It wasn’t just the electronic scoreboard (hit by overnight lightning, apparently) that wasn’t working earlier today in McHale Park. Not for the first time this year, the lads failed to get stuck in right from the off and by the time they did, Armagh had shown them a fairly clean pair of heels. Then, to add insult to injury, when they fought themselves back into what was potentially a winning position just a point in arrears with ten minutes to go, instead they faded badly enabling the visitors to claim a three-point win on their county’s first ever appearance at McHale Park.
It was always going to be an historic kind of day in Castlebar because not only were the Orchard lads in town for the first time but amongst their number was Billy Joe Padden. The last time the counties met – in the NFL semi-final back in 2005 – BJ was at midfield for us but today he started at centre-forward for his adopted county, although the role he played (at least according to Billy Fitz on the radio) was that of sweeper behind his midfield and, by all accounts, he did well for them over the seventy minutes.
I didn’t travel west today – scarcely in the door from my travels, there was no way I was going to undertake a 320-mile roundtrip for the match – and the godawful conditions in Castlebar, which Liam Horan described on Twitter as “a rotten, squally, greasy, wintry kind of day”, made me glad enough that I’d stayed put (where, by the by, we had a nice and sunny, albeit cool, day up here).
Midwest were slow out of the traps in getting the match commentary going but not as slow as the lads on the pitch, as it took us only 30 seconds to concede a goal we’d ultimately never recover from. Brian Mallon was played in by Malachy Mackin in a move which had started when Charlie Vernon won the ball from the throw-in and the full-forward’s clinical finish had us in immediate trouble. Andy Moran responded with a point from play but the first of what would turn out to be a six-point haul by Stevie McDonnell restored the visitors’ three-point advantage.
It was apparent even from here on the couch that the strong downfield wind, which favoured Armagh in the opening half, was going to have a big say in how the match would pan out. Clearly, we needed to limit the first half damage and then look to a wind-assisted second half comeback to do the trick.
A free for us by Aidan Campbell was cancelled out by one for them by McDonnell but then, after 16 minutes, the roof caved in on us completely when Paul Duffy smashed in a second goal for them. McDonnell added salt to the wound shortly after with his third point of the day to put the Orchards all of seven points clear.
Colm Gannon was musing on Twitter at this stage that we might need to get our newly-installed Taoiseach (who was in the crowd at McHale Park today – pic from the Mayo Advertiser) to tog out if we were to have any hope of altering the direction of a match that was canting alarmingly Armagh’s way. Not only were we failing to defend with any kind of competence, we didn’t seem to know how to account for the conditions in working the ball forward either, nor did we appear to have too much nous about how to go about unpicking a typically sticky Northern defensive formation. It sure looked grim at that stage.
Aidan Campbell drove over a free for us but they quickly responded with a point by Toner. Then Campbell had a goalbound shot beaten away for a fifty but Aidan Kilcoyne’s effort was deflected out for another fifty, which this time we played short but succeeded in losing possession. Downfield came the visitors and the ball was channelled to Stevie Mac who swung it over from over 50 yards out to hoist the Orchards eight points clear.
A hiding was now on the cards unless we could do something, and fast. We did, with Jason Doherty finally managing to get on the ball in offensive territory and despite BJP’s best efforts he managed to squeeze his shot inside the post to claim a much-needed goal. Half-time couldn’t come quick enough for us now but there was still time for another needlessly conceded free by us and another point arising from this from McDonnell.
Six down at the break and, when buttonholed on his way to the dressing room by Ed McGreal (who incidentally put in a strong shift himself for Midwest today, providing numerous informative updates from the touchline), selector Paul Jordan described our first-half performance as “ponderous”. That’s one word for it, I guess, although I suspect the punters watching might have managed to come up with a few earthier descriptions for what they’d witnessed in the opening 35 minutes. Paul also said we could expect to see “two or three” changes for the second half but, in the event, there was only one midway switch – Richie Feeney coming on for Peadar Gardiner.
With the wind now our friend, we really needed to tear into them on the resumption and pare back that lead as quickly as possible but, if this was ever our objective, it was one we failed to execute on. Points from Jason Doherty and Aidan Campbell (a free) were cancelled out at the other end by points from the impressive Charlie Vernon (Billy Fitz’s Man of the Match, by the way) and McDonnell.
As a result, with 15 minutes of the second half gone we were no nearer to them than we were at half-time and it was fast becoming clear that this match was unlikely ever to come within our grasp. Another missed Fifty, this one from Richie Feeney, added to the frustration with Club Mayo noting on Twitter that we’d used four separate kickers for the six ‘45s we’d been awarded and had missed them all.
But, as Enda said in the Dail last Wednesday, the darkest hour is the one before dawn and, after that last Armagh score, we kept them from adding to their total for a full twenty minutes or so while we tagged on five points to ours. That was a crap analogy, I know, because, unless you’re in Lapland in winter, after the dawn arrives you expect to see a full day’s brightness stretching out ahead of you. Continuing the crap analogy, though, what happened to us today was that nightfall arrived just as the dawn began to break. If you follow me, like.
That fruitful period coincided with Ronan McGarrity’s introduction in place of Tom Parsons and points from Alan Dillon, Andy Moran (whose pass inside bounced, in the manner of Colm Coyle in 1996, up and over the bar), Aidan Kilcoyne, Dillon again (this time a free) and Andy again cut Armagh’s lead to the bare minimum. Ten to go and the wind behind us, the match was now screaming at us to be won.
But then we just, well, faded away. Sure, Armagh wasted as much time as they could and, sure, the ref should have added more on at the end but in that crucial period in the final ten minutes when we should have been ripping them limb from limb (poor old Billy Joe along with the rest of them), we went completely flat. We failed to add to our total at all in that spell and instead points from Murtagh and McKeever clinched what we have to accept was a well-deserved three-point win for them.
As I wasn’t there, I can’t say too much about who did or didn’t do what this afternoon. Ed McGreal on Twitter pointed to the performances of Jason Doherty and Ruaidhri O’Connor as positives while Billy Fitz on Midwest reckoned that Andy Moran had been our best player. What’s clear, though, is that overall we were flat and disappointing – once more we were achingly slow out of the blocks at the start and then, when we’d managed to claw our way back into the match, we spurned the chance to go on and win it.
Today’s result, while a setback, shouldn’t, however, alarm us too much. It is just the league and James Horan is, not without a fair degree of courage, still sifting through the talent at his disposal as he looks ahead to that part of the year where his reputation as Mayo manager will come under real scrutiny. That period is still several months away and we know from the previous regime that spring joy, while pleasant at the time, is utterly worthless when it gives way, as it always did in the Johnno II era, to summer flaccidity. It may be that disappointment will be our lot this spring but if this also means that we have a summer to savour then there’ll be few complaints out of us then.
For now, though, it’s a case of a game at a time and our next one (one I’ll finally get to) will see us firmly in the spotlight as we take on Pat Gilroy’s high-flying Dublin in Croke Park. We’ll have our work well cut out to come away from this one with anything (not least given our proclivity to concede goals and theirs to score them, especially at HQ) but, after today’s no-show, the least we can expect to see is a Mayo team playing somewhere in the region of its potential. Otherwise,the crowing out of my miniature Dub about how much gooder his team is compared to mine could get out of hand entirely.
Mayo: Kenneth O’Malley; Tom Cunniffe, Cathal Hallinan, Chris Barrett; Peadar Gardiner, Ger Cafferkey, Ruaidhri O’Connor; Tom Parsons, Jason Gibbons; Aidan Campbell (0-3, frees), Alan Dillon (0-2, one free), Kevin McLoughlin; Aidan Kilcoyne (0-1), Andy Moran (0-3), Jason Doherty (1-1). Subs: Richie Feeney for Gardiner, Ronan McGarrity for Parsons, Enda Varley for Kilcoyne, Aidan O’Shea for McLoughlin.