Still fired up after the final whistle today, I got into a conversation about the match (as one does) with a few lads in the jacks of the Sportlann. I said, perhaps a bit too vociferously, that, if we were any good, we would have beaten a very mediocre Galway by a hell of a lot more than we’d done and the lads I was speaking with agreed readily with this assessment. A nearby Tribesman suggested that whatever about Galway we were maybe being a bit too hard to our own lads: after all we’d won with a bit to spare on a day that made it difficult to play good football. Maybe he had a point.
It was, for sure, a bad day for football this afternoon at McHale Park. An unpredictable swirling wind was added to by slanty rain that started to fall shortly before throw-in and it was coming down heavily early in the second half. Neither set of players seemed to be able to cope with the adverse conditions, with the result that the 19,000 odd punters at the game were treated to a plethora of handling errors, misplaced passes and all the rest. But for the half-decent crowd size, in fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a league match rather than a blood and thunder championship encounter.
From a Mayo perspective, that was certainly the case in what was a truly awful opening 35 minutes for us. We dominated around the middle from the off – where Seamus O’Shea put in a storming performance and was undoubtedly Man of the Match from where I was sitting – but our increasingly embarrassing attempts at the posts gave all of us who hadn’t made it to Ruislip an insight into just how bad we must have been there.
Andy Moran, speaking to Midwest after the game in his usual candid way, was bemoaning our failure to get a better return from the seventeen chances we’d created in that first half and our four-point tally from all that possession looked fairly pathetic, especially since what was already a visibly ordinary Galway had racked up 1-5 at the other end. At that stage, I wasn’t enormously optimistic about our chances of getting a result out of this one.
I think we had something like nine wides in that opening half but what was more worrying was the way we were slipping and sliding all over the place (wrong boots again lads?) and were making all manner of really basic handling mistakes. It looked for all the world like our lads weren’t used to playing in the rain, so spooked they seemed to be to find themselves out on a wet pitch in the middle of summer.
Some of the errors were truly of the whatthefuckdidyoudothatfor? variety with lads attempting clever flicked pick-ups that sent the wet leather spinning away into the arms of a grateful Herrin Choker or similarly losing control when trying to do something as simple as a solo.
But worse than that was our freetaking. If there was one takeaway from Ruislip that had to be sorted ahead of today, it was this aspect of play, one that is – like it is for every other county – within our control to sort. Ten minutes in, however, it was obvious that the same kind of fuckology that occurred in Ruislip was going to happen here as well. Alan Dillon started it by skewing an eminently scoreable free wide and then he passed up a shot at goal from a similar one, opting instead for a quick one-two from which he recorded a second bad wide.
Robbie Hennelly then took over and recorded the day’s opening score from a 40-yarder after six minutes or so but this was quickly cancelled out by a smartly taken free from out on the left by Bane. O’Donnell, fed by Joyce who left a flailing Keith Higgins in his wake, should have goaled for Galway but instead blasted miles wide with the net at his mercy.
Another Bane free, the foul for which saw Alan Feeney pick up an early yellow, put Galway ahead for the first time, with Jason Doherty being played in by Kevin McLoughlin for the equaliser. A succession of wides followed, including one from a free by Aidan O’Shea, which meant that after only 15 minutes, we’d had three freetakers. Bane profited from a mistake in the backs to nick the visitors’ first from play before Hennelly landed his second of the day, this one from a ‘45’.
Things were going from bad to worse for Alan Dillon as another free from no more than 30 yards came up well short and then Aidan O’Shea scuffed a free from the same distance low and into the arms of the Galway defence.
Points from Joyce and Bane (a free) had them two in front with Trevor Mortimer firing over a nice one from play for us but then we made a complete hames of things at the back and Paul Conroy nicked in to slide the ball under Robbie to send the Tribesmen in four to the good at the break.
I really didn’t think we’d do it from there, my reasoning beforehand being that the only way we’d win this game would have been through a shock-and-awe opening. We were shocking in that first half, for sure, and the weather was becoming increasingly awful too and I just didn’t think we’d have the required stomach for the fight that appeared to be ahead of us in the second half.
I was wrong and was very happy to be proved incorrect in this respect. We were much better in the second half and by the end of the seventy minutes we had it won with a bit to spare. How did this happen?
Well, Galway didn’t get any better – in truth, they got a whole load worse. They managed just a single point in the second half and were all but overrun all over the field for much of the second period. None of their subs made a difference and the fact that they finished up with a full-forward line of Joyce (who really looked like a man whose time has gone today), Meehan and Clancy told its own story.
And we did get better, showing much more accuracy in front of the posts and a clear appetite to get the job done. Points from Kevin McLoughlin, Alan Dillon (a close-in free which even he couldn’t miss), Alan Freeman, Cillian O’Connor and Andy Moran put us ahead before Eoin Concannon blasted over with the goal at his mercy for Galway’s sole white flag of the second half.
It was still level with twelve minutes to go but when Andy Moran set up Alan Freeman for the coolest of finishes, that goal into the Bacon Factory End had all the hallmarks of a match winner. A helter-skelter period of play followed, with the ball pinging around all over the place but, crucially for us, this period ended with Alan Freeman hoisting over a glorious point to put us four clear. Ronan McGarrity, who replaced the tiring Sheamie O’Shea, then smashed over a long-range point and the match was well in the bag before Enda Varley, who’d come on for Cillian O’Connor a bit earlier, squeezed over the final score of the day to complete a six-point win for us.
It was far from a vintage performance but then again Dublin didn’t look too hot today in conditions far more conducive to good football in Croke Park and, from what I gather, the tussle between Donegal and Tyrone wasn’t all that much to write home about either. So before we go overboard in flailing ourselves, we need to remind ourselves that today we beat Galway in the championship with a bit to spare and it’s been a while since we’ve managed to do that.
We now head into a Connacht final (which, incidentally, I’m going to miss as we’ll still be in Italy on our holliers that Sunday) with expectations about us still at a fairly low ebb and with Roscommon no doubt a bit bemused to find themselves being installed (by us if not by everyone else) as clear favourites to retain their provincial title. That’s about as far under the radar as we could ever hope to come into a Conancht final.
Turning to individual performances, Robbie Hennelly certainly had an interesting afternoon, spending a fair bit of it in opposition territory. His two long-range pointed frees were important but he landed on his hole taking two more and I’m not sure someone like Andy Moran would have done any worse in that particular role. He was solid enough when he was between the posts, however, and couldn’t be faulted for the goal so overall he did okay.
Alan and Richie Feeney, playing together in the county jersey in a championship match at McHale Park for the first time both put in strong enough shifts, Tom Cunniffe didn’t do a whole lot wrong and Donie Vaughan showed a few positive flashes. The day was made for a battler like Trevor Mortimer and he revelled in the foul conditions, blasting over a fine first-half score.
The O’Sheas battled hard too and Sheamie gave his best performance yet for us in the championship, one that was all the more noteworthy given that he’d taken a knock in training during the week and was a doubt going into the game. He went off with about ten minutes to go and he deserved the warm round of applause he got as he did so. Aidan got stuck in good and proper too and although his freetaking wasn’t anything to write home about it was a long ball from him to Andy that led directly to our goal.
Kevin McLoughlin had a fine game too, mopping up loose balls around the middle (and further back too), providing assists for a few points and scoring one himself early in the second half. Along with Sheamie and Alan Freeman, he was, for me, one of our strongest performers today.
Alan Dillon, by contrast, had a poor game and certainly didn’t put in the kind of display you really need from your captain on a day like today. I don’t know what it is about Alan but some days, today being one of them, he kicks the ball no better than a girleen. How on earth can a senior footballer fail to make the distance from a 30-yard free? In fairness to him, he upped the ante a bit in the second half but overall he’s had far, far better days for us.
Andy Moran wasn’t his usual busy, busy, busy self either but he did, once again, get onto the scoresheet and I also counted a few assists for scores from him, including the excellent way he played in Alan Freeman for the game-clinching goal. He was MOTM on The Sunday Game and while I wouldn’t necessarily concur with this, he was still one of our better performers today.
Alan Freeman recovered from an uncertain first half – where he twice lost control of the ball when attempting a routine pick-up – to bag the scores that made the game safe for us. Jason Doherty and debutant Cillian O’Connor weren’t as prominent but they both got on the scoresheet on a day where every score counted.
A major black mark for us today was Keith Higgins’ clear strike on Mark Hehir shortly before half-time. There’s a world of a difference between playing hard and playing dirty and to see an experienced player like Keith – who, I thought, didn’t have an overly comfortable afternoon otherwise to boot – landing a sly blow on a young opponent after the ball had gone isn’t one that too many Mayo supporters will treasure.
So, it’s on to Hyde Park for us in three weeks time where James Horan has, in his first year as an inter-county manager, the chance to steer us to a Connacht title and, with it, a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. At the start of the year, I think most of us would have viewed as more than acceptable our staying in Division One of the league and winning Connacht. Despite the near-mortification of Ruislip and today’s less than satisfactory first half, James is still on course to get us to Croke Park on the August Bank Holiday weekend.
While there’s much to find fault with about various aspects of how we played today (not to mention how we performed in Ruislip), it’s important to recognise the progress that James is making with the team, not least given the situation he inherited. Maybe your man in the jacks in the Sportlann was right – perhaps we are being too hard on the lads. And maybe, while chilling out on the Venetian coast on July 17th, I’ll find myself raising a few glasses of chianti to the team as I rue the fact that I wasn’t there to see our lads lift the Nestor Cup dish ear. Ciao!
Mayo: Robert Hennelly (0-2, one free, one ‘45’); Tom Cunniffe, Alan Feeney, Keith Higgins; Richie Feeney, Donal Vaughan, Trevor Mortimer (0-1); Seamus O’Shea, Aidan O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-1), Alan Dillon (0-1, free), Andy Moran (0-1); Cillian O’Connor (0-1), Alan Freeman (1-2), Jason Doherty (0-1). Subs: Ronan McGarrity (0-1) for Seamus O’Shea, Enda Varley (0-1) for O’Connor, Peadar Gardiner for McLoughlin.