It’s a long-awaited win over Kerry and a very welcome one at that, it was chiselled out by dint of a day of honest and unflinching work and when we did finally snatch the win it was in the most heart-stopping of circumstances. But, as Enda Kenny chided his Cabinet colleagues the other day, we all need to calm down a little. It’s still only April, it was only a league semi-final, we’ve won nothing yet. But we did get to leave Croke Park with stupid grins plastered all over our faces while the Kerry fans left with long pusses. That’ll do for now.
It was an incredible match in so many respects and it’s difficult even to sit here now and describe it. We were, by turns, excellent – as we eased away effortlessly from them in the opening quarter – and far from excellent, ceding as we did so much primary and breaking ball possession round the middle third for whole swathes of the game. Kerry pulled away from us twice and both times seemingly stood on the cusp of victory. But on both occasions, they didn’t do enough to finish the job and the second time we did just that to rob it from under their aristocratic noses.
We barely made it to our seats in the Cusack ahead of throw-in and arrived just in time to hear the teams being announced. I was actually quite relieved when it was confirmed that Aidan wasn’t starting: there was some talk in advance of him playing despite the injury, which, had this happened, would have been madness. But sense obviously prevailed and Barry Moran started in the middle instead of him.
Although Aidan’s absence robbed us of one of our trump cards, you wouldn’t have noticed in that opening phase of the game as we zipped five points clear. We were doing fine from the breaks out the field and the low, fast ball inside to Conor Mortimer and Michael Conroy was to both forwards’ liking. Conor, in particular, was on fire from the off and he bagged four of those points, with the other two coming from Keith Higgins – after a surging upfield run – and Alan Dillon.
Kerry finally got into their stride then as our grip around the middle lessened and they got the chance to probe our defence. Four points without reply ensued before Conor pointed this free following a foul on Kevin McLoughlin.
Points from play by Cooper and Sheehan brought the match all square at seven each but we finished the half stronger, scoring twice more before the break. Andy Moran got the first when he picked up neatly and smashed over a screamer that just wouldn’t stay below the bar and then Conor closed out the half with his sixth of the day.
We started the second half brighter too, with Alan Dillon lobbing one in that didn’t quite have the legs but which Kiely tipped over the bar to put us three ahead once more. Pat Harte was now on at midfield, having replaced Jason Doherty just before half-time, with Barry shifting up to full-forward.
It was immediately apparent that this tactic – which I have to hold my hand up for advocating earlier in the week – wasn’t working. Instead of fast, early low ball, we were now humping it in high towards Barry but he never caught a single ball sent in there. Instead, we repeatedly gifted possession to them and they really began to come at us.
Worse still, our hold around the middle began to disintegrate entirely, with Kerry winning what looked like every single breaking ball in the middle third. It looked, then, like it was only a matter of time before they’d rip us apart and 1-5 without reply later, it appeared that they’d done the job.
The goal was actually furtuitous enough, coming from a Hail Mary ball by Kieran O’Leary into Donaghy – who was now at full-forward where he was, bizarrely, being marked by Donie Vaughan – which skidded past the Stacks man and into the path of James O’Donoghue. The Kerry substitute beat the outrushing David Clarke to it and swept it to the net.
Five down with fifteen to go and it looked then as if we were fated to endure another hosing from the Green and Gold. I had visions of a 10+ points winning margin at that stage but instead we got the next two points – the first a real morale booster from Colm Boyle and the second a free from Mort – to cut the gap to a goal. Sheehan then thumped a long range free over to give the Kerrymen a bit more breathing space but it was clear that we hadn’t thrown in the towel, even if time and the scoreboard were against us at that stage.
Denied what looked like a penalty when Galvin (already on yellow) hauled down Kevin McLoughlin (and this after an earlier shout for a spot kick after what looked like a foot block) we then got a penalty following an utterly suicidal cross field pass from Donaghy, which was meant for the hairy Finuge lad but instead found Alan Dillon. Galvin promptly pulled Alan to the floor but even though the ref failed once again to give Paolo his marching orders he did give us a potential match-saving penalty. Penalties in Gaelic are far from a gimme but Pat Harte smashed it superbly past Kiely (who went the right way) to leave just a point in it.
Kerry then attempted in the most blatant fashion to play down the remaining time with a succession of ‘injuries’, which saw three men take to the deck inside three minutes, hamming it up for all they were worth. Our sense of injustice was heightened when it was announced there’d be only two minutes of added time – Kerry having already wasted twice that amount with their playacting – but there was delicious irony in the fact that, after a superb turnover by the increasingly influential Colm Boyle, it was Darran the Diver O’Sullivan himself, swinging out of Cillian O’Connor, who gave us the chance deep in stoppage time to push this increasingly absorbing contest into extra-time. Cillian was ice-cool as he slotted the resultant free between the sticks to level the match at the end of normal time.
I really fancied us to push on and win it from there but it was Kerry who claimed the ascendancy once more in extra-time. They ended the first half of extra-time two in front, our sole score a neat one from play from Cillian. But it was two bad misses from frees – in particular a relatively straightforward one from out on the right ballooned wide by sub Enda Varley – that had done the damage, these misses contrasting with the routine way that Sheehan had stroked over two placed balls for them.
When sub Barry John Keane scored his second extra-time point, fed by Darran O’Sullivan after a Donaghy fetch, our goose looked once more to be sizzling on Gas Mark 5. But once again we simply refused to give up, even if now we needed a second highly improbable goal to have any chance of claiming the spoils.
The goal we got will obviously now become part of Mayo folklore. The way Colm Boyle – Midwest’s Man of the Match – claimed the ball from a slightly overcooked handpass from Andy as we swept forward was impressive enough but on the floor and surrounded by three Kerrymen he looked like he was going nowhere. Instead he somehow managed to get to his feet, swing his leg at the ball and in doing so thread it through a thicket of bodies and into the right-hand corner of the net.
It was an outrageous score and an utterly uplifting one too because now the Mayo team and their supporters – and, one sensed, the Kerry team and their meagre band of followers – could see that, at last, they now had Kerry on the block. Smelling the delicious odour of aristocratic blood the lads moved in swiftly for the kill, with the coup de grace applied with some aplomb by Richie Feeney. Fresh off the naughty step, the Mitchels man – who just before had screwed a shot badly wide – broke the Kerry cover, steadied himself and thumped over a delicious winner.
There was still time for Kerry to win a last-ditch fifty at the other end and with Bryan Sheehan the taker, it seemed certain that Kerry would – undeservingly at this stage – live to fight another day. Sheehan is one of the sweeter dead-ball specialists I’ve ever seen and you’d have bet the proverbial farm on him nailing it but on this occasion he drove the ball wide and so the day was ours.
It was a super win, made all the better because it was claimed by a really gutsy never-say-die attitude. It wasn’t by any means a perfect performance – for example, there needs to be in-depth analysis of our failure to win so much breaking ball around the middle and we urgently need to sort out what to do at full-forward – but it was one that in the end was good enough to get the better of a Kerry side who, by their own stupid playacting towards the end of normal time, gave us that chink of hope from which we wrestled the upper hand in this contest.
We can’t get carried away by this win. In the grand scheme of things, it means very little and, if you analyse the whole day’s action dispassionately, you’d have to concede that the really big winners today were Cork: back in a league final without the annoyance of having to play Kerry. And Cork will be tough to beat in the final, just as tough – if not even more so – than Kerry were today.
But we can be happy and we’re entitled celebrate just a bit tonight – I’ll be doing so with a nice bottle of Thwaites Double Century Celebration Ale (just the one, there’s a busy Monday morning upahead) when I’m done here. And I hope the lads who are now enconsced in the Algarve have one or two themselves tonight, as they reflect back on a fine day’s work and the county’s first win over the Kingdom at Croke Park since the team James Horan played in did the business in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final. Well done, lads and enjoy the thoroughly well-deserved week in the sun. Saúde!
Mayo: David Clarke; Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins (0-1); Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle (1-1); Barry Moran, Jason Gibbons; Kevin McLoughlin, Andy Moran (0-1), Alan Dillon (0-2); Conor Mortimer (0-7, four frees), Jason Doherty, Michael Conroy. Subs: Pat Harte (1-0, penalty) for Doherty, Enda Varley for Conroy, Richie Feeney (0-1) for Gibbons, Cillian O’Connor (0-2, one free) for Mortimer, Danny Geraghty for Barry Moran, Aidan Campbell for Harte (ET).