Well, we’re out, beaten by nine points by a team that blew us away over the course of the second half at Croke Park today. It’s painful to admit it, more painful still to sit here and write about it, but it would be churlish not to acknowledge the fact that Kerry were clearly the better side today and that they fully deserved their win over us.
But, for our young team, today’s experience in Croke Park – though bitter now in the immediate aftermath – will in time be seen as a valuable learning exercise. As a result, today should, from a Mayo perspective, be viewed as a start and most definitely not be seen as any kind of end.
We were all enormously proud of the lads – and rightly so – after the wonderful way they took down Cork in the quarter-finals a few weeks back. We should be equally proud of them tonight, both for how they went toe-to-toe with a great Kerry team for long stretches of today’s semi-final – a match where the likes of Kieran Donaghy, Declan O’Sullivan and Darran O’Sullivan were allowed to contribute far less than they would have been expected to – but also for the stirring championship campaign they’ve given us this year. 2010 was a real low point for us but this year (once we got over the Ruislip near-miss) the lads got better with each outing and so we exit this year’s championship in a far better better state than we came into it. James and the lads deserve our heartfelt praise and thanks for all they’ve done to make this happen.
We had a very enjoyble night out in Bowe’s last night and there was a good deal of confidence then – which I very much shared – about our chances today. Over our pints we were in agreement that Kerry would do their utmost to try to bury us at the outset and when the action got underway at HQ this afternoon that’s exactly what they attempted to do. With a movement that was obviously honed on the training ground, within seconds of the throw-in the ball was fed at pace to Darran O’Sullivan whose goal attempt was deflected wide by Robbie Hennelly.
Kerry persisted with this Plan A for a full ten minutes or so and O’Sullivan got through for a second shot on goal in this period but this time hit Robbie’s head rather than the target. Having survived this initial onslaught – with Enda Varley claiming the day’s opening score – we then enjoyed a good spell, which saw us lead by 0-4 to 0-2 after 20 minutes. That fourth point was thumped over by Donie Vaughan who was already prominent at centre-back for us and at that stage it looked for a while as if we were going to gain the upper hand in the battle.
Ger Cafferkey was having an unexpectedly good time on Donaghy and Keith Higgins was keeping tabs on Darran O’Sullivan, who never got any clear sight of goal after those two early chances. At the other end of the field, Enda Varley was showing well for the ball and Andy Moran was unlucky with a goal chance that would have really set the cat among the pigeons had Kealy not managed to bat away his goalbound shot.
But despite all these positives you could see even then that we weren’t winning enough at midfield where Sheehan and Maher were content to spoil the ball and let the other lads operating in that area pick up the breaks. Kerry killed us in this sector all day – showing the kind of intensity that we had done against Cork in this sector three weeks ago – and that’s the first obvious reason why we lost today.
With Kevin McLoughlin playing sweeper, the danger was always that we’d give Kerry a platform to attack us and that’s what they did with increasing effect for the remainder of the first half. Time and again they came forward, probing patiently, and over that fifteen minutes our two-point lead turned into a three-point deficit as they hit us with five successive scores without reply. A monstrous point from way out on the left by Andy Moran left us two down at the break but you could see then that something would need to change if we were going to get on top in this contest.
The obvious change was to bring Ronan into midfield to replace the labouring Aidan O’Shea but a switch in this sector wasn’t made until Kerry had begun to pull clear and when it was, it was Seamus and not Aidan who left the arena. Ronan’s introduction, however, did nothing to alter the shape of the midfield battle and our decision to abandon the sweeper tactic and play Kevin McLoughlin as an orthodox wing-forward also meant that the space was starting to open up for Kerry in our backline.
We needed a strong opening to the second period but points for them by O’Leary and Sheehan saw them move four clear. We answered in kind with scores by Donie and Andy but that was as close as we would get to them. Three times in succession after that we gave the ball away in situations where we were under no immediate pressure and on all three occasions Kerry went up the other end and scored. And then they scored three times more as well to leave us eight adrift.
Cillian O’Connor’s superbly taken goal gave the huge Mayo following in the 50,000+ crowd a brief glimpse of hope but this was immediately extinguished when Cooper smashed home an emphatic response at the other end. We were seated down at the Hill end of the Lower Cusack and so I didn’t have a great view of it (and I’m not sure I have the heart to watch it again now) but I found it hard to see how Gooch was able to get his shot away in the manner that he did from where he was.
We were goosed then, for sure, but we kept up the fight with Andy – who had Marc Ó Sé swinging out of him as he let fly – desperately unlucky to hit the post with his third goal attempt of the day. Donie had an even more clearcut chance soon after but he couldn’t keep his piledriver under the bar. Gradually, the fight went out of us after that and as the clock ran down Kerry added more late scores in an increasingly leisurely way. The margin crept up close to double digits by the end and although most of us would obviously feel that we didn’t deserve to lose by nine points, that’s what the scoreboard said at the final whistle.
It’s desperately disappointing, of course, to lose and, once again, to have to endure defeat at the hands of Kerry. There are things we can point to which could, if events went a different way, have altered the course of the contest. Chief amongst these would be the refereeing, where I thought David Coldrick was desperately poor and clearly bought Jack O’Connor’s midweek spin about us “playing on the edge”. No matter how you parse it, though, Kerry were the better team today and when they floored the pedal in the second half we simply didn’t have the means at our disposal to stop them.
Losing to such an experienced side having given as good as we got for much of the contest is no disgrace and while it’s an old cliche for a team in this situation to claim “we’ll be back” it’s not at all fanciful to believe that we will. We’ve made enormous progress over the course of 2011 and so we’ll start next year much further down the development road. We know now that we’ve got the makings of a very good team and we can and should be confident about where James Horan is taking them. In his first year at the helm, James has sifted carefully through all the available talent and after this campaign he’ll have a better idea about what areas need to be augmented further. As a result, when we get going again next year I’ve every expectation that we’ll be a stronger and more cohesive outfit than we were this year.
Tonight, the pain of defeat is once again a raw wound but whatever pain those of us who sat in the stands imagine we are suffering from, we know that the players will be hurting far more. It’s only right, then, to sign off tonight by thanking the lads once again for all their efforts this year and for giving us back a definite sense of pride in the county team. Chin up, lads – you will be back and you’ve every reason to expect that a large following will once again be there when you are.
Mayo: Robert Hennelly; Tom Cunniffe, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Richie Feeney, Donal Vaughan (0-3), Trevor Mortimer; Aidan O’Shea, Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin, Alan Dillon, Andy Moran (0-2); Enda Varley (0-2), Alan Freeman, Cillian O’Connor (1-3). Subs: Ronan McGarrity for Seamus O’Shea, Lee Keegan (0-1) for Feeney, Aidan Campbell for Freeman, Jason Doherty for Varley.