The heavy, thundery showers that fell in torrents before and after – but not during – today’s Connacht football semi-final didn’t really come as any surprise. Neither did the suffocating, ultra-defensive tactics employed by John Evans’ Roscommon team at Hyde Park this afternoon. What, perhaps, was a surprise was that when the script was perfectly set up for a shock home win, it was instead our lads who righted themselves and snatched enough scores to come away with a hard-fought one-point victory.
The rain was falling so heavily at one stage prior to throw-in that, from the stand, the view of Roscommon town disappeared completely behind the misty, dark gloom. It fell in stair-rods then and so the going underfoot was soft and heavy by the time ref Eddie Kinsella threw in the ball at 2 o’clock, though by then the rain had at least ceased and the sky was blue once more.
Roscommon immediately set out their stall with an extremely defensive formation, with no more than three forwards in our half and a swarming, hard working and hard hitting blanket thrown across their backline. Despite this close attention, though, we got going quickly when Jason Doherty pointed superbly from distance.
Photo: Mayo Mick
Roscommon responded with a super score from out on the right by Kevin Higgins but we then missed a few chances and also had Robbie Hennelly to thank for pulling down a ball that was heading over the bar. From our next attack, Cillian O’Connor neatly gathered possession and played a great early ball inside to Alan Freeman who was fouled as he tried to burst through the cover. Cillian popped over the resultant free.
Photo: Mayo Mick
The next score was also a Cillian free, also after a foul on Freezer, but by now twenty minutes had been played in a match that was providing plenty of effort from both sides but little in the way of spectacle. The Rossies were content to sit back and frustrate us and we didn’t seem to have any coherent plan to break down their defensive wall. Worse still, there was precious little urgency to our play, with our attacks overly ponderous and completely lacking in invention.
The game’s next score didn’t come until the 35th minute when Roscommon finally broke upfield for Senan Kilbride to fire over. We responded immediately with a point from play by Kevin McLoughlin, following good link play from Conor O’Shea and Diarmuid O’Connor. They had the last say of the half, though, when Donie Shine boomed over a ’45 to reduce the gap to a single point.
Photo: Mayo Mick
The Rossies would surely have been the happier of the two teams at the break. They’d obviously made it their aim not to lose the match in the first half and had more than succeeded in doing this. Now they had a shot at pushing on and claiming a shock victory. Mind you, we hadn’t exactly helped our own cause in that opening half, shooting ten wides in that period.
The second half started in much the same vein. Cillian attempted a pass inside that went wide and then Cathal Cregg was off target at the other end. Kilbride pointed from their next attack, though, from a move could have ended in a goal for them but Cillian once more responded from a placed ball after he’d been fouled himself.
At that stage, I was marvelling at the sight of our half of the field completely devoid of any Roscommon players, wondering if they were ever going to come out to play at all at all. Well, I got my answer soon enough as fast hands put Ciaran Cafferkey in the clear and he knifed through our backline at pace. When he got within range, he had the balls to back himself too and his shot beat Robbie’s despairing dive to find the net. The goal was the first one we’d conceded in the Connacht championship since Paul Conroy’s effort for Galway in the semi-final three years ago.
Photo: Mayo Mick
We responded well, however, from this setback. Cillian pointed another free after he was fouled out near the inline and after he was fouled again soon after, Kevin McLoughlin guided over the resultant free from out on the right. In the next move, Cillian was fouled yet again as he played the ball inside and Kevin Mc popped over the free, awarded from where the ball had landed, to edge us back in front once more.
By now, Andy Moran had come on for Conor O’Shea and another of the old guard, Alan Dillon, made his appearance with twenty minutes to go, replacing Diarmuid O’Connor. Another sub, Roscommon’s Diarmuid Murtagh, had by then put the home team back in front, however, with a brace of well-taken scores from play.
The home side’s cause wasn’t helped, though, when Donie Shine was carried from the field with what was later confirmed to be a knee injury.
The messy play continued. Lee Keegan, bombing forward, spilled the ball when under no real pressure, then Colm Boyle made a hash of a foot pass, gifting possession back to them. In between those two incidents we had a lucky escape when a point effort for them came back off the upright and into the grateful arms of Donie Vaughan. Then Higgins and Kilbride hit a pair of horrific wides for them.
With ten minutes left to play, the Rossies pulled two clear when Murtagh pointed a free and they quickly followed it with one from play to pull three clear. Our provincial crown was now definitely on the line and everything looked perfectly set up for a rare victory over us by the Sheepstealers.
It was then, however, that we dug into our reserves and got the scores we needed to see off the home team. Two points from Andy Moran, the second one a real monster, reduced the deficit down to the minimum and another long range effort, this one from Seamus O’Shea, hauled us back on terms.
Photo: Mayo Mick
We almost got through for a goal as well but Andy hesitated and lost possession and as the ball bobbed around Jason Doherty grabbed it and was left with only the ‘keeper to beat. Jason was penalised for the manner in which he’d done so but the replay showed he’d done nothing wrong.
Roscommon were running out of ideas at this stage and a crude shove into the back on Donie presented Cillian with the chance to put us back in front. Once again, the Ballintubber man made no mistake from the placed ball.
We were now in injury time, with poor old Richie Feeney being brought on for his regulation two minutes of action (Mikie Sweeney having come on for Alan Freeman with about ten minutes to go) but it was another sub, the quick-thinking Andy Moran, who released Kevin McLoughlin from a free fifty yards out. The Knockmore man lashed it over from distance to put us two up deep in stoppage time. Murtagh got a point back from a free for them and then they bore down on our goal with a last-gasp burst but this ended in a free out for us with the final whistle sounding straight afterwards.
This was anything but a varnished display on a day when the conditions didn’t exactly lend themselves to free-flowing football. Roscommon had a game plan and it was one they stuck to and which paid dividends for them. Ultimately, however, we had just enough in the tank to eke out the win but coming out of the ground it really did feel that it was a win we’d barely deserved from a contest that we could just as easily have lost. Still, though, a win is a win is a win and all that.
Best for us in my view today were Tom Cunniffe, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins and Colm Boyle in the backs, Seamus O’Shea in midfield and Kevin McLoughlin and Cillian O’Connor in the forwards. It was the wise old head of Andy Moran, though, who was the catalyst for our revival in the final quarter, with his telling contribution off the bench helping to edge us over the line today.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Tom Cunniffe, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan; Aidan O’Shea, Seamus O’Shea (0-1); Diarmuid O’Connor, Conor O’Shea, Jason Doherty (0-1); Kevin McLoughlin (0-4, two frees), Alan Freeman, Cillian O’Connor (0-5, frees). Subs: Andy Moran (0-2) for Conor O’Shea, Alan Dillon for Diarmuid O’Connor, Mikey Sweeney for Freeman, Richie Feeney for Doherty.