We’re back. Back where we vowed to be after last September’s final defeat to Donegal, back to the point where we get to play for the big prize itself. We had to battle hard today to earn our place in this September’s showpiece – this sure wasn’t a match that was over at half-time – but this was what we did and eventually Tyrone’s challenge was swept away as we clinched our most comfortable semi-final win since we beat Offaly by the same margin back in 1997.
There was a real carnival atmosphere inside Croke Park for a time this afternoon, as the impressive #seaofgreenandred began to establish its presence inside the stadium. The minors’ impressive showing in the day’s curtain raiser (more about that later) helped to establish the party mood and by the time the senior match had thrown in I’d say most of us we’re sitting fairly comfortably eager to see the latest whipping our lads would hand out.
Any such notions were quickly disabused, however, as Tyrone got under our skin right from the off and set about making sure that we weren’t going to establish the same remorseless rhythm that had, in short order, dismantled every challenge we’d faced to date in this campaign. A point from McGinley opened the day’s scoring but Cillian O’Connor with this free soon levelled it up and Kevin McLoughlin hauled us level a second time, also from a free, after O’Neill had edged them in front.
Peter Harte got clattered and had to leave the field after only five minutes but Tyrone got the next two points – both from play by McAliskey – and we then suffered a huge blow when Cillian O’Connor’s shoulder went. The distress on the young Ballintubber man’s face was visibly apparent as he was wheeled away and the County Board later confirmed the worst – it’s the same shoulder and I guess there’s little or no hope he’ll be back for the final.
They then stretched their lead to two and for the next ten minutes or so had us really rattled. Cillian’s loss, coupled with some horrendous wides by us and plenty of hard, determined play by them pushed us firmly into what was for us very unfamiliar territory. But it wasn’t all negative – Alan Freeman, press-ganged into free-taking duties, landed this long-ranger with his first effort:
The Aghamore man continued to show well after that and although he hooked a shot wide, to add to two bads ones by Enda and Andy, it looked as if he’d soon made up for it by knifing through and smashing the ball to the net. Ref Maurice Deegan – who, once again, was embarrassingly bad today – denied us the advantage and disallowed the goal, with Kevin McLoughlin adding insult to injury by screwing the resultant 14-yard free wide. When sub Ronan O’Neill – on for namesake Stephen – scored soon after with their first attack in nearly ten minutes to stretch the lead to four, we looked in a bit of bother.
In retrospect, the period from then until half-time was the foundations for the win. Chris Barrett charged up and thumped over a glorious point and a sweeping move soon after ended with Lee Keegan chipping over another. Chris raided forward again just before the break and his second point of the day sent us in just the single point in arrears.
I was happy enough at that stage, I have to admit. We’d failed to perform anything like we knew we could, suffered the loss of Cillian and still we were only a point behind them. And it was clear they were having their own problems, with two subs used already and their bench looking increasingly threadbare.
We fairly ripped into them from the restart, with Aidan O’Shea – once more an absolute colossus today – becoming more and more dominant around the middle and where Seamie too started to raid forward with increased confidence. In fact, we took complete control of the middle third in that spell after the restart and we used this as a launchpad for a succession of scores that won the game for us.
Enda Varley made up for his wayward shooting before the break to smash over a screamer to level it up and then Colm Boyle charged forward, got fouled, kept going and eventually got flattened as he bore down on goal. It was a marginal call but on a day where Maurice Deegan’s decisions rarely broke 50/50 for us (in particular in relation to yellow cards where he absolutely rode us), this big one went in our favour. Deegan gave the penalty and Alan Freeman smashed it home to give us the lead for the first time:
That put us on the high road and after Cavanagh – how well he was kept under wraps today – missed a free down at the Davin end, an increasingly rampant Alan Freeman knocked one over at the other end to put us four clear. On we drove, with a screaming outside-of-the-boot one from Alan Dillon followed by a fifty from Rob Hennelly to stretch our lead to six.
They eventually scored a point – after we’d kept them scoreless for what must have been close to half an hour – and then got another one but Freeman smashed a monster over from play and followed it up with a free to land them back at square one again. They never threatened us after that, as our lead widened to eight points at one stage and our eventual six-point winning margin didn’t flatter us in the slightest.
It sure was a tough battle but, in retrospect, one that we probably needed before facing into next month’s final. Tyrone came with a well-worked idea of how to get at us and for twenty minutes or so that plan appeared to be working. But, tough and sticky as they are, this isn’t the Tyrone of old and we simply had too much class and the ability to make that class count against them.
It was, once again, a great team display. Rob Hennelly put in another assured performance between the sticks and in front of him Tom Cunniffe, Ger Cafferkey and in particular the marauding Chris Barrett put in strong displays. Lee Keegan’s performance was his best all season (despite picking up a stupid yellow in the first half), Colm Boyle worked tirelessly and Donie really put himself about too.
Aidan O’Shea was, once again, a force of nature in midfield. The man’s a human wrecking ball and the way he and brother Seamus ruled all they surveyed around the centre – making a periphal figure out of Sean Cavanagh in the process – was one of the main reasons we ended up winning as comfortably as we eventually did.
Kevin McLoughlin got on a lot of ball and did plenty of good but it wasn’t anything like his best performance for us. He won’t want to see that first half missed free again in a hurry. Keith Higgins, though, was excellent in his unfamiliar centre-forward role – his frightening speed repeatedly punching holes in the Tyrone cover and creating havoc in their defence. The way he was able to slot back into the corner when Cathal Carolan came on showed that he’s still able to mind the house as well. Alan Dillon gave another understated but very intelligent display, forever linking and probing, and he also weighed in with two very welcome scores.
Cillian only lasted ten minutes and it’s hard to see him being back for the final. It’s a shocking shame at a personal level and I guess all we can do is wish him a speedy recovery. Oh yes, and win the final for him too. Cillian’s replacement, Enda Varley, was a bit hit-and-miss (he seems to operate better as a second half sub) but his freetaking replacement, Alan Freeman, was superb and, to my mind, it was between the Aghamore man and Aidan O’Shea for Man of the Match, with Alan’s haul of 1-4 absolutely crucial to our success. Andy Moran put in a hard shift but he didn’t, to be honest, look anything like fully fit.
Michael Conroy impressed when he came on after the break and so too did Cathal Carolan, who scored a lovely point, while Richie Feeney and Barry Moran helped to steer the ship safely home when they came on near the end.
So, it’s on now to September 22nd and another date with destiny. We’ve passed every test thrown at us so far this year but the one facing us now is the ultimate one, the one where victory would mean everything to us. We’ll face either Dublin or Kerry (the latter, I reckon) in that one and we now have the luxury of sitting back and watching those two battle it out next Sunday for the right to face us in the decider. But don’t sit back too much – we’ll need a #seaofgreenandred in Croke Park in four weeks time and so the ticket hunt has to start in earnest straight away. Like, now.
Mayo: Rob Hennelly (0-1, ‘45); Tom Cunniffe, Ger Cafferkey, Chris Barrett (0-2); Lee Keegan (0-2), Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle; Aidan O’Shea (0-1), Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-1, free), Keith Higgins, Alan Dillon (0-2); Cillian O’Connor (0-1, free), Alan Freeman (1-4, penalty goal and three frees), Andy Moran. Subs: Enda Varley (0-1) for O’Connor, Michael Conroy for Andy Moran, Cathal Carolan (0-1) for Cunniffe, Richie Feeney for Vaughan, Barry Moran for Aidan O’Shea.
The minors deserve a match report in their own right, of course, but it’s already gone well past ten and I have The Sunday Game paused on the television, with the whole match on the DVR for viewing afterwards so I’m afraid all I can give them here is a brief mention.
Enda Gilvarry’s charges were magnificent today – on top right from the throw-in and it never really looked like they weren’t going to prevail in today’s opening match. It was only when Monaghan goaled to level the match midway through the first half that they looked in any kind of bother but a goal at the other end by Conor Loftus quickly got us back on top. Second half goals by Michael Plunkett and Tommy Conroy and a whole slew of points saw us win by a very comfortable margin of twelve points – 3-19 is a serious score to rack up in a 60-minute match – to clinch the county’s first All-Ireland final apperance at this level since 2009.
Enda Gilvarry’s charges are now 8/15 to land the Tom Markham Cup and they’ll face either Roscommon or Tyrone in next month’s decider. What a day that’s set to be for the county, with teams in both the minor and senior finals, a feat we’ve never managed before. And what a day it would be if we were to win the two of them – after today’s semi-final victories, those are the dreams we’re now entitled to dream.