On the opening night of a new league season, it was only to be expected that a number of things weren’t working properly tonight. Like the scoreboard (which failed to register our final point). And ref Rory Hickey’s brain. And our midfield. And Laois’s effort at a blanket defence. But, hey, it’s only early February and we’re off and running in the 2012 NFL so it can’t be counted as a bad night’s work overall.
We had six points to spare over the home team at the end of tonight’s NFL Division One clash and while we were arguably full value for that margin of a win, such an outcome wasn’t exactly written in the stars with half an hour gone. We’d played wretchedly up till then, with Laois quicker and more inventive on the ball, but the 1-1 salvo we hit them with just before half-time turned the contest on its head and we kicked on well from there in the second half to seal the points with considerable ease.
I made it to O’Moore Park more than half an hour before throw-in, the floodlit ground clearly visible from the motorway even before we’d turned off it. I had my little Dub in tow, who, given the way the evening panned out, was more than happy not to be in Croker to witness Kerry’s rather hollow win over his heroes. He was in our camp tonight but I’ve no doubt that he’ll be back with the Jacks when I bring him to McHale Park next weekend.
The opening quarter of tonight’s match was fairly keenly contested, with both sides probing unsuccessfully for the game’s opening score, which meant that a full seven minutes were on the clock before Ross Munnelly – whom Richie Feeney appeared to be affording too much freedom in those early exchanges – got the first point of the evening.
Barry Moran belted over a point from play in reply soon after but then Alan Dillon blasted over (picture above courtesy of Mayo Mick) with the goal at his mercy having been played in by Conor Mortimer in a move initiated deep by Richie Feeney. “That should have been a goal”, I said to the little lad. “Couda, shouda, wouda” he muttered in reply.
A key point about that sweeping move was the intelligent advantage played by ref Rory Hickey who let the play develop when Conor was fouled in passing the ball into Alan Dillon. That, however, was about the only clever thing that the hapless Clare official did tonight as he proceeded to ruin the flow of the game, pulling for all sorts of imaginery infractions by both sides. Tonight’s match isn’t the first one I’ve seen Rory Hickey ruin and I doubt if it’ll be the last either.
But the ref wasn’t the reason we fell three points in arrears over the following ten minutes. Laois were defending deep and breaking in numbers, we were failing to make any impact in the middle third and looking more than a little loose at the back. Ger Cafferkey was having a testing time of it in the company of Padraig Clancy and when the two of them fell over each other going for a ball (which resulted in a free for Laois, from which they got their second point) Ger came off second best and had to retire early. Eoghan Reilly came in to replace the Ballinaman and, on the whole, he did okay in the position.
Laois looked like they might really turn the screw on us before half-time but then we got the stroke of luck we needed. Alan Freeman was sent clear and although he obviously had only one aim when shooting his effort took a wicked deflection off a defender and cannoned past the helpless ‘keeper into the net. Our next attack led to a close-in free which Conor converted to give us the lead for the first time.
In the lads trooped at half-time, having played really poorly over the course of the opening half but where they’d somehow managed to finish with their noses in front. I know it’s to some extent the art of predicting past events but it did seem then that if we put our collective foot on the gas at all in the second half we’d have more than enough in us to take the spoils.
And that, in a nutshell, was what happened. Although they recorded the half’s opening point (from a comically incorrect free award), our workrate had visibly gone up a few notches and even though midfield remained a problem, we were increasingly able to get the ball forward and once we did were able to do damage with it.
Kevin McLoughlin punched through the blanket cover to free up Conor who hooked it over and then Alan Freeman launched a stunner with the outside of his boot from thirty yards or so to put us two clear. At the other end, Keith Higgins provided a great cameo of our increased workrate by skilfully dispossessing his man and initiating another attack for us.
Jason Doherty and Enda Varley came on for us around this time, with the former replacing Pat Harte (with Barry Moran coming out to midfield as we rejigged our formation) while Enda Varley came on for Andy Moran. The changes worked too as our attacks began to yield more fruit.
They got their final point of the evening when they reacted quickest to recycle the ball following yet another Hail Mary effort but this free from Conor followed by another Alan Freeman point, the Aghamore man making light of the blanket cover, stretched our lead to four.
We defended resolutely and with great discipline from their next few attacks (knowing that any hand placed on a man, however imaginery, might be enough to result in a free in) and instead it was us who added to our tally, with Enda Varley knocking over two trademark spectaculars to seal our six-point win.
Tonight’s performance was obviously a patchy one and James and the lads will be well aware that significant improvement will be needed before the Dubs roll into town next weekend. I’m sure, though, that they’ll be delighted to win despite the raggedness of much of the display and will be doubly happy to have a win on the road under their belts already.
Positives for us tonight were the displays put in by the likes of David Clarke, Lee Keegan, Keith Higgins, Donal Vaughan, Richie Feeney, Kevin McLoughlin, Alan Freeman and Conor Mortimer. The latter was particularly impressive, weighing in with five points on an evening where he repeatedly took the fight to the Laois rearguard.
Midfield would be main worry for me arising from tonight. The pairing of Seamus O’Shea and Pat Harte is the fifth one we’ve used so far this year and both were replaced before the end this evening. Our inability to win quality ball around the middle was compounded by a general looseness in this area when they had the ball and while this latter problem was sorted in the second half, we never came close to breaking even in the midfield stakes at any stage tonight.
So, it was a case of positives and negatives for us tonight but it’d surely be overly pessimistic to stress the latter ahead of the former. If our target is a top four finish in this year’s league, we’ve made a good start in this direction tonight and we’ll now be looking to make further progress down this road when we square up to the All-Ireland champions at McHale Park this night week. Another interesting evening under the lights beckons then and that’s even before we clap eyes on these famous commemorative jerseys.
Mayo: David Clarke; Lee Keegan, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Peadar Gardiner, Donal Vaughan, Richie Feeney; Seamus O’Shea, Pat Harte; Kevin McLoughlin, Alan Freeman (1-2), Alan Dillon (0-1); Conor Mortimer (0-5, three frees), Barry Moran (0-1), Andy Moran. Subs: Eoghan Reilly for Cafferkey, Jason Doherty for Harte, Enda Varley (0-2) for Andy Moran, Danny Geraghty for O’Shea.