With the biggest sporting event of the day taking place up in the capital, it seemed a bit mad getting into the car this morning to cross the country for a very different kind of contest. When we stopped at Longford it was snowing heavily, the big, fat flakes sticking visibly at that stage, and I was on the verge of questioning my sanity. But then it cleared as we continued westwards and the day was fine (for the most part) but cold at MacHale Park. And our performance was, on the whole, fine too as we put an undisciplined Monaghan to the sword, winning by a convincing margin of thirteen points.
It was those three second half goals that put this contest to bed but we should have been out of sight well before then, as we missed five clear goal chances in the first half, four of them inside the opening ten minutes. We repeatedly knifed through their backline at speed – and it was good to see that our ball movement was faster and much cleaner today compared to three weeks ago – but every time we pulled the trigger the blasted gun jammed, with Aidan O’Shea and Kevin McLoughlin both failing twice to find the net in that opening spell.
All we had to show, then, for our early dominance was two points, the opening one from play by Aido, the second a Cillian O’Connor free. The visitors briefly pulled two ahead after fifteen minutes, their economy of finishing contrasting sharply with our profligacy in front of the Bacon Factory End posts, and for a short while it looked as if this contest was taking on an eerie likeness to the Tyrone match three weeks ago.
One big difference – big in every sense – was, however, visible even then. Aidan O’Shea’s positioning at full-forward and his ability to win every ball pumped into him gave us an offensive outlet we hadn’t had against the Red Hand and it was one that, on the whole, we used to good effect.
It was Donal Vaughan, not the most accurate shooter in our ranks, that got us going again with a nice point from play, with Cillian O’Connor hooking a free over to pull us level. They reclaimed the lead once more but Mark Ronaldson, from a nice fetch and lay-off from Aidan, levelled it up again. Cillian then pointed his third free to give us a lead we’d never subsequently lose.
Jason Doherty thumped one over from out on the wing but they profited from a mix-up at the back to peg us back to the minimum. Then things all started to go a bit potty.
Gollogly got a straight red, for what I’m not sure but a guy behind me said that the word on the radio was that he’d swung out at one of our lads. It seemed a bit harsh, to be honest.Then Seamus O’Shea got a totally unwarranted black card, the second O’Shea in two matches to see his involvement ended by the wrong application of this nonsensical disciplinary rule. Danny Kirby came on for the unfortunate Breaffy man.
We closed out the half well, a fourth free from Cillian being followed by a lovely long range point from Kevin McLoughlin. Three up and a man up at the break, this definitely now looked like one we should close out.
I expected us to do this but I didn’t think we’d thump them. But then I didn’t think they’d lose the plot altogether, getting increasingly physical – in a mad, violent, throwing punches kind of way – as the second half wore on. They should have been reduced to thirteen men before they were, as at least three Farney lads weighed in with fists flying as a melee broke out right in front of the officials’ noses, but a second red did come soon when Wylie stupidly pushed Mark Ronaldson into the advertising hoarding on the far side.
By then, we had the match already won, with points from Aidan, Diarmuid O’Connor (after a searing upfield run), Mark Ronaldson (in a move that started with a superb turnover out the field by Stephen Coen) and a goal from Aidan, which arguably shouldn’t have stood as the move that led to the goal started out around midfield with a hefty shove by one of our lads on one of theirs.
With Monaghan now two men down, we began to cut loose and only for some pretty wild shooting we’d really have gone to town on them. As it was, goals from substitutes Alan Freeman and Mikey Sweeney bulked out our points difference fairly significantly. Mikey’s injury time bullet ended the afternoon’s scoring, cancelling out three unanswered points from them to leave us winners by thirteen points at the finish.
Quibbles first. Our shooting today was too much on the wayward side for comfort. I’m not sure what our wide count was but it must have easily hit double figures. I know the tricky crossfield wind wouldn’t have helped matters but a bit more composure when shooting wouldn’t have gone amiss either.
The other major beef I’d have about today was that on at least ten occasions the ref moved the ball up on us after fouls conceded. I’m not sure what we were doing that was a problem but it looked like we were preventing them taking the free quickly. Whatever it was, it was pretty unproductive as more than once it turned an out-of-range free into an easy score for them. It’s something we need to look at.
I’m not going to say anything about the ref only to repeat what I’ve said so many times before. Gaelic football is in the throes of a refereeing crisis and Rory Hickey’s lamentable handling of today’s game is but the latest example of this. It’s clear that this is a crisis that isn’t on the GAA’s radar and so we’ll just have to hunker down and accept that refereeing displays like today’s are the norm rather than the exception.
Onto the good stuff. For starters, we looked far fitter, far faster and far more switched on than we’d done against Tyrone. Our ball handling was better, as was the speed at which we transferred the ball and, shooting aside, our decision making on the ball was much more impressive.
Tactically we were better too. Aido at full-forward was a game-changer and while I doubt that he’ll be deployed there all the time from now on, he showed today that he has the ability to cause chaos (of the right kind, from our perspective) in the position. He was, by some distance, my Man of the Match for us today.
Others who stood out for me today were Tom Cunniffe (how good it is to see him back in the saddle again), Kevin Keane, Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Stephen Coen, Patrick Durcan, Kevin McLoughlin, Diarmuid O’Connor (who put in a storming display), Mark Ronaldson and Jason Doherty. In truth, all of the lads stood up today to ensure we got the right result.
It’s a result that, thanks to our +13 points difference on the day, hoists us to the top of the Division One table tonight. Another win – hopefully one secured up at Celtic Park next weekend – should secure our top flight status and give Noel and Pat even more latitude to think about their plans for the summer. And maybe even the League play-offs too.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Tom Cunniffe, Kevin Keane, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Stephen Coen, Patrick Durcan; Donal Vaughan (0-1), Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-2), Aidan O’Shea (1-3), Diarmuid O’Connor (0-1); Mark Ronaldson (0-3), Cillian O’Connor (0-5, frees), Jason Doherty (0-1). Subs: Danny Kirby for Seamus O’Shea (black card), Colm Boyle for Vaughan, Alan Freeman (1-0) for Cillian O’Connor, Micheal Forde for McLoughlin, Ger Cafferkey for Keane, Mikey Sweeney (1-0) for Ronaldson.