difficult first half in the company of Enda Varley – somehow managing to avoid a booking despite repeatedly fouling the Garrymore sharpshooter – and Conor proceeded to fillet him, scoring four points off four balls from increasingly outrageous angles.
So often, we’ve worked our way into winning positions only to fail to sink the dagger into the hilt when the opportunity is presented to us. Not today: after Conor’s barrage put the Kingdom on the ropes, Tom Parsons steamed through for a goal to deliver the knockout punch. That turned out to be our final score of the game – and there were twelve or so minutes left on the clock at that stage – but we were in such obvious control all over the pitch that we were never going to lose it from there, even if Kieran O’Leary’s stoppage time goal for them made the final result look far closer than it was in reality.
But let’s wind back to the beginning and the team selection for the day, which saw Mark Ronaldson return at centre-forward with Seamus O’Shea moving to his spiritual home at midfield alongside Tom Parsons, while Kieran Conroy shifted back to no.3 displacing the out-of-sorts Ger Cafferkey. This latter switch was obviously designed with Kieran Donaghy in mind, as the Shrule-Glencorrib man had done alright on Star both last year and the year before that, but Jack O’Connor surprisingly opted to leave the local hero on the bench, fielding this year’s Kerry captain Bryan Sheehan at full-forward instead.
From the throw-in, Alan Dillon shifted to the forty for us, with Ronaldo inside him on the edge of the square and Aidan in the corner. As we’ve done in almost every game this year (coincidence or what?), we started brightly, with Enda Varley winning a free and pointing it before the first minute had elapsed.
The lads on the radio said that we had whatever wind was blowing but that didn’t stop Bryan Sheehan from lamping over a 50-yard free to open Kerry’s account after three minutes and they could have followed it with a goal just after but the final pass into David O’Callaghan was adjudged to be a foul one.
Enda Varley got his first from play soon after but Colm Cooper responded quickly with a free for them. The wind now began to swirl a bit and both teams were more than a little awry with passes and shots but we seemed particularly affected by the conditions, landing six attempted shots short and kicking what sounded like a few atrocious wides. Kerry were faring little better, though, and when this scoreless spell – which lasted close to ten minutes – came to an end, we were the ones to end it with Tom O’Sullivan once more fouling Enda and Enda doing the needful from the placed ball.
Five minutes later, and exactly the same thing happened. Ref David Coldrick used to be a real card-happy gent when he first appeared on the scene but he seemed to be giving O’Sullivan enormous latitude for his persistent fouling of Varley today. By contrast, poor old Seamus O’Shea found himself in the book soon after and, according to Billy Fitz, he was hard done by with Declan O’Sullivan barging into the Breaffy man, grabbing hold of him and then pulling him down on top of him. Some justice was served, though, when Sheehan screwed the resultant free wide.
Kerry had gone a full twenty minutes without a score at this stage and Jack O’Connor was clearly getting impatient, with David O’Callaghan the fall guy. The monstrous Michael Quirke came on at midfield, with David Moran moving to the half-forwards and the rejig reaped quick dividends with two points inside a minute, the first from Sheehan and the second from O’Leary, as Kerry somewhat ominously drew level with ease. Then Liam O’Malley got pinged for a foul handpass and the Gooch popped over the free to give the Kerrymen the lead for the first time just as the game approached the break.
Then, like a little localised hailstorm, all hell broke loose. One of our lads (I think I know who it was but I’m not saying – this site could, after all, be monitored by the disciplinary mullahs in GAA HQ) decked one of theirs and, after conferring with his umpires and linesmen, Mr Coldrick belatedly reverted to card-happy mode. Andy Moran, Donie Vaughan, Adrian O’Connell and David Moran all saw yellow but Billy Fitz reckoned we were lucky to be coming back out of the dressing room for the second half with our full complement on the field.
Chatting on the phone with PJ at half-time, I was fairly down in the gob about our chances of winning from the position we were in at that stage, given that we’d failed so palpably to take advantage of all that first-half possession. The fact that Kieran Donaghy was on for Kerry from the restart did nothing to cheer me up either but Alan Dillon’s pointed free within seconds of the throw-in surely helped to get the lads into the right frame of mind for what most of us probably felt could be a torrid second 35 minutes.
The Kerrymen quickly showed just how uncomfortable it could get for us when, twice in quick succession, they came close to raising the first green flag of the day. Colm Cooper had the first chance when Keith Higgins misjudged the flight of the ball in the swirling breeze but instead of placing it under Clarkie, the Crokes man chose to blast it and over the bar it went. Then Donaghy plucked a ball from the skies and fed O’Leary whose shot thumped up and over off the crossbar.
And that’s when the miraculous turnaround happened. It was actually Andy Moran who started it all off, with a ‘45 which Michael Quirke got one of his rather large paws to but who only succeeded in tipping the leather over the bar. After Conor’s first one, Cooper responded with a point from play but from then on until it was too late to matter, it was one-way traffic in our favour.
Keith Higgins began the move for our next point, intercepting the ball and haring upfield where he offloaded to Dillon who fed his globetrotting partner for his second point of the day. Michael Quirke then helped a second point for us over the bar from an Alan Dillon free to edge us one ahead and Trevor Mortimer put us two up after Andy Moran had dispossessed Anthony Maher.
Conor was clearly revelling in being back in the thick of things as he showed by knocking over another two glorious points from play to push us four clear. Kerry were now bailing a bit of water and could have done with a few scores to steady them but instead Tom Parsons appeared at the end of a move and smashed home a goal for us to kill the game in its tracks.
Kerry could, I suppose, still have rescued the match with a determined late rally but they never looked remotely like doing so. Sheehan pointed a ’45 with ten minutes to go but time was nearly up by the time the same player got their next score from a free. Kieran O’Leary’s goal was more an annoyance to David Clarke than anything else as the match ended with the ball hitting the net.
No Mayo supporter is going to go overboard about this result. We’re all painfully aware that while a win over Kerry in late March is nice, it’s what happens in late September that really counts. But the road to a possible return to September football is surely one that first needs days like today, where the lads can head into a match which everyone expects them to lose and then come out kicking themselves that they only won by two points.
Today was a good day’s work on two fronts. First, we have now undoubtedly confirmed our place in Division 1 for next year, which in itself is no mean achievement. But we have also now ensured that the battle for league honours is down to a three-cornered tussle between ourselves, the Dubs and Cork. Having worked so hard to put ourselves in such a favourable position, we owe it to ourselves to push on now and achieve our next aim, which should be a place in the final itself.
Monaghan knocked seven shades of shit out of Derry today so, like Ireland failed to do against Scotland in the rugby yesterday, we’ll need to guard against assuming that this one is won before it’s won. I’d expect there’ll be a good crowd in McHale Park next Sunday to cheer on the league leaders to what will hopefully be our fifth win of the campaign.
Then, if we get over that hurdle, the next one – a meeting with Cork down in Páirc Uí Rinn – will be even tougher but tough games are exactly what we need right now to get us in shape for the summer. After today’s result, our expectations about what the summer holds for us are unquestionably on the rise and while it’s best to keep all those giddy emotions in check, there’s nothing wrong either about facing into the long evenings with a sense of optimism about what may lie ahead.
MAYO: David Clarke; Liam O’Malley, Kieran Conroy, Keith Higgins; Donal Vaughan, Trevor Howley, Kevin McLoughlin; Tom Parsons (1-0), Seamus O’Shea; Andy Moran (0-1, a ’45), Mark Ronaldson, Trevor Mortimer (0-1); Enda Varley (0-4, three frees), Aidan O’Shea, Alan Dillon (0-2, frees). Subs: Conor Mortimer (0-4) for Ronaldson, Pat Harte for Aidan O’Shea, Barry Kelly for Dillon, Mikey Sweeney for Varley.