With one improbable bound, we’re free. Prior to today’s uplifting and enormously gutsy win over All-Ireland champions Cork, it was very much in the mix as to how James Horan’s first league campaign as Mayo manager would pan out. Today provided us with the answer.
While experimentation and relegation wouldn’t have been the end of the world for us in any sense, it wouldn’t exactly have constituted the first sign of a bright new dawn. Today’s two-point win, however, means that Division One survival has been secured along with all the experimentation and so, with a match still to be played, James will be entitled to feel fully vindicated on his approach to this year’s league and to look back on the campaign as an unqualified success.
This was another match I didn’t get to – a combination of Mother’s Day and a too-busy life up here at the minute meant that a 320-mile round trip to the west was never on the cards today. I was, of course, consoling myself that I’d be there for the lads when they really needed the support at next Sunday’s shit-or-bust encounter with Monaghan in Iniskeen (which I reckon is not too much more than an hour’s jaunt away from here) and the irony that this one will now have no consequence at all for us isn’t lost on me. I’ll still be there, though.
So, I wasn’t in McHale Park and I haven’t yet seen the full coverage from TG4 that I’ve got stored on the UPC box (although I did see the pathetic blink-and-you’ve-missed-it highlights on RTÉ a bit earlier – give it up lads, give it up). I did, however, get to hear most of the commentary on Midwest and have had chats with a few guys who were there so what I have to say here on the game isn’t all made-up bullshit (well, no more than it usually is).
It’s too late in the evening for setting down a detailed narrative of the game – here’s what the Mayo Advertiser, RTÉ, Hogan Stand and Breaking News have already had to say in this respect. And, for good measure, here’s some post-match audio that Colm Gannon did with James Horan and Aidan O’Shea.
In any event, it’s an easy enough story to summarise. We finally started a match brightly and more than held our own in a first half where the major talking point was the poor performance of ref Rory Hickey. The wind that Cork would have at their backs in the second half was a half-time concern but a scoring burst of 1-4 without reply in a ten-minute spell after the break turned out to be enough to seal the win for us. And the goal was a good one too, yet another one from Jason Doherty (that’s six in four league outings for him now) who, along with Alan Freeman, provided further evidence today that, for the first time in a long while, we may now possess a full-forward line with the potential to strike fear in any opposition.
From what I’ve heard, we had plenty of heroes today. Most observers gave top props in this regard to Andy Moran, with Alan Dillon not too far behind. Keith Higgins, Richie Feeney (who is now, I reckon, rapidly approaching the status of folk hero for those on the terraces), Aidan O’Shea (finally at home in midfield?) and the Terrible Twins up top have all been mentioned in dispatches as well. More importantly, though, is the fact that it was a great team performance and a fine team win.
But what’s of even more significance is that the win has catapulted what appeared to be a stuttering league campaign into one which now deserves to be seen as an important period of largely successful experimentation. While we’re still some way from having a settled first fifteen, James Horan has managed to keep us in Division One while at the same time blooding the equivalent of an entirely new Mayo team and it’s no coincidence that a few of the places that would appear to be already nailed down for the summer are ones that belong to newcomers. In this regard, it seems that the old cliché about it being harder to get off the Mayo panel than to get on it no longer holds true.
Looking back over the last four league campaigns, it’s obvious that Johnno – for all his bleating about being in charge of a team in transition – never succeeded in pulling off the kind of balancing act that James Horan has managed so well this spring. Johnno’s emphasis on face-saving always meant that his spring selections were inherently cautious and, almost invariably, it also meant that the same selections had to be ripped asunder when the wheels started to come off in summer. James, by contrast, has thrown caution to the winds over the last two months by repeatedly switching, shifting and assessing the talent at his disposal.
In doing so, it looked as if we were dicing with our Division One survival but today James’ gamble has been shown to have paid off handsomely. He has also emphatically answered those (which in recent weeks include me) who have expressed doubts about the advisability of all this endless chopping and changing. And he’s still building towards summer. An interesting summer it could well prove to be for us.
Mayo: Robert Hennelly; Tom Cunniffe, Alan Feeney, Keith Higgins; Richie Feeney, Ger Cafferkey, Lee Keegan; Aidan O’Shea (0-1), James Kilcullen (0-2); Kevin McLoughlin, Alan Dillon (0-5, one free), Andy Moran (0-2); Cillian O’Connor (0-1, free), Alan Freeman (0-1), Jason Doherty (1-1). Subs: Eoghan Reilly (for Cunniffe, inj.), Jason Gibbons for Kilcullen, Enda Varley for O’Connor, Aidan Campbell for O’Connor, Peadar Gardiner for Keegan.