When we fell seven points behind with around 25 or so minutes gone today, I briefly began to consider the ridiculousness of my decision to make it back from holidays in time for this year’s Connacht final. I didn’t get to bed until 2.30am in the morning for gawdsakes and The Brother, true to his word, was hammering on my door at eight in the morning. As the maroon and white flags were waved furiously and the flat Galway voices rang out in approval, I wished I’d stayed at home in bed or, better still, that I was back on holidays.
In the end, however, the manner in which we fought from seven down to lead by a point midway through the second half was encouraging – it was certainly a welcome contrast to our craven collapse against the same opposition last year – and, in the end, there was nothing but the proverbial bounce of a ball between the sides. Indeed, from ten minutes out, it had a draw written all over it and, had we made more productive use of that final 50, a draw it would have been. But Galway, trailing by a point with five minutes to go, reeled off three unanswered points from play and it was these scores – from Armstrong, Conroy and Bane – that ultimately put the Tribesmen beyond our reach.
Although the first half was poor enough, the way the match came to life in the second period made it one of the better Connacht finals in recent years. For a while early on, it looked as if they were going to hammer us. Just as Kerry did to us in 2006, Galway looked to their last championship meeting with us to provide them with the means of beating us. Last year, they killed us off with two early goals and from the off today they came hunting for goals again. They nearly had one after ten minutes but Clarke made a superb save and two minutes later Padraig Joyce sent another goal effort narrowly wide.
Playing with the wind, we were having trouble getting the range with our kicking, as both Morts had efforts that fell short. However, Trevor looked well up for the game and his strong runs into the heart of the Galway defence were causing all kinds of panic for the visitors’ rearguard.
From early on, it was obvious that Galway were more than holding their own at midfield, both in terms of primary possession won and in snaffling up the loose ball. Parsons had an unhappy first half – in marked contrast to his championship debut three weeks ago – and while David Heaney was busily involved in fire-fighting around the middle, this had the unfortunate side-effect of allowing the biggest danger man on the Galway team too much freedom.
Joyce’s point from play on 19 minutes set the alarm bells ringing but worse was to follow a minute later when he ended a sweeping movement by smashing the ball into the net. Worse still, Trevor Mortimor injured himself by overstretching when trying to intercept the ball in the lead-up to the goal. His loss to us was immense, although Killer, who replaced him, did do okay.
Galway now came hunting for the knockout second goal and, with plenty of possession being gained at midfield, they weren’t going to be short of chances. Bane, from play, put them four clear on 26 minutes and then a minute later they broke through for a second major. This one should never have been allowed, as Clancy threw the ball to Meehan and Breathnach looked inside the square but stood it did and we were now seven down, staring into the headlights of yet another championship trimming.
The second goal at least sparked some life into the bench. Johnno hauled off Boyle and Conroy, sending on Gardiner and Aidan Higgins. Peadar came in at left half-back, with Tom Cunniffe moving to the corner. Almost immediately, we began to improve, with points from play from Ronan and Alan Dillon, as well as an earlier free from the latter, cutting the deficit to four at the break. Had Pat Harte not missed a free from out on the right just before half-time, we would have turned around only three down but, as it was, four points wasn’t a bad gap for a very ropey first-half performance.
It wasn’t just our lads who were off form either. The ref, Meath’s David Coldrick, had a bewilderingly poor first half, calling 17 frees for Galway against only 8 for us (so says The Brother and he was counting) and more than once allowed blatant shirt-tugging by Galwaymen to go unpunished. On one occasion, his failure to penalise this offence meant that Cullinane didn’t walk – already booked, he swung one of our lads around by the jersey but, incredibly, Coldrick waved play on. Had he blown for the free, Cullinane would have had to have been given a second yellow but, for whatever reason, he was, as happened against Roscommon, let off the hook.
We still looked in it at half-time and with Mattie Clancy gone off injured and Nicky Joyce hobbling, Galway certainly weren’t without problems of their own. For the first ten minutes of the half, we traded scores, with a point from play from BJP (who had replaced the ineffective Austie, with Killer moving to full-forward) cutting the gap to three. An Alan Dillon free five minutes later cut the Herrin Chokers’ lead further and by now, with Andy Moran operating effectively as a third centrefielder, we were winning every ball around the middle third.
What we really needed was a goal – a feat we’d last managed in the championship against Galway back in 1999 – and 15 minutes into the half we got the green flag that really ignited this game. Dillon swung a free in but the ball was drifting wide when Tom Parsons – who looked suspiciously like he was out of play – rose to punch it back into the path of Aidan Kilcoyne. Killer took it, turned and lashed it home and, to our amazement, we suddenly found ourselves a point to the good.
We could and should – as Cork did against Kerry last weekend – have pushed on from there to win the game. We were on top all over the pitch, Galway were clearly rattled and we should have used this period of supremacy to much greater effect. Instead, BJ hit a poor wide and Killer sent another goal effort to the left. Harte did manage a neat point from play – from a quickly-taken Mort free – but that score was bookended by two points from play from PJ and so Galway never allowed us to pull clear of them.
Instead they grabbed the lead again – again from play, this time from Meehan – and although we fought back to snatch the lead once more, with a point from play from BJ and a free from Dillon, Galway’s three unanswered points from play gave them enough daylight to keep us out at the death. Dillon’s free in injury time ended the scoring but most of us trudging out of McHale Park shortly afterwards were wondering why the hell the same player didn’t take the last fateful 50 instead of Mort, who was never going to point it. The 50 went to waste and with it went our final hope of snatching what would have been, on balance, a deserved draw.
So Galway got the spoils but, for the first time since our two-point defeat to them in the 2005 provincial decider, today we managed to lose a championship match narrowly. That should provide some comfort, as should the way we stormed back into the game after leaking those two early goals. But any defeat to Galway hurts and it hurts even more to know that we were more than good enough to beat them today but failed to close the game out when we had them at our mercy.
The way they cut us open at the back brought up again all those concerns about our defensive frailties that have been a constant feature of The Second Coming but, what was even more worrying was how a Bergin-less Galway midfield were able to win so much ball to initiate the attacks that caused all the damage to us. We can, of course, point to Trevor’s early loss as a turning point in the game but, then again, they lost both Mattie Clancy and dopey-eyed Nicky Joyce and despite this, Galway were the ones who kicked on to win the game – two of those three late unanswered points came from the subs Armstrong and Conroy.
Once we’d made all the switches we certainly looked a more balanced side but that raises all manner of questions about what kind of team we put out in three weeks time in the qualifiers. Will Conroy line out at full-back? If Peadar plays in the half-backs – which he probably deserves to, given his immense contribution today – who gives way? What about Billie Joe? And should Killer start on the edge of the square, in light of Austie’s failure to get off the blocks?
These are all questions, I know, for another day. Today we came up agonisingly short against our closest rivals and so we obviously need to go away and lick our wounds for a while and start to face up to the reality of having to take the scenic view to the All-Ireland series. I doubt very much that anyone in Kerry thinks that their championship is over yet and, difficult though it is for us to do so, we need to take a leaf from their book and look on today as a setback rather than a catastrophe. For good or ill, this evening we find ourselves in the same boat as the Kerrymen and, like them, we need now to start planning how to get out of this tub.
MAYO: D Clarke; K Higgins, K Conroy, C Boyle; T Cunniffe, D Heaney, J Nallen; R McGarritty (0-1), T Parsons; A Dillon (0-7, five frees), P Harte (0-1), T Mortimor (0-1); C Mortimor (0-2), A O’Malley, A Moran. Subs: A Kilcoyne (1-0) for T Mortimor, A Higgins and P Gardiner for Boyle and Conroy, BJ Padden (0-2) for O’Malley, M Ronaldson for Parsons.