Well, he certainly went out with a bang, didn’t he? It’s been obvious for some time that the Johnno II era was destined to end in ignominious failure but tonight’s toe-curling defeat to a very limited, though game Longford team ensured that this wasn’t to be any old failure. No, this was failure on a truly heroic scale as, just like happened in Sligo, we were found wanting when it became clear that we’d need to battle to secure a win. Only this time it wasn’t a go-getting team like Sligo we lost to, it was Longford and our failure to beat them has got to rank as our greatest ever humiliation in the championship. Thanks for the memories, Johnno.
Most of you will, by now, know how the match played out at Pearse Park this evening. We played with a strong wind in the first half – did we win the toss and opt to do so, I wonder? Strange choice if that’s what we did – but from early on, it was clear that we were playing equally as bad, if not worse, than we’d done at Markievicz Park a few weeks back. Johnno had taken a hatchet to the team that had played Sligo – with six changes in personnel, including a new midfield pairing of Pat Harte and Seamus O’Shea – but tonight’s fifteen seemed even less comfortable playing with each other than the other lot had done and once it became clear to the home team that we weren’t going to put them to the sword with any kind of efficiency, you could see that they began to sense they might be onto something.
We got the first three points of the evening, the first coming after almost ten minutes from an Alan Freeman free but then Seamus O’Shea curled over a beauty from play and Barry Moran added another from play just after. They opened their account with a free by McGee but Conor then scored from play to restore our three-point lead.
A blatant dive by Kavanagh – one that wouldn’t have looked out of place in South Africa at the moment – yielded another soft free for Longford, which the same player converted but we were back to three ahead soon after when Alan Dillon, shooting with his left, just made the distance from well out.
Another free for them cut the gap to two and then Masterson got their first from play to reduce the gap to the minimum with half an hour gone. At that stage, it looked like we’d have to face the breeze with little or no lead to fall back on but then Andy cracked over a ‘45’ (when was the last time a Mayo player did this in a championship match, I wonder?) and he followed up with another from play to send us in at the break 0-7 to 0-4 in front.
At that stage, I didn’t have the kind of uneasy feeling that I’d had down in Markievicz. Sure, the ref was giving them 80% of what was going and, yes, they’d have the wind with them in the second half but, for fuck’s sake, this was Longford we were playing. If we couldn’t beat them, well …
Although they got the opening point of the second half, two nice points from play by Alan Dillon – who seemed to be coming into the match with effect at this stage – stretched our lead to four. Time to kick for home, one would have thought, but instead they hit us with 1-4 from play without reply in the course of a ten-minute spell that turned the game completely on its head.
It all started with their goalie, Sheridan, haring up the pitch to initiate an attack that led to a well-taken point from play by Mulligan. With the home crowd now getting behind them, Longford seemed to draw strength from this score and they proceeded to tear into us. And we, of course, don’t really like getting torn into. Hence the one-way traffic in our direction that ensued.
Now we were in serious bother – a goal down with twenty minutes or so to go – but it still shouldn’t have been fatal. Freeman pulled a point back but then blazed over from about a foot out, when a goal would have put us right back in the driving seat. Instead, Kavanagh landed a superb score from play to put them two ahead again.
A Mort free narrowed the gap back down to one but then a series of truly ludicrous attempts on goal ended with the home side managing to clear their lines, with their precious lead still intact. The ref then proceeded to cap one of the worst one-sided performances I’ve ever seen by giving Keith a straight red for some back-chat after the stupid fucker had incorrectly penalised him. It was a truly shameful refereeing decision.
But, even then, we could still have done it. Alan Freeman landed another superb point and levelled again when they edged in front once more. But they broke forward for another score and this was to prove the decisive one. Alan Dillon was rugby tackled in the middle of the park, we were prevented from taking the free quickly and then the ref blew up early.
Longford were obviously delighted with themselves – as well they might as they had, in their eyes, taken down one of the game’s bigger teams. They’ll need the same ref for the rest of their matches, though, as any half-decent team that gets a roughly equal chance against them won’t have any trouble putting a halt to their gallop.
The ref clearly affected the outcome of tonight’s game and we could well have won had we got anything like a fair shake in that department. But that misses the point: it was Longford we were playing and we should have beaten them off the field, regardless who was reffing it. The fact that the match was close enough at half-time should have driven us on in order to avoid the embarrassment of only beating them by a few points. But it didn’t and so we ended up in the land of ultimate humiliation instead.
Few of the team can be proud of how they performed tonight. Barrett and Vaughan were okay in the first half, Cafferkey was alright but Kavanagh enjoyed the better of the battle in the second half and up front Alan Dillon and the impressive Alan Freeman were the pick of the bunch. Apart from that, it was grim enough, as the final scoreline suggests.
The one bright spot arising from the defeat is that at least Johnno has had the good sense not to drag this pantomime out for any longer. His position was transparently untenable following such an ignominious failure and he deserves at least a tiny sliver of credit for falling on his sword in the speedy manner he did.
Where we go from here and how we pick ourselves up from the vertiginous collapse we’ve suffered over the last few months is one for another day. We can, and hopefully will, bounce back from the lowly position we now find ourselves in. Tonight, though, it’s difficult to do much more than reflect on our shocking decline and wonder how the hell a proud footballing county like ours could end up suffering the mortification of a championship exit such as this.
MAYO: David Clarke; Chris Barrett, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Donal Vaughan, Trevor Howley, Kevin McLoughlin; Seamus O’Shea (0-1), Pat Harte; Andy Moran (0-2, one a ‘45’), Aidan O’Shea, Alan Freeman (0-5, one free); Conor Mortimer (0-2, one free), Barry Moran (0-1), Alan Dillon (0-3). Subs: Liam O’Malley for McLoughlin, Mark Ronaldson for Aidan O’Shea, Tom Parsons for Howley, Billy Joe Padden for Harte.