We’re no nearer to the All-Ireland this year now than we were ahead of throw-in today. Following today’s utterly enthralling drawn All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry at Croke Park, however, what we can say for sure is that this team that James Horan has built has unbelievable reserves of heart and guts as well as an indomitable will to win. At half-time we looked dead and buried but the second half comeback the lads engineered – roared on by the massive, spine-tingling support – was pure magic. We had to settle for a share of the spoils at the end but I doubt any of us leaving HQ today was disappointed at how this contest eventually played out.
Fair play to the Rose of Tralee. When asked by Keith Duffy during the half-time interval about her plans for later in the day, Maria Walsh cheerfully replied that she’d be out celebrating our qualification for the All-Ireland final. I certainly didn’t share her optimism at that stage – four points down and a man down too I found it hard see a way back for us then. Oh ye of little faith.
Up until Lee Keegan’s straight red – which on the basis of the TV replays looked incredibly harsh, even if what Lee did in the heat of the moment was more than a bit stupid – I was happy enough with how this contest was going. Kerry had, it’s true, opened up a three-point lead on us by then but we didn’t look under any severe pressure. We sure did after Lee got his marching orders.
Shortly before this, the flying Westport man had notched a point, which went over off the upright, ending a 17-minute scoreless spell for us. Minutes later, though, his involvement in this contest had been prematurely ended.
The opening quarter had been pretty much even-steven, with Stephen O’Brien’s early opener answered with an Alan Dillon point followed a great Cillian O’Connor turnover, then Cillian knocked over a free and James O’Donoghue pointed with his first chance. A David Moran point for them, following a slip by Jason Gibbons, was replied to by Cillian with a superb point following a fetch out in the corner. Buckley pointed for them and Cillian once more responded, this time from a free after a push on Alan Freeman.
By then we had a decent penalty shout waved away, when it looked as if Cillian had been taken down as he tried to go round the Kerry ‘keeper, scuffing his shot wide as he fell from the challenge. It looked a clear enough penalty from where I was sitting.
A ten-minute scoreless spell followed, then Kerry pushed three ahead and then came Lee’s point followed by his dismissal. By half-time we were four down and, in truth, looking like we’d given ourselves a mountain to climb after the break.
On the resumption, Tom Parsons came in for Jason Gibbons – who’d started in place of Chris Barrett, with Alan Freeman also lining out instead of Andy Moran from the start – but our job was made immediately more difficult when O’Donoghue pointed with their first attack of the half to stretch their lead to five points.
The tide, however, was about to turn and as the half wore on it became a raging torrent in our favour.
Alan Dillon started it off, pointing following a great catch by Alan Freeman and a quick offload from Jason Doherty to Dillon after Freezer’s goal attempt ricocheted back out. Two minutes later, Doc was pulled down and Cillian pointed the free to cut the gap to three.
Murphy added one for them just after but for the next ten minutes it was all us as we reeled them right back in. A foul on Alan Dillon resulted in another pointed free by Cillian, then came Colm Boyle’s screaming long-ranger and a lovely one from Alan Dillon following a super rob by Cillian. The Ballintubber man was rampant at this stage and in our next attack he landed a magnificent one from play from far out to tie up the contest.
Andy came on for Freezer at this point and was quickly in the thick of things, setting up Jason Doc for an equalising score after Walsh had edged them in front again. We then had a bit of a let-off, with the ball squirming through Boyler’s hands resulting in O’Donoghue bearing down on goal. The young Killarney man looked certain to hit the net but instead he fired wildly over. Andy, lurking free inside, was picked out soon after with a delicious ball in over the cover by Alan Dillon and the game was all-square again at thirteen each.
Then came the penalty, with Donal Vaughan bundled over in the square as he bore down on goal. It was a huge pressure moment for Cillian but he did the business in emphatic fashion, blasting us a goal ahead from the spot with a bit over ten to play.
Now we went for the throat and two more points from Cillian, the first a cracker from play and the second a long-range free, saw us surge further clear. Kerry were clearly reeling at this stage and although Crowley fisted one over for them they were reeling still when Hawkeye adjudged Andy Moran’s next effort to have gone over. Five up, five to play.
Our old nemesis Kieran Donaghy had joined the fray shortly after the penalty and in those frantic closing moments he made his presence felt. The first Hail Mary ball into him led to a foul on the big Stacks man that Sheehan converted but the second bore greater dividends for them as he fielded and offloaded to O’Donoghue to smash home.
Only a point in it now but we still pushed forward, with a chance of an insurance score going a-begging as Tom Cunniffe’s effort sailed wide. With the game in injury time, sub Kieran O’Leary bagged the equaliser and then Kerry had two further chances to win it – with O’Donoghue hitting the outside of the upright and Sheehan coming up short with a long-range free – before David Coldrick brought an end to proceedings.
It had been a truly heroic second half from the lads, where so many of them – notably Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan, Seamus O’Shea, Tom Parsons, Aidan O’Shea, Alan Dillon, Andy Moran and the peerless Cillian O’Connor – stood up when we were really staring down the barrel. Regardless of how this championship season fares out, that amazing second half showing will live long in the memory. Fair play to you, lads.
So too will the huge, raucous Mayo support at Croke Park today. We were all a bit muted in the first half but when the lads began to motor after the break the place reverberated with a wall of noise from our lot urging them on to greater effort. It truly was a sixteenth-man effort from the stands today.
It was announced right after the final whistle that the match will be replayed next Saturday down in Limerick but this utterly ludicrous decision has already been challenged by the County Board who were out of the traps very quickly with an official request that it should instead take place in Croke Park on Saturday week. That’s the only sensible option – the notion of playing it at a ground that’s all but a home location for Kerry where the capacity is less than the 52,500 who were there today, and where most of that capacity is just terracing, is wrong on every front and should be resisted outright by our side. End of.
Wherever the replay is played, though, I’m confident we’ll do them. Sure, we won’t have Lee Keegan (unless we appeal the sending-off which, on balance, I think we should) but we have players like Brendan Harrison, Kevin Keane, Shane McHale, David Drake, Chris Barrett and, yes, Richie Feeney, any one of whom could slot into the backline the next day. With fifteen against fifteen, we certainly won’t fear them.
And so this marvellous rollercoaster goes on. We’ve no idea where it’ll end up, we still haven’t a clue if this is the year when Sam will at last winter in the county. But, you know, regardless of our ultimate destination, the journey this team is on is an experience in itself and today’s dramatic events at HQ add a whole new chapter to the book. Keep writing, lads, keep ‘er lit.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Tom Cunniffe, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan (0-1), Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle (0-1); Jason Gibbons, Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin, Aidan O’Shea, Jason Doherty (0-1); Cillian O’Connor (1-8, penalty goal and five frees), Alan Freeman, Alan Dillon (0-3). Subs: Tom Parsons for Gibbons, Andy Moran (0-2) for Freeman, Michael Conroy for Doherty, Mikie Sweeney for Dillon, Kevin Keane for Cafferkey.
Finally, a quick word on the minors whose long unbeaten run finally ended today in the day’s curtain raiser against Kerry. The defending All-Ireland champions never really hit the high notes today and time and again they put themselves under needless pressure by gifting possession to their opponents. The first half injury to captain Cian Hanley – who also had his involvement in the minor championship ended by injury last year – was a hammer blow, from which, in truth, the team never recovered.
Enda Gilvarry’s lads did, however, show admirable battling qualities as the game was flowing away from them and although they had to give way in the end to a strong Kingdom outfit they put up a good fight before they did so. Well done, lads, for all you achieved for the cause this year.