There was certainly an air of history around McHale Park for much of the afternoon today, with London’s first ever appearance in a Connacht final resulting in the kind of pre-match pageantry you’d normally expect to see on All-Ireland final day. The warm, muggy weather – though it remained mercifully overcast throughout – added to the unreal air surrounding this game, as did the lack of any hint of tension in the 20,000 crowd before hostilities got underway. We all knew that, barring the shock of all shocks, we were going to win this one handily, the only issue of interest seemingly how we were going to do it.
Well, we did indeed win it but those of us who may have been expecting to see the kind of well-oiled machine that had dismantled Galway and Roscommon were destined to be a bit disappointed. We won by a comprehensive 16-point margin today but we also kicked a bundle of wides (eighteen, according to Kevin McStay on the radio earlier on) and we made countless errors, a number of the comical variety. Moreover, the choices made on the sideline got ever more bizarre as the day went on. And the ref was an utter, utter tool.
What was positive, though, was that we did put the result to bed early on – by my reckoning the game was safe as early as the 15th minute, by which time we were six points to the good. Aidan O’Shea was a storming presence around the middle in that opening period and Alan Freeman was to the fore in the forwards, his goal a trademark #mayogaa_2013 one which arose a result of a smartly executed turnover and which the Aghamore man slid the ball home in the coolest manner possible.
Even at that stage, however, too much of our play was wayward with Darren Coen among those to kick bad wides early on, the Hollymount/Carramore man registering two particularly poor ones. He redeemed himself in spectacular fashion before the half was over, though, by emphatically smashing home our second goal of the day:
Despite the two goals, the first half progressed in an utterly disjointed way, with Conor Lane’s stupid, Exile-friendly officiating not doing anything to lift the mood. The Cork official was nothing short of a disgrace and the GAA – and in particular that self-satisfied ref’s boss, Pat McEnaney – have serious questions to answer for giving such an incompetent individual charge of a match like this. All day long, he favoured London in the most blatant fashion, repeatedly moving the ball forward for them when he gave them frees while at the same time turning a blind eye to increasing acts of thuggery being perpetrated by the limited but very physical London team.
We needed to lift it after the break but while it was good to see Cillian O’Connor returning to action on the resumption, it was disappointing to see Darren Coen being the man to make way. Darren hadn’t been brilliant in the first half but he did have a goal to his credit at that stage and it would have been good to give him more time to impose himself on proceedings. Andy Moran, Alan Dillon and Richie Feeney had all been anonymous in the first half yet it was the debutant corner-forward who was the first to be withdrawn.
What’s beyond doubt, though, is that Cillian’s introduction pushed our performance up a level and his 3-3 second half haul marked him out as the day’s most prominent player. The first of his hat-trick settled us down after the break, the Ballintubber man bundling the ball into the net from close range following excellent approach work by Aidan O’Shea.
His second came at the end of a flowing move, with Andy offloading to Cillian who checked across before lashing it into the net. The third came the penalty spot for a foul on Tom Cunniffe that was so blatant even the portly ref felt impelled to spread his chubby arms for it. Cillian dispatched the penalty effortlessly:
We may not have been playing at full-tilt in this period but our lead kept inching up and London’s increasingly wayward shooting at the other end graphically illustrated what an uneven contest this was. Were it not for all those charitable frees awarded to them we could well have restricted them to a point or two after the break, so poor they were with the few chances that came their way.
As we continued to pour forward, London’s discipline started to slip still further, with a succession of wild challenges being put in. With the ref reserving cards for only the worst transgressions and letting them away scot-free with a whole load of blatant fouls, there were obvious worries that the day could yet be marked by a serious injury arising from one of the many neolithic challenges that the Exiles put in.
Thankfully, this didn’t come to pass but we did end up with a significant loss through injury when Mickey Conroy – who had come on for Alan Freeman early in the second half – went off with what I heard later was hamstring trouble. As we’d used our five subs by then, this meant that we ended up playing the last ten minutes with fourteen men.
The fact that we had to do so was, of course, all of our own making. As well as Cillian and Mickey, Donal Vaughan (for Richie Feeney, with Keith Higgins bizarrely moved to half-forward), Shane McHale (for Ger Cafferkey) and Enda Varley (for Andy Moran) had all come on before the Davitts man went down injured. It was poor match management on the sideline, no matter how you look at it, for us to find ourselves in the predicament of having to finish the match with fourteen men.
Even though we were a man down in those final moments, we still continued to pour forward but our hopes of creating our own slice of history by surpassing the 20-point winning margin recorded in 1967 evaporated as the game wound down with more wides for us into the Bacon Factory end. It was a relief all round when the ref finally brought the contest to an end. At least he got that call right.
Performance-wise, we weren’t anything like as sharp as we’d been against both Galway and Roscommon but, in one sense, it’s not all that surprising that was how the day panned out for us. It must have been a hugely difficult game for the lads to prepare for, knowing that they were such overwhelming favourites to prevail and knowing too that however they performed today they were going to get precious little in the way of praise. Just as the Salthill destruction of Galway maybe made us look a bit better than we really are, today’s disjointed victory over London surely made us look worse than our true standing. We’ll find out for sure, I guess, when we hit Croke Park in two weeks time.
In terms of performance, there weren’t many stand-out displays today, aside from Cillian whose 3-3 total certainly showed just how crucial he is for us. Ger Cafferkey, Tom Cunniffe, Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle all did well in the backs, Aidan O’Shea had several good (as well as a few bad) moments at midfield where Sheamie did alright too. Kevin McLoughlin initiated attack after attack in another positive display and along with Alan Freeman and Cillian he was the best of the forwards today. In contrast, neither Alan Dillon or Andy Moran sparked this afternoon and Richie Feeney wasn’t all that hectic either.
Still, regardless of the performance, we need to bear in mind that the lads did what they needed to do today and that – unlike Donegal – they’ve managed to complete a hat-trick of provincial titles. Getting back to Croke Park in August was always the first major objective for us in this year’s championship and this is an objective that has now been successfully completed. Now it’s onto HQ and our next major test, to get past the quarters and move one step closer to the final.
And it’s also the case that we’ve now established complete superiority within Connacht, a position I’ve long felt to be a pre-requisite to becoming a truly serious force at national level. Being provincial top-dogs doesn’t guarantee national success – as Dublin (aside from 2011) have showed – but it does, I think, mean that we can now face into whatever challenges that lie ahead of us with greater confidence in our ability to deliver when it really counts.
So well done, lads, on completing the provincial three-in-a-row and, as Andy said in his post-match speech, let’s hope there’s a big, loud Mayo following at Croke Park on Bank Holiday weekend as we aim to take the next step in this year’s championship.
Mayo: Rob Hennelly; Tom Cunniffe, Ger Cafferkey, Chris Barrett; Lee Keegan (0-2), Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle; Aidan O’Shea, Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-2, one free), Alan Dillon, Richie Feeney (0-1); Andy Moran (0-1), Alan Freeman (1-2), Darren Coen (1-0). Subs: Cillian O’Connor (3-3, penalty goal and two frees) for Coen, Michael Conroy for Freeman, Donal Vaughan for Feeney, Shane McHale for Cafferkey, Enda Varley for Moran.
Finally, a quick mention for Enda Gilvarry’s minors, who in today’s curtain-raiser ended Roscommon’s dominance at this level and secured the county’s first Kilcoyne Cup success since 2010. We’d intended to get to McHale Park in time for throw-in but as things turned out the second half was already underway – and the lads had the three goals on the board – by the time we got to our seats in the stand. By then, they’d completed most of the heavy lifting and although Roscommon largely dominated the exchanges from then ‘till the end, they weren’t able to translate all that possession into the scores they needed to get back into the game.
A ludicrous penalty award two minutes from time – which the Rossies converted – hauled the defending champions back into contention at the death but we had the final say when Liam Irwin, whose first half goal was apparently one to savour, pointed to close out a deserved three-point victory. Well done to them and the best of luck to them in the quarters.