Bloody hell: that was far harder work than it should have been. We won but the manner of our victory – in particular our ragged second half performance – was far from encouraging. We’ll really have to lift it next week if we’re to have any chance of getting past Tyrone.
But the good news is that there is a next week for us. Today was, don’t forget, another knockout championship match and that’s now three do-or-die championship matches we’ve won in a row this summer. Today’s one – that major second half wobble notwithstanding – has got us back to where we’ve always wanted to be in August, back in the All-Ireland series, back at the business end of the championship.
The first surprise today was when news began to spread around Croke Park shortly before the team emerged from the dressing room that Diarmuid O’Connor would play no part in the game. Sure enough, when the lads sprinted out onto the pitch shortly afterwards there was no Diarmuid. Will he be there next week? I sure hope so because we could have done with him today.
In fairness to Jason Doherty, who replaced the talismanic Ballintubber man, he did plenty to justify his selection. He put in a hard-working shift and capped his display with a cracking first half goal.
We started the day, though, sluggishly enough. Eleven minutes passed before we finally opened our account, via an Evan Regan free, which cancelled out a free at the other end scored by John Heslin. The same player pointed a second free for them soon after but we then got going properly.
Andy Moran notched our first from play, a nice score after a surging run forward from Kevin MacLoughlin. Andy then played in Cillian O’Connor as we hit the front for the first time, with a second Evan free followed by a second from play by Cillian pushing us three clear.
Heslin with his third free cut the gap to two but then Jason Doherty blasted the ball to the net at the Davin end. Paddy Durcan raided forward soon after to push us six clear with a nicely taken point on the run.
They got their first from play but we responded with three top-quality scores at the other end. The first came from Cillian – his third from play, with nothing at that point from placed balls (on a day when he misfired badly on freetaking duties) – and this was followed by an outrageous score from way out on the wing by Evan Regan. Andy Moran then turned on a sixpence, shooting as he swivelled to stretch our lead to eight.
Disaster then struck for the Lake County. Their ‘keeper was, correctly, pulled for overcarrying and because the infraction incurred in the small square Rory Hickey spread his arms for the penalty. The settled consensus around where I was sitting was that this wasn’t the right call – on a day when Rory Hickey made plenty of odd calls – but it turned out it was perfectly correct. Cillian’s spot-kick was pretty perfect too:
We had them on the rack now. Our next attack yielded another score, a point from Kevin McLoughlin, which put us twelve points clear. At this stage it looked as if we’d win by as much as we wanted but then, all of a shot, the script changed, changed utterly.
It started with a wholly preventable goal, one we’re sadly far too used to seeing conceded. James Dolan was played in and, despite getting a good yank on his jersey from Kevin Keane, got his shot off which beat David Clarke in the corner.
From the resultant kickout the ball was lost and David Clarke suddenly found himself one-on-one with a Westmeath attacker. The Ballina netminder did hugely well to fend off the attempt to walk the ball around him and the danger of a second goal was averted at the cost of a free, which they pointed.
That cut the gap to eight points, which was the lead we took into the break, but that late brain-freeze fairly took the shine off what had been up till then a very encouraging first-half performance from us.
Eight points was, though, a big lead to take into the second half and when Westmeath emerged after the break they had a major job on their hands to make a game of it. But they soon showed that they were up for the fight.
They bagged the first four scores of the half, each one adding to the growing restlessness in the Mayo following. They were well-worked scores too but from our perspective the worry was how easily the Westmeath lads were able to cut their way through our backline and get their shots away without any difficulty.
A pointed free from Cillian settled our nerves somewhat and a cracking point from play by Jason put us back into more comfortable territory. Although they got the next score, we still looked to have the contest under control and when Keith Higgins fired over with fifteen minutes to go, you got the sense that we were ready to kick for home.
Only we weren’t. They got the next three scores, to narrow our lead back down to just three points. Less than ten minutes to play now and all of the game’s momentum was clearly with the resurgent Lake County.
Maybe it wasn’t as desperate a battle for survival as I felt at the time but while Westmeath were whittling away our once handsome lead the only analogy I could think of was the All-Ireland quarter-final against Meath back in 2009. That day we’d blown a six-point lead and ended up losing to very moderate opposition and I now had the fear of God that a Westmeath goal, followed by a few points, could see us plunge to a similarly catastrophic defeat.
Donal Vaughan – who was immense for us today – put us four points up, with five minutes or so left. Denis Corroon, booked earlier on for wrestling Aidan O’Shea to the ground in an incident where the Breaffy man bizarrely ended up with a yellow too, barged into Donie well after he’d got his shot away and he deservedly picked up a second yellow for his troubles.
A dangerous attack at our end saw sub Chris Barrett risk a black card by fouling just outside the large square. Heslin pointed and we were back in nervy territory.
At the other end Chris Barrett was hauled to the floor – a nailed-on black card offence, that yielded another yellow from the quixotic Hickey – and Cillian pointed the free.
Another Heslin free cut the gap back to three but that was their haul for the day. Another Cillian free put us four ahead and leaving them needing two scores to save the day. Instead we turned over their kick-out and Aidan O’Shea blasted to the net to seal a rather flattering seven-point win for us.
Stephen Rochford afterwards described our performance as “patchy” and I think that’s an appropriate enough summation. When we opened up on them we were great but our second half display was little short of shambolic. It was every bit as bad as that awful second half we put in against Galway back in June.
But the big difference today was that we won. And because we won we’re back in the big time. But because we’ve come through the backdoor it’s a provincial champion – Tyrone – we now face and, in this consistently competitive era for us, we’ve been singularly bad at beating provincial champions. Only once since our 2011 rebirth, in fact, have we beaten a provincial champion – Dublin in 2012 – but if we’re to keep alive in this year’s championship this is what we’re going to have to do next weekend.
After this evening’s Jekyll and Hyde display we won’t be heading into next Saturday’s quarter-final – at what’s likely to be a sold-out, full-to-the-rafters Croke Park – as favourites. But we will do so knowing that Tyrone would much rather be playing somebody else at this stage in the championship and knowing too that while we’ll respect them we won’t have one iota of fear about facing them.
Today was, in the heel of the hunt, a poor performance but it was still a winning one. It has got us back to where we want to be but next Saturday we’ll need to perform at a significantly higher level if we’re to have any hope of going further. Can we do this?
You can be sure that’ll be something our opponents next Saturday will be fretting about as much as we will ourselves. Everything will be on the line once more again then but that’s been the case for us since our journey through the qualifiers began. Next time, though, the stakes will be higher, the test facing us far harder. One way or another, you feel that all those nagging questions about us this year are set to be answered in some shape or form when we return to Croke Park this day week.
Mayo: David Clarke; Brendan Harrison, Kevin Keane, Keith Higgins (0-1); Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Paddy Durcan (0-1); Seamus O’Shea, Donal Vaughan (0-1); Kevin McLoughlin (0-1), Aidan O’Shea (1-0), Jason Doherty (1-1); Evan Regan (0-3, two frees), Andy Moran (0-2), Cillian O’Connor (1-5, penalty goal and two points). Subs: Barry Moran for Boyle, Alan Dillon for Regan, Conor O’Shea for Doherty, Alan Freeman for Andy Moran, Chris Barrett for Keegan, Tom Parsons for Vaughan.
Who was our MOTM against Westmeath?
- Andy Moran (31%, 129 Votes)
- Donal Vaughan (26%, 108 Votes)
- Cillian O'Connor (6%, 27 Votes)
- Kevin McLoughlin (6%, 24 Votes)
- Brendan Harrison (5%, 21 Votes)
- Keith Higgins (5%, 20 Votes)
- Jason Doherty (4%, 18 Votes)
- Aidan O'Shea (3%, 11 Votes)
- Conor O'Shea (3%, 11 Votes)
- David Clarke (3%, 11 Votes)
- Colm Boyle (1%, 6 Votes)
- Barry Moran (1%, 6 Votes)
- Seamus O'Shea (1%, 5 Votes)
- Kevin Keane (1%, 5 Votes)
- Paddy Durcan (1%, 3 Votes)
- Chris Barrett (1%, 3 Votes)
- Tom Parsons (1%, 3 Votes)
- Evan Regan (0%, 2 Votes)
- Lee Keegan (0%, 2 Votes)
- Alan Dillon (0%, 2 Votes)
- Alan Freeman (0%, 2 Votes)
Total Voters: 418