Lancashire lacerated, Tipperary trounced, Down demolished. It would truly have been the perfect day if that were all we had to think about. But … and it’s a big but, there’s Andy and how bad that knee injury he suffered in the second half really is. We won’t know the full story for a day or two by all accounts and I guess we have to – as @MayoGAA said that Andy himself has exhorted us to – stay positive and drink deeply on the significance of today’s enormously satisfying win.
And, boy, was it satisfying. Like many Mayo fans, I was nervous going into this one – thoughts of the 2009 Meath meltdown still in the system – but deep down I felt that if our set-up was as solid as it appears to be then this date would surely have been one that the lads were preparing for ever since the draw for the championship was made towards the end of last year. And if this were the case then we could expect a bit of a performance from the lads. Turns out it was and we did.
The news that the juniors were galloping away to victory over in Didsbury started the afternoon off well and then as The Brother and I took our seats in the Hogan we were happy to see that the minors were giving it socks to Tipperary. This they continued to do, proceeding to dish out a right good thumping to the defending All-Ireland champions and, in the process, give us one excuse to be looking for tickets for the first Sunday in September.
As the minors went off to deserved applause, the Twitter machine confirmed that the juniors had also eased to a comfortable win in their All-Ireland semi-final, which meant that two of the day’s three results were already in the bag. Could the seniors now complete the treble?
The worst kept secret in the county was confirmed when the lads took the field, with Aidan O’Shea and Michael Conroy starting instead of Danny Geraghty and Enda Varley respectively. The jungle drums were also proved correct when Jason Doherty took up station at centre-forward with Cillian moving into the corner. Another important switch saw Lee Keegan move across to centre-back to pick up Down dangerman Mark Poland and the Westport man proceeded to stick to his opponent like glue for the next seventy minutes.
Our strategy of attempting to kill off Sligo in the Connacht final with goals had been much commented on in the run-up to today’s game – and not in very flattering terms either – but it was obvious from the off today that we had the same Plan A. This time, though, it worked a lot better and within five minutes of the throw-in we had the ball in the net for the first time. Michael Conroy, already looking busy and inventive, fed Andy who shook himself free of his marker and laid it on a plate for Jason Doherty to round the keeper and slide it home. Soon after Keith came haring up like an express train from the back to feed Andy for as nice an opening point as you’d want to see.
Barry Moran, for the third match in a row, was showing signs of dominating affairs around the middle with three clean catches early on but some wastlefulness in the forwards meant that we weren’t able to turn this possession into scores. When Kalum King goaled for Down, after Aidan Carr had got two points from play with only a Cillian O’Connor pointed free in reply for us, all that early good work seemed to have gone to naught.
Our response to Down’s goal – which came after a mistake out the field and a succession of passes that should have been cut out – was, in retrospect, fairly telling. Straight down the field we came and Alan Dillon banged over a screamer to put us back in front.
Carr levelled again soon after but we nearly had a second goal when a Cillian rasper came back off the crossbar to Michael Conroy who pointed smartly to put us back in front. A free for them brought them level again but a free for us from Cillian edged us back in front. This time the lead was one we wouldn’t surrender. Clear daylight opened up for us with the next score, our second goal, created superbly by Kevin McLoughlin’s fetch and searing run and finished coolly by Michael Conroy.
David Clarke made a hugely important intervention – his second of the half – just after but increasingly the game was being played in the Down half and two further frees converted by Cillian extended our lead to six before the half-time whistle sounded.
It hadn’t been a perfect first half performance – we definitely should have been further ahead at that stage such was our dominance in all sectors of the field – but already it was difficult to see us losing this one. I can’t think of another instance when I felt as relaxed at half-time in a Mayo match at Croke Park as I was today: it was so clear then that we were the better team and it was also becoming increasingly likely that we were going to demonstrate this in no uncertain terms on the scoreboard in the second half.
And we did, we sure did. To be precise, we ripped them to shreds, piling on another goal and eleven points in an increasingly one-sided second half which Down quite obviously wanted to be over as rapidly as possible as our lads stuck grimly to their task of inflicting as much damage as possible to the Mourne County’s rearguard.
The third goal really put the tin hat on it. Andy took a quick free, releasing Cillian who with equally quick thinking squared the ball across the face of the goal for Michael Conroy to bundle it into the net.
Alan Dillon – named Man of the Match by RTE – smashed home a glorious point soon after but then came Andy’s sickening injury. The buggy heading straight out of the ground to the ambulance was a bad sign and rumours quickly swept the ground that our talismanic captain had been felled by a dreaded cruciate injury. We still don’t know if this is the case – the official line tonight is that Andy suffered a “significant knee injury” – and I guess it’s best to see what the scan reveals before thinking about what the ramifications might be for the semi-final.
Alan Freeman came on for Andy and then Richie Feeney – positively chomping at the bit to enter the fray – replaced the Doc who also took a bit of a knock before going off. The bench-emptying then continued with Enda Varley replacing Michael Conroy – the Davitts man departing to warm applause after a storming performance – and Jason Gibbons coming on for Aidan O’Shea. Chris Barrett also got a late run, coming on in place of Colm Boyle.
As the clock wound down, further points sailed over and the lead stretched to fifteen at one stage. Then Benny Coulter swung his leg at a loose ball and found the net but with time running out it made no difference. We won by twelve in the end but it could easily have been twenty, such was the gulf in class on the day.
I’m not going to say too much more at this point – instead I plan to crack open a beer and watch it all again, savouring each honeyed moment as I do. This wasn’t a faultless performance but it was our best championship outing since last year’s quarter-final defeat of Cork and it serves as a fairly serious declaration of intent as we head into a semi-final meeting with defending champions Dublin. We stayed on at HQ to watch their laboured, unimpressive win over Laois – which is part of the reason I want to end up here now, or else I’ll be up half the night watching the re-run of our match – and we left happy enough that we’ll be more than ready to keep the ball kicked out to the Dubs on 2nd September.
But that’s one for another day. Tonight, it’s more than enough to sign off by congratulating the lads – all three teams, in fact – on today’s achievements and wishing them all the best in the challenges that lie ahead. And get well soon, Andy – as James Horan said after today’s game, you’re the beating heart of this team and it’d be great to have you back to face the Dubs in four weeks time.
Mayo: David Clarke; Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan (0-1), Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle; Barry Moran, Aidan O’Shea (0-1); Kevin McLoughlin (0-2), Cillian O’Connor (0-7, six frees), Alan Dillon (0-4); Michael Conroy (2-1), Andy Moran (0-1), Jason Doherty (1-0). Subs: Alan Freeman for andy Moran, Richie Feeney for Doherty, Enda Varley (0-1) for Conroy, Jason Gibbons for O’Shea, Chris Barrett for Boyle.
PS: Thanks, once again, to Mayo Mick for his superb photos from Croke Park – all the pictures used in this match report were taken by him.