Lions. Warriors. Absolute monsters. Uncompromising, utterly irrepressible. Like every other Mayo person this evening, I am so, so, proud of our team and what they achieved at Croke Park today. It was a huge and enormously gutsy win and it puts us firmly back on the map. Well done, James and his team of heroes for pulling it off and for giving us cause to start dreaming those dreams. And downing those pints.
Where does a man start? Possibly by looking back to all those sneering, dismissive put-downs we had to endure in advance. Well, Joe Brolly, you ignorant clown, I have two words for you: fuck you. And the same to Pat Spillane and that twat who claimed that Connacht teams don’t do August anymore. And all those pundits who didn’t even have the good manners to acknowledge our existence before gushing about the Cork-Kerry rematch. Fuck the lot of ye.
Okay, I feel a lot better to have got that off my chest. Enough about the clowns, time to talk about the heroes.
I felt in advance that if we were to have any chance (and I did give us a small chance though, unlike PJ and his fifty notes at 5/1, I didn’t get around to putting my money where my mouth was), we’d need to stay with them for the full seventy minutes and would needs goals (plural). We didn’t and we didn’t but, through sheer indomitable will and the hardest shift I think I’ve ever seen a Mayo team put in, we still played the All-Ireland champions off the park and beat them comprehensively.
While the fact that we won today is obviously the big story, our achievement in coming from six down at the end of the first quarter spoke volumes about just how good our performance was today. I truly feared for us then, not because we weren’t doing all we could to stop them (our workrate was transparently obvious even then) but that we didn’t seem to have enough in us to prevent them steamrolling us.
We even had a refereeing howler to moan about at that stage too. We could have had no quibbles with the penalty decision for Cork, as Ger clearly dragged down O’Connor, but Andy was also inside the square when he was hauled down and all we got for our troubles was a 14-yard free.
A full twenty minutes had passed before our first point from play – from Kevin McLoughlin – arrived but you could sense by then that we were starting to settle and that, as a consequence, the steamroller scenario was starting to recede. Sheamie was getting better and better at midfield and the backs, although under immense pressure, kept their shape and began to turn back the red tide.
And then came Kevin McLoughlin’s screamer, a goal of true wonder, as the Knockmore man went on a mazy run from over 50 yards out and knifed through the Cork backline single-handedly before emphatically smashing the ball to the net. Game on.
Shades of 1996 hit us just after, though, when they cancelled out that score with one of their own. It looked at first as if it was Robbie’s despairing dive that made the goal a legitimate one (as the ball in was a punched one) but replays showed that Kerrigan had got a touch to it on the way in so it was a goal alright.
Four down and now I was praying that they wouldn’t hit us with a knockout third major before half-time. Instead, we clawed back two points to go in two behind.
So we’d reached the safety of half-time and still in the contest. Thoughts of having the floor wiped with us were now falling away like the remnants of that tool Brolly’s reputation. Did I forget to say: fuck you, Joe Brolly? Well, there it is again just to be sure, like.
Coming out for the second half, you could feel that something was starting to build but we’d seen how Cork had cut loose in the second half against Down and, indeed, how they’d ripped into Kerry after the break too. I texted to at least ten people the same message – “we’re a second half team” – but I knew damn well that Cork had it in them to be that too.
Hands up anyone who would have guessed we’d hold them – the reigning All-Ireland champions, the 2/11 favourites to wallop us – to one lousy point in that second half? Or that we’d see Alan O’Connor, universally lauded last weekend as the best footballer in the country, taken off before the end? Or that our disbelieving eyes would feast on the sight of Cork being outthought, outfought and outplayed by our lads all over the pitch? Or that we’d win almost pulling up?
Yet that’s what happened. We were truly magnificent in that second period and the most pleasing aspect of this stellar showing was that it was so much a team effort. The O’Sheas continued to dominate at midfield, Ger Caff (very close to a second yellow at half-time) drove us forward repeatedly from deep, Donie Vaughan got better and better as the half went on, Cillian O’Connor was exceptional in the way he got so much ball in the middle third and took the fight to them, Andy won a shedload of ball inside and kept them pinned back when they needed to break out, Jason Doherty came on and showed up for plenty of ball forcing them further on the defensive, Alan Freeman tracked way back, Trevor was the monster that Trevor in top form can be … it just went on and on.
When we hit the front (I think it was Alan Dillon who got that one) it was obvious that we were, at worst, going to be able to leave HQ with our heads held high but there were still more than twenty minutes to go at that stage, leaving Cork with plenty of time for the kind of onslaught that finally shook off a sticky Dublin challenge in last year’s semi-final.
Miskella’s fisted point put them level and had they gone in front again then, I suspect we’d really have been under the hammer in the closing stages but instead we just put the heads down, stepped on the gas and, incredibly, began to ease clear of them as the final straight started to come into view.
It was Keith Higgins who edged us in front again, haring forward into acres of space to take a return pass and thump it over. By now, there was hardly a breaking ball around the middle we weren’t winning and our will to win was there for all to see. James was using the bench cleverly too, with Ronan coming on to replace Sheamie (who’d got a bad kick in the leg just before half-time) and Peadar came on too to add more experience to all that exuberance.
When Goold blazed badly wide with a third Cork goal looking certain, it really did begin to look as if it would be our day and when Jason Doherty finally got some return for all that running by shooting us two clear with ten minutes left, the shape of our victory was beginning to become apparent.
Cork were now panicking, passing up chances for points as they desperately sought the goal that would get them back into it. Instead, Cillian’s two late points – one a monster from play – put us into insurance score territory and these points were the final ones of the day.
There was only a small Mayo following in the 20,000 or so punters in HQ today but the hard core support (myself included) went bananas after the final whistle sounded and the enormity of what the lads had done began to sink in. I doubt very much that I was the only Mayoman to shed a tear at that moment as a tsunami of emotion washed over us and we, literally, danced in the aisles.
I then sloped off to try to do my audio and although I recorded it, the O2 network failed to upload it and so it was lost to posterity. Never mind, there are more important things to be thinking about tonight. Like an All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry in three weeks time for starters.
That’s going to be an even bigger challenge for us and we know from bitter experience what Kerry are capable of doing to us. Many of those lads who leathered us in 2004 and 2006 are still there now and they’ll want to do exactly the same to us again the next day. But, if there’s one thing we can be sure of after today, the Mayo team they’ll meet in 2011 will not lie down and let the Kerry lads walk all over them. If Kerry make it to the final, then they’ll bloody well have to do it the hard way.
There’ll be plenty of time over the next three weeks to think long and deep about the Kerrymen, though – tonight there’s a stunning performance (and porter) to focus on. We had heroes all over the pitch today and it’d be unfair to single anyone out. We had a team of lions and they all, including James and his colleagues on the sideline, deserve our heartfelt thanks and praise for fashioning out such a truly uplifting win.
So now we’re down to the last four, back in the All-Ireland semi-final for the first time in five years and the knowledge that, after all those dog days in recent times, we’re once more a force to be reckoned with in Gaelic football. How much further we’ll go (not least because of who we next face) is still anyone’s guess but that’s the magic of sport, isn’t it? And Mayo were truly magical today.
Mayo: Robert Hennelly (0-1. ’45); Keith Higgins (0-1), Ger Cafferkey, Tom Cunniffe; Richie Feeney, Donal Vaughan, Trevor Mortimer; Aidan O’Shea, Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (1-1), Alan Dillon (0-1), Andy Moran (0-1); Enda Varley (0-1, free), Alan Freeman, Cillian O’Connor (0-6, 5 frees). Subs: Jason Doherty (0-1) for Varley, Peadar Gardiner for Freeman, Ronan McGarrity for Seamus O’Shea, Aidan Campbell for McLoughlin, Lee Keegan for Feeney.