Well, one result went my way this weekend but there were two occasions – when we fell six points in arrears late in the first half and did so again early in the second – when it looked as if my weekend trip to the west was going to turn out to be an unfruitful one on both counts. Both times that Monaghan had pulled clear of us, it seemed likely that they were going to give us a real pasting but both times we righted the ship with well-taken goals. The second one – a right belter from Aidan O’Shea – was the one that did the real damage to the Farney lads, as we then added a further seven points (six from play) in that closing quarter to win by a rather flattering three points.
The victory means that we’re now within touching distance of an NFL final place, although the new head-to-head rule could yet scupper our chances of making the decider if we lose to Cork in the final round of games while the Dubs win up in Omagh. We could well lose down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh – and we certainly will if we start in the same lackadaisical manner as we did today – but I can’t see the Dubs beating Tyrone in Healy Park so I’ve already (lightly) pencilled in April 25th for our first appearance at HQ this year.
I was slightly the worse for wear this morning, what with the unusually large quota of porter (well, what constitutes a large amount for me these days, which isn’t in truth a great deal) I’d had at and after the Blog Awards last night. You’d have been forgiven for thinking that most of the Mayo team had been up half the night skulling pints as well, as they put in an utterly listless first half (in front of the nation on live TV too: oh, the shame!) which should have seen them go in at the break with a real mountain to climb in the second half. Instead, a late Mark Ronaldson point and an even later Donal Vaughan goal cut the deficit to just two points at the short whistle.
Thinking about it in retrospect now, you can see that Banty really targeted this match (as opposed to their last one in two weeks time, which is away to Kerry) as the one where they’d get the two points they need to stave off relegation. Johnno said as much in his post-match interview on Midwest, where he likened Monaghan’s attitude today to ours in Tuam last year and the Farney lads certainly gave it everything today, even when the game was slipping away from them at the end. When the final whistle sounded, they looked absolutely perplexed at having lost a game where they’d worked their balls off and dominated for so long. Johnno reckoned we were on top for no more than 20 minutes today but, as it turned out, that was all the time we needed to claim the win we wanted.
A feature of most of our matches this year has been how we’ve opened brightly and when Enda Varley shaped up to take a 21-yard free into the Bacon Factory End right from the throw-in, another positive start looked on the cards. But the Garrymore man, normally so reliable from this distance, made a complete bags of this opportunity to get our noses in front from the off.
Seconds later, we were almost an early goal in arrears, when Kieran Conroy was beaten to the ball (which happened rather a lot today) but Liam O’Malley – who had, I thought, an excellent match throughout today – put in a superb block when a goal for them looked certain. Their big no.3, Darren Hughes, lamped over the resultant fifty and two points, one from play and the other a free, sent the visitors three clear.
Alan Dillon then pointed this free to open our afternoon’s account and we could have had a goal just after when their keeper made a hari-kiri dash out the field after the ball. Tom Parsons got possession twenty yards out and should probably have lobbed it towards the empty goal but he opted instead to carry it closer and the goal attempt was blocked by a thicket of defenders. Conor McManus, out ahead of Conroy, then pointed from play for them but Alan Dillon replied in kind for us.
We were already visibly struggling to cope with their hard-running, in-your-face approach and, to compound our problems, we didn’t seem capable of holding onto the bloody ball. Time after time, we spilled ball we’d won and, not for the first time, the culprit in chief in this respect was Aidan O’Shea. Worringly, too, we were already reverting to Hail Mary balls into Aidan at every opportunity, none of which was producing any reward for us.
Two more frees from Finlay put Monaghan four clear and then Tom Parsons was rather harshly booked by the over-fussy and inconsistent Rory Hickey. The resultant free was awarded almost sixty yards from our posts but Darren Hughes nailed it, to the delight of the large travelling Farney support.
We were now in a bit of bother and an atrocious wide from Trevor Mortimer did little to improve the tetchy mood that was beginning to well up in the stand. Donie Vaughan raided forward and nabbed a point back but then Andy blasted a bad wide from not that far out.
Our troubles increased when Alan Dillon hobbled from the fray but it was good to have someone of the calibre of Mark Ronaldson to bring on and Mark turned out to be instrumental in our second half revival. More trouble was on the way first, though, in the form of two more Monaghan points as the gap stretched to six and we were damn lucky not to concede a goal for the second one of these.
At this stage, it was like the first half couldn’t come soon enough and a little vignette shortly before the end seemed to sum up that half. Enda Varley – who had a very quiet opening 35 minutes – was forced to double back and passed to Trevor Mort who fell over the ball and gifted possession to them. It seemed then that anything that could go wrong would go wrong but all of a shot we turned the game on its head. Mark Ronaldson, fed beautifully by Conor, slotted over a point from the left and then Tom Parsons put through the galloping Donie Vaughan who smashed home a cracking goal to cut the deficit to just two points at the break.
It felt like we’d got out of jail and the obvious hope was that we’d kick on from there and close out the expected win. Instead, we handed the initiative right back to them, with Jap Finlay knocking over three points, two from frees, to negate the goal we’d got right at the end of the first half. A fourth successive score for them restored their six-point cushion, at which stage it appeared to be a case of how large their winning margin would be.
Could things get any worse? Of course they could – Keith Higgins went down in a heap and was in obvious pain as he was helped off the field. Johnno said afterwards that it’s a knee injury and that – as was the case with Galway’s Mike Meehan the other week – the full extent of the injury won’t be known until a scan is done. Good luck with that, Keith: here’s hoping that, like Meehan, the damage isn’t as bad as we all fear it could be.
Chris Barrett came on for Keith and he settled in well on the left flank as we finally began to ask question of the rampant visitors. Enda Varley pointed a free for our first score of the second half and then Andy launched a high ball in that Aidan caught perfectly, turned and walloped into the net. You could feel the frustration lifting from the Breaffy youngster as he celebrated exultantly and it soon became clear that this uplifting score had had a positive effect on his teammates too.
Conor had the ball in the net shortly afterwards but the score was correctly disallowed due to a foul pass to Mort – who had pulled smartly on the ball first time, sending it spinning into the corner of the net – from Aidan. But Mort did get on the scoresheet soon after, from a free, and then Kevin McLoughlin advanced up the right wing to claim the leveller.
Having all but won the game twice, you could see that Monaghan’s confidence was now draining away fast and, credit to our lads, they saw it too and applied the killer blows in an efficient and effective way. Mark Ronaldson edged us in front for the first time with a point from play and Enda Varley arrowed over his first from play to push us two clear. At the back, Ger Cafferkey replaced Trevor Howley with Ger moving into full-back and Kieran Conroy switching out to centre-back as we attempted to bolt the door on the Farneymen.
Jap cut the gap to the minimum from a free but then at the other end Chris Barrett was left with acres of room and all the time in the world to take aim and fire over from thirty yards. They worked like demons to get the ball back down in our territory but a full seven minutes passed before they managed to get a score, a final free from Jap. But time was now up and we closed out the game confidently with points from play, first from Andy and then a peach of a score from Tom to seal the three-point win.
We didn’t play well today but the scoreline says we won well so I guess we’ll go with the scoreline. It seemed pretty obvious that we weren’t anything like as focused as we needed to be early on and we seemed to have real problems in containing Monaghan’s hard-working approach. But then we blew them away in that final quarter with an economy of effort that was at the opposite end of the spectrum to the miss-fest that occurred against the Dubs. Such a disjointed performance wouldn’t win every game – in truth, it’d fail to win any game that really matters – but it was enough to secure a win today. Close to being jeered off at half-time, the lads ended up being clapped off the pitch at the end.
We had a number of good performers today. I though Liam O’Malley was superb throughout, right from the off when an instinctive block prevented a certain goal. He repeatedly turned over possession in dangerous situations and worked hard all day in a busy backline. I’ve often been critical of Liam’s performances and so it’s only fair to acknowledge his efforts today.
Despite having their hands full a lot of the time, Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons both put in strong shifts at midfield. I like the way their styles complement each other, with O’Shea’s heft and drive contrasting with Tom’s more cerebral approach. I think they’re starting to gel as a central unit – what does that mean for Ronan, I wonder?
Andy worked hard once again in the forwards, as did Aidan who finally got some reward for his efforts with his well-taken goal. Enda was very subdued in the first half but came into it better in the second, while Mark Ronaldson played an important part in our second half recovery. Both Morts have had better days in the jersey.
And so we now have one foot in the league final and, as a result, we could conceivably end up facing Cork (who already have both feet there) twice in April. Regardless of how the Dubs get on with Tyrone, qualification for the final is still very much in our own hands and it’d be great to make the final by beating Cork on their own patch. It’d be even nicer to double the dose by beating them again at Croke Park but, for now, we need to stay focused on the Páirc Uí Chaoimh encounter. And focused is what we’ll need to be once the ball is thrown in down there because those lads won’t let us off the hook in the way that Monaghan eventually contrived to do so today. We’ve been warned, in other words.
MAYO: David Clarke; Liam O’Malley, Kieran Conroy, Keith Higgins; Donal Vaughan (1-1), Trevor Howley, Kevin McLoughlin (0-1); Tom Parsons (0-1), Seamus O’Shea; Andy Moran (0-1), Aidan O’Shea (1-0), Trevor Mortimer; Enda Varley (0-2, one free), Alan Dillon (0-2, one free), Conor Mortimer (0-1, free). Subs: Mark Ronaldson (0-2) for Dillon, Chris Barrett (0-1) for Higgins, Ger Cafferkey for Howley, Pat Harte for Seamus O’Shea.