Well, I did say it’d be kinda nice to see a performance from the lads today, didn’t I? It’s all a bit weird now – maybe the 322 miles behind the wheel has something to do with it – but this morning, which feels like a week or so ago now, the thought (a simple one at that) did strike me that if we opened brightly today, we could win this one with a bit to spare. Well, that we did and so we did. I never thought we’d annihilate them in the way that we ended up doing – in the process equaling our best-ever margin of victory over the Sheepstealers (a 6-6 to 0-4 pounding we gave them eighty years ago this month in Castlerea) – and I’m sure I’m not the only Mayo supporter to be more than a little surprised at how overwhelming today’s win was.
Most of us probably thought (I know I did) that with the 2006 minors coming through and with Fergie O’Donnell at the helm, the Sheepstealers were on their way to becoming a force within Connacht again. After this slaughtering, however, it’s going to take them quite a while to recover. Sure, they’re not near as bad as this performance would suggest and shorn today of the services of late withdrawal Senan Kilbride, as well as longer term absentees Cathal Cregg and Seamus O’Neill, it was always going to be a struggle but a 20-point thrashing from our lads is the kind of result that will live long in their collective psyche. They won’t want to meet us again in a hurry, that’s for sure.
In the car on the way back, I heard Trevor being interviewed on the radio and I was particularly gratified to hear him say that going into the game they had specifically focused on getting motoring quickly. The slow start has been an infuriating feature of this team for months now and it’s good to know that they knew this too and were determined to do something about it.
And in doing so, there were to be no half measures about it. Once Killer did his silly little dance and whacked over this ’45’ (aided by a good stiff breeze) in the opening minute, I began to get a warm and cosy feeling about the day. A bit like Dublin’s Mark Vaughan, Killer is confidence player and, once that first one went over, the chances of him catching fire were always going to be good. Sure enough, within two minutes he had the ball in the net, finishing with glee after he was played in following good work by Barry Moran and Aidan O’Shea.
As Killer wheeled away in delight after that score, I turned to my sister – who was there with her Rossie husband and two of her small ones, one of whom opted to support the home side and the other the visitors – and declared the match to be as good as over. With only four minutes gone, that might have been regarded as a bit previous but ten minutes further in and it was screamingly obvious that this was, indeed, the case.
Completely dominant at midfield – where Ronan put in his best performance in a Mayo jersey since his majestic Connacht final display back in 2006 – our quick moving attack simply tore the Roscommon backline to shreds. They just couldn’t cope at all with the Twin Towers and with Killer and Alan Dillon and Pat Harte and Trevor and anyone else who wanted a go all there waiting to pounce on the recycled ball that the big lads were pulling down, a scene of total carnage unfolded at the Bacon Factory end of the pitch in that opening half.
Aidan O’Shea made the second goal – a penalty converted emphatically by Pat Harte – through the kind of perseverance and sheer refusal to be beaten to a ball which, let’s face it, confirms that it’s Kerry blood that flows through his veins. We should be thankful, however, that his jersey is a Red and Green one because this kid is without doubt the most talented player to emerge within the county in a generation. In this incident, he got the ball, lost it, got it again, lost it again and then reclaimed it before feeding it back across the goal where Donal Vaughan – who, as expected, started instead of the injured Liam O’Malley – was fouled. The ref, Cavan’s Brian Crowe (who I though was excellent, by the way – I’m quick enough to chuck rocks at the men in the middle so it’s only fair to recognise a good performance when it occurs), was perfectly placed and awarded the spot-kick. Pat’s thunderous conversion ended the match as a contest with just a bit over ten minutes played.
Ten minutes later, Aidan O’Shea extinguished any lingering arguments on that score. Gathering a lay-off from Alan Dillon, he strode forward powerfully and smashed the ball into the net, in much the same way as he’d done into the same goal against Tyrone on Easter Sunday. That score brought our tally to 3-7 and the Rossies still had another few minutes to wait before Conor Devaney finally opened their account with this free after 28 minutes. It was their only score of the half, which ended with our lads having already racked up 3-10. The way they kept pounding their opponents over the course of that opening 35 minutes might have seemed a tad gratuitous to those of a delicate disposition but, for my money, it was more than a little satisfying to see a Mayo team go for the jugular in such a single-minded fashion.
The second half was never going to be anything more than a glorified challenge game after that devastating opening half. The Rossies needed to get a few scores quickly but were only able to trade points with us for the opening ten minutes or so of the half. By then, those of a numerical bent would have started to wonder about which side of 20 points would the margin of victory finally fall. In the event, the needle came to rest bang on a record-equaling twenty-point mark.
The score of an otherwise uneventful second half came from Peadar Gardiner and it was a thing of real beauty. It was started by a precise pass out of defence by Keith Higgins – what a joy it was to see him back in the saddle again today – who threaded the ball down the left channel to Pat Harte who nonchalantly flicked the ball up off his toe and laid it off to Gardiner. The Crossmolina man was steaming through at speed and though he slipped as he took possession, he managed to offload it and then was up and running to collect the return pass and belt it over the bar.
David Heaney went off to generous applause just after with Tom Parsons replacing him but it would be closer to the end before Johnno at last began to empty the bench, with Conor (for Killer), Mark Ronaldson (for Harte), Kevin McLoughlin (for Vaughan) and BJ (for Alan) all getting a run-out. They’ll all have to be content – Conor included, I suspect – with places on the bench for the final, as I can’t see any reason to drop any of the starting fifteen following today’s performance.
Kenneth O’Malley enjoyed a far happier second championship outing compared to his 2007 debut in Salthill and he showed that his shot-stopping skills are in no way inferior to that of the previous incumbent between the posts. Did his more astute kickouts contribute to our complete superiority at midfield? I wasn’t following that aspect of the game close enough to judge but if the lads on the sideline were and adjudged that this was the case, then the Ballinrobe man could start in the final, regardless of whether or not Clarkie is fit.
The full-back line hadn’t that much to do but what they did, they did just fine. Ger Cafferkey is visibly growing in confidence in the full-back role and seeing him ply his trade at reasonably close quarters in the second half, he looked cool and collected throughout. Sure, he’ll face tougher examinations than this over the course of the summer but it’s great to think that this hugely troublesome position is back, once again, in the possession of a safe pair of hands. Donal Vaughan had a fine match in the corner – and would probably have scored a goal had he not been foot-tripped for the penalty – and so too did Keith Higgins in the other. I think we’d all prefer to see Keith operating further up the field but it looks as if the corner is where he’ll be for the next while at least.
The half-back line didn’t come under the kind of scrutiny that I thought it might, as Cox, Mannion and Shine were unable to get into the game at all. I thought Trevor Howley showed significant glimpses of his old self at centre-back and it looks like he’s the incumbent there again. Peadar Gardiner had plenty of opportunity to rampage forward – as he loves to do and which today resulted in two points to his name – but little in the way of defending. Andy Moran was on the offensive too (he even managed to pick up a yellow card in the process) and notched a point in the second half. I’m still not 100% convinced about him at half-back but, on today’s display, he’s certainly going to be there for the Connacht final.
Ronan was, as already noted, in top form in the middle. He was RTE’s Man of the Match and it can’t be emphasised enough how important Ronan could be to us if he plays like this in every game. With the varying options we now have in the forwards, anything better than a 50:50 outcome at midfield will make us pretty hard to beat and if Ronan can bring this form with him to every game, then we’re not going to get cleaned by any county in this sector. Alongside him David Heaney had a productive day and he looked to be really enjoying himself as he lamped in all that high ball to the big lads inside.
Alan Dillon had a super game, ending with six points, but he also had a hand in a number of other scores, including the Breaffy wunderkind’s goal. The Ballintubber man has had a tough enough time with niggly injuries over the last while but he now appears to have hit the richest vein of form in his inter-county career. Alongside him Pat Harte did well, mopping up a lot of ball around the middle, taking the ball on at speed and generally causing mayhem in their half-back line. Trevor got two good points and could have got a goal right at the end too and this captaincy thing is, one senses, sitting quite easily with him. He didn’t, thankfully, operate on the forty today and I don’t see the logic of naming him there but there’s always going to be room in the team for a battler like Trevor, especially with an almost certain battle against Galway up next for us.
Killer was immense today, scoring 1-3 and effectively pointing us on the road to victory within four minutes of the throw-in. That’ll do his confidence the world of good and I’d just love to see him go out and do the same again in the final. Aidan O’Shea was just superb – we are, I think, truly privileged to have this kid in our ranks and I reckon he’s only just getting going. Barry Moran, in contrast, didn’t shine as much – in a duck-shoot you’d expect your full-forward to score but he didn’t today – but he’s still, I think, worth his place in the final, as his presence as one half of the Twin Towers acts as a foil for the real deal from Breaffy.
So, that’s it till the final in four weeks time. As satisfying as today’s win was, we need to keep our confidence in check over the next few weeks. Remember 1987? We beat the living shite out of Sligo (that was a 20-pointer too, with an eerily similar final score compared to today’s) in the Connacht semi-final that year, only to lose to Galway by eight points to seven in one of the most depressing provincial finals I was ever at. Galway have a habit of doing that and once they deal with Sligo next weekend (and I confidently expect they will) they’ll be absolutely delighted to have the chance of knocking us back down to size again.
With the team we have, I think we’ve a great chance of doing one on them in Salthill on July 19th but we can’t expect anything but a tough, close battle with the Herrin Chokers when that one comes about. Today we announced our intent to compete at a far higher level this summer than we’ve been able to do for the last two years but we now need to come down off today’s high in the knowledge that this ambition will be tested severely next month.
MAYO: Kenneth O’Malley; Donal Vaughan, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Peadar Gardiner (0-2), Trevor Howley, Andy Moran (0-1); David Heaney, Ronan McGarritty (0-2); Pat Harte (1-1), Trevor Mortimer (0-2), Alan Dillon (0-6, three frees); Aidan Kilcoyne (1-3, two ‘45s’), Barry Moran, Aidan O’Shea (0-1). Subs: Tom Parsons for Heaney (53 mins), Conor Mortimer for Kilcoyne (63 mins), Mark Ronaldson (0-1) for Harte (67 mins), Kevin McLoughlin for Vaughan (68 mins), Billy Joe Padden for Dillon (69 mins).