We’ve had so many incredible days out following this Mayo team. Most of us have memories to last a lifetime from the totemic clashes we’ve been involved in over the past decade.
The team have us given so much down the years and today – now infused with a significant dash of youth – they’ve done it again, giving us another Croke Park day that will live long in the memory. We’re the Croke Park Connacht champions thanks to the utterly comprehensive way we dismantled Galway’s challenge in the second half of today’s game.
We’ve all been through so much – in our own separate ways – due to this bloody pandemic and so today, with Mayo back in action at the big house and, with tickets for the game in our hands (well, on our phones) , it felt like a throwback to other, more carefree times.
Walking down the Drumcondra Road and then in along Clonliffe Road to the stadium, the Green and Red significantly outnumbered the Maroon and White. Round One to us.
We lined out as selected, making no changes either to our subs’ bench. It’s a while since we’ve done that.
Aidan O’Shea took up station in midfield, though, renewing acquaintances with Galway’s great centrefield warrior, Paul Conroy.
We started on the front foot, pushing forward as Galway shrank back shawl-like. From our perch in the Upper Cusack, the pitch down below was a verdant carpet, but someone had clearly left the underfloor heating on. It must have been very hot out there today.
We got the first two scores, the first from Mattie Ruane and the second, following a nice bit of trickery with his feet to make room for himself, from Ryan O’Donoghue.
Shane Walsh then made his opening bow. He took possession well out, put the foot down and clipped it over. Already the match-up that saw Lee Keegan tailing him looked wrong.
Conroy swung over the equaliser but we then reclaimed our two-point advantage. Paddy Durcan got the first of these with Ryan knocking over a close-in free for the second.
These opening thrusts and feints gave the contest a cagey kind of hue. The game’s flatness wasn’t helped by a longish break in play when Rob Finnerty went down injured. That was his day over and their star defender Seán Kelly hobbled from the fray too before the half was over.
Conroy had bagged his second before the Finnerty incident and at the first water break we were one in front.
Galway grabbed the initiative in dramatic fashion on the resumption. Another shot at the posts from distance by Conroy came back high off the upright and Walsh was fastest to claim possession. He drilled it to the net.
Our attempts at a response came to nothing, as we hit three bad wides on the spin. Then Galway struck for a second goal, Walsh leaving Aidan in his wake and offloading to Comer who’d evaded Paddy and thumped it home emphatically.
Now we were wobbling badly. When Darren McHale pointed it ended a 22-minute scoreless spell for us. Sweeney responded with a point for them. As space finally began to open up for us in the Galway rearguard, Conor Loftus shot for goal but the ball seemed to take a deflection off a defender and it skimmed the crossbar as it went over.
Tierney had the final say of the half with a point from play for them. It looked as if Cooke’s effort had given them a six-point lead to take into the break but Conor Lane went to HawkEye, which delivered a negative result.
We were in serious bother then. We had no punch upfront, with Galway defending the zone in front of the D and forcing us wide every time we came forward. At the other end we had the match-ups all wrong and had paid a heavy price with those two goals.
Changes had to come and it was no surprise to see Eoghan McLaughlin and Kevin McLoughlin both come on for the second half, Bryan Walsh and Darren McHale making way. The more direct approach both injected was key to our second half revival.
We simply had to get a goal quickly to have any chance. A superb ball lofted in by Kevin McLoughlin, swiftly caught and offloaded by Aidan O’Shea to the in-rushing Mattie Ruane, gave us the opening we needed. Mattie was hauled to the floor (a black card offence, surely?) and Ryan put the jittery Gleeson the wrong way from the spot.
The game was now back on and we soon made it clear that we were there to play ball. Maybe the schemozzle in the tunnel at half-time had put fire in our bellies or perhaps it was the bollocking James Horan surely gave his players in the dressing room. Whatever it was it had the desired effect.
Galway were now reeling as we came at them in waves. The loss of Finnerty and Kelly to injury in the first half was testing their reserves and Walsh was never right after the tangle he had with Padraig O’Hora shortly before half-time.
Soon we were kicking points for fun. The rejuvenated Tommy Conroy – whose second half was as good as the first one had been poor from his perspective – belted over and points followed from Mattie and Kevin as we edged in front.
A well-known political insult – usually hurled at an opponent attempting a comeback – is that the soufflé doesn’t rise twice. That was now the task facing Galway if they were to reclaim the Connacht title and it became increasingly evident as the afternoon wore on that this wasn’t going to happen.
The second water break probably came too soon for us. Having hit 1-4 without reply since the half-time mark, we had the look of a team that wanted to keep the pedal to the metal.
The Tribesmen definitely needed a breather as they sought a way back into a contest that was spinning rapidly away from them. But they were still only two down and so their cause was far from hopeless.
But we kept tacking on the scores, sucking that little bit more from their wilting challenge with each score. Points from Tommy Conroy and Conor Loftus pushed our lead out to four.
There was a long stoppage when Swanny went down injured and he was unable to walk from the field of play. The Ballina Stephenites man was a fearsome competitor at the back for us today – the epitome Dog of War – and there was relief later on when RTÉ reported that the injury was a damaged rib, which shouldn’t keep him out of the semi-final.
We kicked for home in the final quarter but there was rising frustration in the stands at a series of scarcely believable harsh calls against us by Conor Lane, who I felt had a real off-day today. The decision to rule out Ryan’s goal for a nudge in the build-up was ludicrous and Lane followed this up with a few extremely charitable frees awarded to Galway.
They needed all the help they could get at this stage, as they failed to score in the second half until the 61st minute. In the end, all they could muster after the break were three pointed frees.
Before the end we broke through for a second goal, this one emphatically deciding the contest in our favour. Mattie went on a thunderous run, charging directly towards their posts before slipping it under Gleeson to the net.
Mattie’s Breaffy team-mate Robbie Hennelly banged over a ’45 to stretch our lead to six as the game went into injury time. Eight additional minutes were called but Galway’s sub Farragher was ordered off on a second yellow and they were never going to be able to beat us with fourteen men.
We had a great chance for a third goal deep in stoppage time after a terrific long ball in split their defence wide open. One-on-one with the ‘keeper, however, sub James Carr blasted wildly over. I still can’t fathom that – surely the better option would have been to round the goalie and roll it into the net?
That bizarre score was the final one of the day. With the hostilities over, the sweet sound of ‘The Green and Red of Mayo’ came wafting across the summer air over the tannoy and Aidan O’Shea went up the steps of the Hogan Stand to claim the JJ Nestor Cup.
Today’s win means it’s a 48th Connacht title for us and it stretches our lead over Galway on the all-time head-to-head in the Championship to three. It also, more pertinently, secures us our place in the All-Ireland semi-final in three weeks time, where, all but certainly, our old nemesis Dublin will once more be there to meet us.
There’ll be plenty of chat about that game over the next few weeks – with Dublin still having to get past Kildare in Leinster before they turn their thoughts to us – so for now it’s better to luxuriate in the after-glow of today’s cracking win.
It was a victory that had looked slightly improbable at a sun-drenched Croke Park at half-time today. As the sun begins to sink low in the sky on Reek Sunday, however, we can all look back on and savour the latest powerful Mayo performance we’re able to add to the memory banks.
This team that have given us so much continue to give. Onwards we go. Up Mayo.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly (0-1, ’45); Lee Keegan, Padraig O’Hora, Michael Plunkett; Paddy Durcan (0-1), Oisin Mullin, Stephen Coen; Mattie Ruane (1-2), Conor Loftus (0-2); Bryan Walsh, Aidan O’Shea, Diarmuid O’Connor; Tommoy Conroy (0-2), Darren McHale (0-1), Ryan O’Donoghue (1-3, one penalty goal and two frees). Subs: Eoghan McLaughlin for Walsh, Kevin McLoughlin (0-1) for McHale, Jordan Flynn for Loftus (blood), Rory Brickenden for O’Hora, Enda Hession for Plunkett, James Carr (0-1) for Aidan O’Shea, Conor O’Shea for O’Connor.
Who was our MOTM against Galway? Pick your top three performers
- Mattie Ruane (31%, 1,100 Votes)
- Padraig O'Hora (19%, 675 Votes)
- Oisin Mullin (15%, 525 Votes)
- Ryan O'Donoghue (12%, 423 Votes)
- Kevin McLoughlin (6%, 200 Votes)
- Conor Loftus (4%, 132 Votes)
- Aidan O'Shea (4%, 124 Votes)
- Paddy Durcan (2%, 79 Votes)
- Robbie Hennelly (1%, 46 Votes)
- Tommy Conroy (1%, 39 Votes)
- Stephen Coen (1%, 35 Votes)
- Eoghan McLaughlin (1%, 31 Votes)
- Darren McHale (1%, 19 Votes)
- Lee Keegan (1%, 18 Votes)
- Michael Plunkett (0%, 16 Votes)
- Diarmuid O'Connor (0%, 12 Votes)
- Conor O'Shea (0%, 11 Votes)
- Rory Brickenden (0%, 9 Votes)
- Bryan Walsh (0%, 8 Votes)
- James Carr (0%, 8 Votes)
- Enda Hession (0%, 7 Votes)
- Jordan Flynn (0%, 6 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,690