“Ye were in hard luck, lads” said the guy on the bike that we met on Philibsburgh Avenue as we trudged wearily home from Croke Park this evening. “No we weren’t” the Brother and I answered in unison “we got what we deserved”. And we did, you know: we were shapeless, clueless and, apart from a few exceptions, leaderless against Tyrone today. They weren’t hectic either: a very poor imitation of the side that won two All-Irelands earlier in the decade and, with twenty minutes to go, we had them by the throat. We can have no excuses for the inept way we contrived to lose the game from this position. We got what we deserved alright and – you know what? – it’s just as well because I fear what kind of beating we’d have suffered from the likes of the Dubs had we managed to sneak through today.
It never felt like a big Croke Park day, even if it was championship football at HQ in August. The embarrassingly small crowd – just over 27,000 – had a lot to do with it, as the pre-match parade showed. Not exactly the kind of atmosphere you’d see in an All-Ireland final, is it?
This was carried through into what turned out to be a very lethargic first half. We were first off the mark with this Alan Dillon free after just 2 minutes but, although we saw plenty of ball in the first quarter, we shipped four points at the other end before Dillon popped over a second free on 15 minutes. BJ got our first from play straight away afterwards, following a wonderful catch from Tom Parsons, but Sean Cavanagh then boomed one over from play to edge Tyrone two ahead again.
David Clarke showed plenty of grey matter soon after by allowing a fisted effort from Cavanagh to sail into his net when, had he got a touch to it, the goal would have stood. That was about all the smarts we had shown by then, with four balls having already been hoofed out over the sideline at the Hogan Stand end and plenty of aimless punts being sent into our full-forward line which the Tyrone defence mopped up with ease.
We looked ill at ease at this point but Tyrone weren’t looking much better, as Tommy McGuigan missed an easy chance for a point and an easier one for a goal soon after and this profligacy was punished at the other end when Parsons and Pat Harte combined to put Conor Mortimor through for an easily palmed goal. So having played really poorly for the opening half hour, we were suddenly a point in front and this Mort free just after put us two clear. Ryan McMenamin fought his way through for a a score that the TV replays showed was illegal before BJ looped over another from play for us. Dooher, from play, closed out the scoring in the first half, a half which ended with us a point to the good, despite having performed indifferently.
When our lads reappeared for the second half, Pat Harte – who had been yellow carded late in the opening period – had given way to Trevor Mortimor. I’m not sure why this switch was made as Pat wasn’t our lowest-key performer in the first half (Killer and Andy Moran were well ahead in that particular queue) but, whatever the reason, the combative Shrule-Glencorrib man was in for the second half. His younger brother got the first two scores of a nervy opening twelve minutes to this second period, the first from a free and the second from play, following an excellent assist from Trevor Howley. This latter score put us three ahead and when Tommy McGuigan kicked an absolutely horrendous wide from only twenty yards out on 50 minutes, it began to look like it was going to be our day.
Mickey Harte had switched Sean Cavanagh to midfield on the restart but the move only began to pay real dividends just after that McGuigan miss when a surging run through the middle should have ended in a penalty for the Red Handers. That was a let-off for us but there was to be no respite over the next ten minutes as Tyrone reeled off six points without reply, three from frees and three from play, to run up what eventually proved to be a winning score of thirteen points. Three down with ten minutes to go, we battled frantically to try to save the match but frees from Dillon and Mort weren’t enough and so, for the second championship match in a row, we came up short by a point.
It was a poor enough performance today and the lack of fluidity and understanding the team showed on the pitch was easily explained – only three of today’s starting fifteen had the same number on their jersey as they had in the Connacht final. While the backs performed fairly well – including Tom Cunniffe at full-back – our attempts to pass our way out of defence from deep positions were always going to cause problems against a side like Tyrone and cheap turnovers cost us a few vital scores. We more than broke even at midfield – well, until Cavanagh moved there – and Tom Parsons had a good Croke Park debut, even if he did kick three bad wides. But we were poor in the forwards, both in terms of how the likes of how Killer and Andy Moran performed and in the aimless ball hoofed into the full-forward line. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we continue, match after match, to rain high ball into Mort.
In fairness to him, Mort did well today – contributing 1-4 to our total – and his marker Conor Gormley should have been red-carded at the end of the first half but the ref, Cormac Reilly from Meath, bottled the decision. I thought the ref was poor and pulled us for a number of pick-ups that replays showed were legal, as well as missing an utterly cynical job done on Andy Moran in the second half but, as noted earlier, Sean Cavanagh should have had a penalty for them midway through the second half and he also made a few other dodgy decisions in our favour.
But the bottom line today was that we weren’t good enough to put away a mediocre Tyrone side – only ten scores all day and a failure to raise a single flag from the 47th to 64th minute tells its own story – and, once again, we looked disorganised and shambolic for most of the seventy minutes. Johnno has to take the blame for this: in his two years in charge, he has presided over just two championship wins – last year over Cavan and this year’s victory over Sligo – as we’ve fallen back from being one of the top teams in the country to a bunch of also-rans. Bitter as it was to lose today – and by the minimum margin too – we have to acknowledge that further progression would have left us open to the possibility of another Croke Park hiding. At least today’s defeat has saved us from that.
Mayo: David Clarke; Keith Higgins, Tom Cunniffe, Trevor Howley; Peadar Gardiner, James Nallen, Aidan Higgins; David Heaney, Tom Parsons; Andy Moran, Pat Harte, BJ Padden (0-2); Conor Mortimor (1-4, 3 frees), Alan Dillon (0-4, frees), Aidan Kilcoyne. Subs: Trevor Mortimor for Harte (half-time), Aidan Campbell for Kilcoyne, Pat Kelly for Howley, Ronan McGarritty for Moran.