Photo: Mayo Mick
That was better – much, much better. Not just because of the result and the very welcome two league points, not only because we finally managed to get the ball in the net for only the second time in this NFL campaign but also – and, perhaps, more importantly – for the hunger and sheer desire to prevail that the lads showed in spades in a freezing McHale Park today when they downed All-Ireland champions Donegal by a four-point margin.
When the league fixtures were announced way before Christmas, this was the one home league match that I’d vowed I’d definitely be heading west for. A complicated domestic schedule this morning and afternoon, however, put paid to those plans, which also meant, for the first time since I started the blog back in 2007, that I wouldn’t be able to make it to any of our home games in the league. Still, TG4 were showing it live – and in HD too – and even if the sound of my all-too-frequent profanities didn’t make it as far as Castlebar I still felt that I caught the bulk of the action today.
There was plenty to catch too as the match started at a lively pace, with this tempo maintained more or less for the entire seventy minutes. Although we were first off the mark – via an early free from the returning Cillian O’Connor – Donegal had the better of the exchanges in the opening quarter, with four unanswered points – two from Murphy and two from McFadden, each of them getting one from play – putting them three clear.
We looked – understandably – a bit on the jittery side in that early part of the game, with plenty of misplaced passes and some poorly delivered ball into the forwards. The visitors, by contrast, seemed far more composed, with the man in possession looking like he always had plenty of time to offload and always had a man in space to offload to. Visions of a thumping started to bubble up in my mind at that stage.
Then, almost imperceptibly at first, the game began to swing back in our favour and, once it did, we took a firm hold on proceedings. Cillian started it with a point from play and this was followed up with a free from Kevin McLoughlin. Kevin had been one of the culprits as regards poorly directed passes early on but there was nothing wrong with his next delivery, a clever handpass that sent Jason Doherty clear on goal with only Durcan to beat. Doc’s miss looked a bad one at first glance but the replay showed that the Donegal ‘keeper’s quick movement off his line had forced Jason into a shot that was never going to hit the net.
Photo: Mayo Mick
The miss did nothing to upset our rhythm, though, as our increasing dominance around the middle saw us create further chances and it wasn’t long before we hit the front. Cillian pointed a free following a foul on Mickey Conroy and a free further out soon after was channeled quickly to Kevin McLoughlin who drove it over from more than thirty yards out to claim the lead for the first time. Cillian, showing how much we’ve missed him these last few frustrating weeks, then knocked over his fourth of the day to send us in two to the good.
The lads would have gone in at the break in good fettle too. That nervy opening quarter had given way to a real ballsy second quarter showing where the lads gave ample proof that we were really up for this one. It was clear too that there was a bit of a bite to this contest, with Marty Duffy busily waving yellows all over the place, and both sides were showing that the result was going to be of more than academic interest to them.
We’d built solid foundations in that first half but we needed to push on after the break if we were going to turn this positive showing into a win. This we managed to do, although they did get the opening two points of the half, with O’Reilly and McBrearty scoring from play to level the contest at six apiece. Another Cillian free was replied to by way of a Kavanagh point from play for them, as this increasingly tight contest remained deadlocked.
But then we broke clear and we did so through an end-to-end move that finished with Mickey Conroy lashing the ball to the net. The move started in our danger area, though, with a brilliant rob by Cathal Carolan, with the ball quickly transferred upfield via Keith Higgins and Seamus O’Shea. Keith’s final pass into Mickey was a tad overcooked but the Davitts man had the presence of mind to thump it first time and in it went off the upright to send us a goal clear.
Photo: Mayo Mick
Ryan McHugh got a point back for them but the visitors’ task then got harder when Thompson got a second yellow for a crude rugby-style tackle. Cillian – who’d put in a really solid shift at this stage – gave way to Richie Feeney as we sought to bottle up the middle third and frustrate the current kings of swarm.
Colm Boyle then blasted over a gutsy point to restore our three-point advantage and although Donegal continued to come at us, the pressure was clearly beginning to tell with a succession of poor passes allowing us to clear our lines and take the battle back to them.
Keith went off injured, to be replaced by Donal Vaughan, and then James pulled a surprise out of the hat by introducing Brian Gallagher (who hadn’t been named in the original teamsheet) in place of the tiring Seamus O’Shea. Sheamie had put in a real barnstorming performance in the middle, where his partnership with Man of the Match Barry Moran was one of the main reasons we prevailed today.
Murphy, from a free, notched Donegal’s final score of the afternoon just before Sheamie went off but it was our late sub Enda Varley – who replaced Michael Conroy inside the last ten minutes – that had the final say on the scoresheet. He showed coolness and composure to fist one over and then banged a second one over the bar to seal the win for us.
It was a cracking win, on a day where we had a number of strong performers. Once he settled into the game, Ger Cafferkey was cool and calm at the back and, despite a few badly misplaced passes early on, Chris Barrett put in a strong display in the corner, with Keith also posting an improved showing in the other corner. The half-back line was solid too, in particular Colm Boyle at wing-back – if ever there was a man who likes a battle, it’s the combative Davitts man.
Photo: Mayo Mick
This win was, though, chiseled out at midfield where Barry Moran was back to the kind of form that brought him to the edge of an All-Star last summer. Time and again he caught clean ball in the middle and despite the suffocating attention he had to deal with having done so, he repeatedly drove us forward, helping to create a number of scores for us. Riding shotgun alongside Barry, Seamus O’Shea put in his best display for the county for a long time.
Kevin McLoughlin was much improved at wing-forward and showed more than a few flashes of what we all know he’s capable of while Aidan O’Shea – who, for a change, actually looked up before delivering the ball and didn’t invite contact every time he was in possession – was strong and aggressive at centre-forward. Cathal Carolan was busy and inventive, covering acres of ground all over the pitch.
Cillian’s five points, allied to his aggressive harrying and ball-winning further out the field, contributed significantly to today’s win. Jason Doherty – ordered off on a second yellow close to the end – was less prominent than of late (he didn’t get on the scoresheet today) but he still expended a good deal of unselfish effort. Michael Conroy caused plenty of problems for Donegal and his goal went a long way towards sealing the win for us.
Photo: Mayo Mick
It’s a welcome win and one which gives us renewed hope that we might yet salvage our place in Division One for next year.The permutations have already been hashed out in the comments so there’s no need for me to add to this analysis here. Except to note that, in the mad, mad world of the NFL, our final match in a fortnight’s time will, if we win, see us qualify for the semi-finals. We could, of course, still face the drop (if we lose and Kerry and Donegal both win) but at least we’ll head to Páirc Uí Chaoimh two weeks from now knowing that our fate rests squarely in our own hands. That’s good enough to be getting on with, I reckon.
Mayo: David Clarke; Chris Barrett, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Tom Cunniffe, Colm Boyle (0-1); Barry Moran, Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-2, one free), Aidan O’Shea, Cathal Carolan; Cillian O’Connor (0-5, four frees), Jason Doherty, Michael Conroy (1-0). Subs: Richie Feeney for O’Connor, Donal Vaughan for Higgins, Brian Gallagher for Seamus O’Shea, Enda Varley (0-2) for Conroy, Alan Freeman for Carolan.