If momentum truly is an important factor in this year’s condensed inter-county season, then the early evidence from Mayo is already looking positive. Once we got on top of this National League opener at a rain-soaked MacHale Park today we fairly showed Down a clean pair of heels and we won pulling up well before the finish.
We were never behind in this contest and led inside the first minute. Ryan O’Donoghue – so clever and inventive all the time, forever looking to carve open the opposing defence when he has ball in hand – was fouled and Cillian O’Connor slotted over the free. Cillian would go on to contribute eight points to our tally, all from placed balls, today.
Down were back on terms quickly. A great long ball was pumped into Daniel Guinness who was on an advantage when he shot over the visitors’ opening point.
Ryan had a hand in our next score, passing to Tommy Conroy – who put in a really dominant display for us today – who claimed the ball under pressure and shot over. Soon after Michael Plunkett found himself in space within range and, with the Down defence standing off him, took a neat score on the run.
Down got some more profit from a long ball in at the other end. McKernan was the supplier of this one, Quinn claimed the mark and fired over. The same tactic was tried again just after but this time Óisin Mullin was equal to it, blocking his man from getting clean possession and forcing him to knock it wide.
Up at the Albany end, meanwhile, Ryan got shunted over close to goal. Cillian popped over the free with ease.
The Mourne lads then enjoyed a small spell of dominance. They bagged two points on the spin in as many minutes, the first from Quinn coming on the loop at speed and firing over, the second after a hard run down the right by James Guinness. This now had the looks of a hard-fought contest about it.
In an instant, though, that all changed. Tommy Conroy – who has bulked up significantly since last winter – won possession and bore down on goal, under pressure all the while. He showed pace, power and great finishing instincts as he blasted to the net on the ‘keeper’s near side.
We took that goal lead into the first water break. Ahead of then we traded points, with Fionn McDonagh leaping high to claim the ball and hook it over off his left and O’Hagan, from a free, responding for them.
If the opening quarter had been even enough, the second quarter was anything but. As the weather deteriorated – by half-time the rain was spilling down by the bucketload – we began to turn the screw to effect.
Óisin galloped forward, gave possession, got it back and shot over. Then, after we won a free when Ryan turned over the ball and Jordan Flynn was fouled, Diarmuid O’Connor fired in a free-kick that bounced in front of the Down posts and flew over the bar.
Another sweeping move ended with Ryan pointing as we eased six clear. O’Hagan pointed a free for them but we responded with two further scores before the half-time whistle sounded. Jordan wasn’t much inside the 50-yard line when he let fly in the monsoon conditions and straight from the restart after that score Tommy bagged another as we took a 1-10 to 0-6 lead into the break.
It was obvious even then that we were going to win this one. With that in mind, James began to reshuffle the deck and the first two switches saw Bryan Walsh introduced for Jordan while Eoghan McLaughlin replaced Rory Brickenden.
Mattie Ruane got us motoring on the restart, finishing a trademark surging run down the right with a point. Cillian got the next one, pointing a free from well out on the right after he’d been fouled.
Our next score ended the contest definitively. Tommy once again caused consternation in the Down defence as he bore down on goal, offloading to Ryan who, despite the presence of several defenders flailing about in the square, found a gap through which he thumped the ball to the net.
Bryan Walsh then picked up a loose ball and swung his leg at it for a score that put us a full thirteen points clear. This was now bordering on a real mauling.
Like a slow puncture, however, the air began to go out of our performance and we pretty much free-wheeled from there to the finish. While this may have been frustrating for the fans – as it was too for James Horan, who could clearly be heard over the live transmission, bellowing like a bull at his players – it was also perfectly understandable. The game was won, it was our first competitive match of the year and the conditions were of the kind you’d hesitate to put the proverbial dog out into.
As well as that, James was all the while running the bench. The changes brought fresh legs onto the field but we also lost a fair bit of cohesiveness into the bargain. Plus, Down bucked up and decided that they wanted to avoid the mother and father of a whipping.
It was the final quarter before the visitors stirred themselves, however, as they trooped into the second water break fourteen points in arrears. By then, we’d added further scores from Cillian (a ’45), Mattie and Cillian again, this time a free.
Fionn McDonagh had been replaced by Conor Loftus before the end of the third quarter, with Aidan Orme coming on for his League debut just as play resumed after the second water break.
An O’Hagan free followed by a good goal belted home by sub McConville finally gave the visitors’ backroom team something to shout about. We got our first score in over ten minutes when Tommy booted over after an Aidan Orme free from way out under the stand came back off the upright.
They added two more without reply – Horan was really fuming now – but on couches all over Ireland the fans were swooning as one Mayo legend, Lee Keegan, gave way for another one. Boyler!
Down had a second goal chance soon after but they butchered it, O’Hagan opting to attempt a punch it to the net and miscuing his effort. He had the time to collect it and bury it so that was a real let-off for us.
We finished well, however, adding four unanswered points to win by 2-21 to 1-11. These scores came from sub Eoghan McLaughlin and from Cillian, who converted three further frees as we closed out an emphatic thirteen-point victory.
It’s impossible not to be happy with today’s performance. Sure, it wasn’t perfect and, yes, we got sloppier as the second half progressed but I’ve already laid out the case for the defence there. Taken in the round, this was a very solid display, one that yielded our biggest home win in the League for an absolute age and our first win in this competition at MacHale Park since March 2019.
We had plenty of strong performers today. Óisin Mullin gave another barnstorming display at full-back but I was also impressed with new man Enda Hession who didn’t put a foot wrong beside him in the corner. He looked more than comfortable in today’s company, which is just what you want to see from a young lad pitched into battle at the deep end.
Others who were prominent included Mattie Ruane at midfield, whose surging runs recalled his many strong performances in the League in his debut season two years ago. Mattie could, though, do with taking the ball into contact a lot less and moving it on earlier but he definitely showed signs today that he’s a man coming into form.
There was a good spread of scorers in the forwards but – aside from Cillian on the frees – the main men for us today were Tommy Conroy and Ryan O’Donoghue. They have the look of a pair of gents who’ll terrorise a fair few backlines over the coming weeks.
So we’re off and running, with one eye already fixed on a Division Two semi-final which we need to win to bounce back to the top tier at the first time of asking. Today was a decisive first step along that road, now we need to maintain this momentum when we take on Westmeath in Mullingar in a week’s time.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Enda Hession, Óisin Mullin (0-1), Lee Keegan; Michael Plunkett (0-1), Paddy Durcan, Rory Brickenden; Mattie Ruane (0-2), Diarmuid O’Connor (0-1, free); Fionn McDonagh (0-1), Kevin McLoughlin, Jordan Flynn (0-1); Tommy Conroy (1-3), Cillian O’Connor (0-8, seven frees and a ’45), Ryan O’Donoghue (1-1). Subs: Eoghan McLaughlin (0-1) for Brickenden, Bryan Walsh (0-1) for Flynn, Conor Loftus for McDonagh, Aidan Orme for O’Donoghue, James McCormack for Diarmuid O’Connor, Colm Boyle for Keegan.
Who was our MOTM against Down? Pick your top three performers
- Tommy Conroy (38%, 805 Votes)
- Ryan O'Donoghue (18%, 379 Votes)
- Oisin Mullen (15%, 319 Votes)
- Mattie Ruane (13%, 280 Votes)
- Cillian O'Connor (4%, 84 Votes)
- Enda Hession (3%, 61 Votes)
- Diarmuid O'Connor (1%, 27 Votes)
- Lee Keegan (1%, 25 Votes)
- Paddy Durcan (1%, 24 Votes)
- Fionn McDonagh (1%, 23 Votes)
- Robbie Hennelly (1%, 18 Votes)
- Michael Plunkett (1%, 14 Votes)
- Jordan Flynn (1%, 14 Votes)
- Colm Boyle (1%, 13 Votes)
- Conor Loftus (1%, 12 Votes)
- Kevin McLoughlin (0%, 10 Votes)
- Aidan Orme (0%, 10 Votes)
- Rory Brickenden (0%, 9 Votes)
- Eoghan MacLaughlin (0%, 8 Votes)
- James McCormack (0%, 5 Votes)
- Bryan Walsh (0%, 4 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,088