Last time out at McHale Park, in a match where there was also a controversial first half sending-off, the common consensus appeared to be that the fog had allowed us to dodge a bullet. Backed into another difficult position today – where this time we were the ones down to fourteen men – we could have done with another delivery of the stuff to extricate us from the predicament we were in. The sky remained clear, however, and, when the full-time whistle sounded, it was instead our unbeaten start to 2012 that had disappeared into the ether.
I ended up listening to this one on Midwest – the first Mayo match I’d followed in this way since last year’s Connacht final – with my trip to Croker called off when the small lad decided this morning that he wanted to go to a party instead. I’ve been feeling a fair bit under the weather over the last few days and so was happy enough to pass up the trip to HQ and settle down to follow the match on the radio instead. And, once again, I have Mayo Mick to thank for the photos accompanying this report.
Whatever ideas we may have had in advance about how this match was going to pan out changed fairly quickly at McHale Park today when Aidan O’Shea got the line after just eight minutes. It was a straight red too, given following an altercation with Down’s Danny Hughes. I wasn’t there and so can’t pronounce on what happened but Aidan won’t need telling from me that he should have just taken the free that had been awarded to him and foregone the afters. Instead, his loss meant that we were faced with having to play over an hour with 14 men.
Whatever about the rights and wrongs of Aidan’s sending off, the clear consensus thereafter was that rookie ref Barry Cassidy from Derry had an absolute shocker. We were denied a clear penalty when Enda Varley was hauled down inside the square, Conor Mortimer had a converted free disallowed for some arcane reason and then Down had two legitimate points ruled out near the end. I think it’s fair to say that Barry Cassidy won’t be taking charge of his first All-Ireland final come September.
Whatever about the shite reffing, though, from what I can gather we were the architects of our own downfall today. Aidan’s sending off was pivotal, of course, but we also racked up nine or ten wides over the course of the afternoon, a number of them from scoreable frees (including a 14-yarder ballooned wide by Alan Freeman) and it’s transparently the case that when a team is in a match where they’re scrapping for their lives, they simply can’t afford to miss these kind of chances.
It’s also the case, I think, that of all the teams to find yourself a man down against, a tactically astute Northern team like Down is one that you can expect to be able to exploit the situation to the full. From what I can gather, the Mourne lads used their numerical advantage man cleverly, making it very difficult for us to make progress in attack and then using the extra man to break at speed and inflict damage on us at the other end.
Then, just to make sure, they threw the whole Nordie playbook – blocking runners, players falling down ‘injured’ at every opportunity, repeated cynical fouls (that went unpunished), lads running across freetakers to distract them (ditto) – at us in a situation where an inexperienced (Nordie) ref was, as @edmcgreal pointed out after the game, in way over his head. Seen in this light, the contest was only ever going to finish the one way.
We started nicely enough, with a point from play from Andy Moran and one from a free from record-chasing Conor Mortimer putting us 0-2 to 0-1 ahead before the red card incident. We stuck with them reasonably well for a while afterwards too – with Mort adding another free – but Down’s goal scored by Conor Maginn (our first conceded all year) knocked us back. In fairness to the lads, their immediate response was positive, with Alan Dillon pointing from play from well out on the right and then Conor levelling it up with his third free of the day.
Two points for the visitors followed, the first from play, before a fourth Mort point cut the margin back to the minimum. The lads on Midwest were insistent that that free should, however, have been a penalty as Enda Varley was hauled down well inside the square. Shortly before this, Jason Doherty had also been poleaxed and, with half time approaching, he was replaced by Seamus O’Shea.
Down finished the half stronger and three unanswered points – an Ambrose Rogers fifty, a long-ranger from play and one from a free – left the Mourne lads sitting pretty four to the good as they headed for the dressing room.
John Casey (who I thought was MOTM on Midwest – direct and to the point right throughout) reckoned our lads were playing like headless chickens towards the end of that chaotic half and he pointed to an incident where Rogers had outfielded Mort in midfield to show how tactically awry we were. It was a bit of a surprise, then, to see that James Horan decided not to shuffle the deck at that stage. The Brother reckoned that Pat Harte was the man to spring at that juncture – I think he had a point.
As it was, Down got the opening score of the second half but another Mort free followed by Alan Dillon’s second point from play got us back within a goal of the visitors. They then got one from play, Mort responded with his sixth free (but not before he had a converted free disallowed by the ref, which I think was either for taking too long or robbing too much ground in the run-up) and then Alan Freeman – who had an off-day on the freetaking front – cut the gap to two from another placed ball.
The Aghamore man’s difficulties in front of the posts this afternoon were starkly exemplified soon after when he hacked wide a routine 14-yarder – at a time when the lads on Midwest were getting increasingly bullish about our chances of digging out a result – and then the 2010 All-Ireland finalists went down to score straight from the kick-out, sub Benny Coulter getting this one from play, to pull a clear goal ahead again.
With time running out we had obviously run out of ideas on how to break down our numerically superior opponents. The only further score we got before Barry Cassidy raced off the field into the arms of the hi-vis attired stewards (photo by @p_cunnane) was another point from an Alan Freeman free as Down comfortably closed out the five-point win.
The result is a huge disappointment and while it’s easy to direct all of our ire at the hapless Barry Cassidy, it’s obvious that our own performance let us down as well today. We only scored three points from play over the entire seventy minutes and we hoofed a number of frees wides so it’s obvious that a bit more bite in attack plus some more accuracy from placed balls could of itself have made this a far closer contest than it was.
The Brother was incandescent when I spoke to him on the phone after the final whistle (I briefly considered asking him to try his hand at an audio report but then thought better of it!) and, with some justification, he was unable to see too far beyond the shite refereeing for our downfall (that’s a bad pun, I know). But shite refereeing is a constant in the GAA world (though I would once again question the correctness of putting a Nordie ref in charge of a game involving a Nordie team) and, at least where it came to Aidan’s sending-off, the ref may have been in the right.
PJ was a good deal more sanguine when I spoke with him a bit later and he pointed to our lack of punch in attack, bemoaning our lads’ inability either to win their own ball or score the kind of points that we routinely see forwards from other counties getting. (Did anyone see the way Cork peppered Laois last night, by the way? Now, that’s what I’d call shooting). He thought Andy, Dillon and Mort did well, along with Barry Moran in midfield, but was struggling to name any other strong performers for us. He wasn’t overly impressed with the backs but felt that Robbie Hennelly will be under particular pressure after today’s performance.
So, there goes our unbeaten status for 2012 and gone too are all those dreams about securing our place in the play-offs as early as next weekend. With Cork, Dublin and Kerry (who are all showing serious form right now) still to face, that play-off place isn’t exactly a gimme either and it needs to be borne in mind that we need to collect two more points from our remaining four games just to ensure we’re playing Division One football again next year.
Donegal, who got hammered down in Tralee today, are sure to be smarting next Sunday and, seeing as they’re closer to the relegation trapdoor than we are, they’ll also be desperate for the league points. Our lads owe it to themselves,however, to show that they can perform at a higher level than they did today and they also need to demonstrate that they’re able to bounce back from bad days like this one.
Any word on who’ll be reffing it, though?
Mayo: Robert Hennelly; Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Richie Feeney, Donal Vaughan, Lee Keegan; Aidan O’Shea, Barry Moran; Alan Dillon (0-2), Alan Freeman (0-2, frees), Jason Doherty; Conor Mortimer (0-6, frees), Andy Moran (0-1), Enda Varley. Subs: Seamus O’Shea for Doherty, Michael Conroy for Varley, Pat Harte for Freeman.