So, at the second time of asking, we finally got to play our first match of the year tonight. In rather miserable January weather under the MacHale Park lights, this midweek meeting between ourselves and Leitrim – for which both counties fielded experimental line-ups – turned into a bit of a thriller.
True to that genre, the match had an appropriate twist to the story right at the death. The visitors snatched a draw with an injury time goal just when it looked like they would have to leave Castlebar empty-handed.
We made one change to the team named to start this fixture. Colm Boyle didn’t line out, his place at centre-back taken instead by Shane Nally.
Leitrim got the night’s opening score – a free from Brendan Gallagher – but we soon got going and five points in a row put us in a good position. Fionn McDonagh got the opener, from play, his first ever point at senior level for the county.
Further scores followed for us. Debutant Ross Egan got the next one, followed by Neil Douglas, both of these from play. Alan Freeman pointed a free and then another debutant, Ciaran Treacy, added his name to the scorers’ list with another point from play.
They got one back but this was countered soon after by Alan Freeman, his second pointed free restoring our four-point advantage with ten minutes left in the first half.
From then to the break, though, it was all Leitrim. They blitzed us with six points without reply in that period, turning the four-point deficit into a two-point lead at half-time. Now an upset began to look the likelier outcome to this opening match of the year for us.
A few minutes into the second half we were handed a great opportunity to turn the tide back in our favour. We were awarded a penalty (for what I’m afraid I’ve no idea) but Alan Freeman’s spot-kick was saved by McKiernan.
Instead it was the visitors who bagged the first score after the break, stretching their lead to three points. We responded quickly to this one, however, with yet another debutant – this time Aidan Butler – bagging a point at the other end for us.
We made our first change of the night soon after, with Jason Gibbons replacing Barry Moran at midfield. Adam Gallagher also came into the forward line in place of Nathan Moran and soon after Ross Egan was replaced in attack by Oisin McLoughlin.
We got the next score, Jason Gibbons belting one over the bar. Then, with the match approaching the hour mark, Adam Gallagher brought it level at nine apiece.
But Leitrim came forward once more, snatching another point to edge ahead again. That score was cancelled out, though, by substitute Peter Naughton, whose solo dummy gave him the time and space to get his shot away for his debut score for his county. The Knockmore man had joined the fray a bit earlier in place of Alan Freeman.
The contest was now, despite the cold and wet conditions, coming nicely to the boil. Over the last five minutes the 1,696 punters who showed up at MacHale Park tonight were treated to a suitably dramatic finale to the proceedings.
First it looked like we’d come with a perfectly timed burst to win it. Ciaran Treacy put us back in front for the first time in the half when he slotted over a free with three minutes of normal time to play. Then James McCormack became the sixth debutant on the night to find the target for us and Ciaran Treacy followed this with one from play to leave us three to the good with the game in injury time.
Right at the death, however, Leitrim got their reward for their gutsy performance. A last-gasp attack yielded a goal, fisted to the net by Aidan Flynn, and so the game ended all-square. Those who were there will be better able to judge if this was a fair result but, from this remove, it sounds like it could have been.
So, it’s an unbeaten start to the year for us but one where we have yet to record our first win of the year. It’s back to MacHale Park on Friday night for us now, for the refixed Round 2 fixture against Galway, where, no doubt, a completely different Mayo line-up will be aiming to record what is now a well overdue win over the Tribesmen.
Mayo: Paddy O’Malley; Marcus Park, Ger McDonagh, Aidan Butler (0-1); James Stretton, Shane Nally, James McCormack (0-1); Barry Moran, Jordan Flynn; Fionn McDonagh (0-1), Neil Douglas (0-1), Nathan Moran; Ross Egan (0-1), Alan Freeman (0-2, frees), Ciaran Treacy (0-3, two frees). Subs: Jason Gibbons (0-1) for Barry Moran, Adam Gallagher (0-1) for Fionn McDonagh, Oisin McLoughlin for Egan, Peter Naughton (0-1) for Freeman, Matthew Ruane for Flynn, Kevin McLoughlin for Nally.