With Down having played in the Ulster final only the other evening, it was reasonable to expect that we’d see a tired team performing in Pearse Park, Longford, this afternoon. We did but unfortunately that team was Mayo, as our lads failed to keep pace with their livelier opponents for much of the hour and in the end were slightly flattered by the losing margin of only three points, in a match where Down ran out winners by 1-15 to 2-9.
It was a glorious day for a game of football, with the sun still high in the sky and only a slight breeze blowing across the field as the ball was thrown in at Pearse Park at five this evening. Cork had just edged out Dublin in the day’s first semi-final and so we took the field aiming to make it a repeat of the 2006 decider at this level. Unlike the last day the county had contested a match here, today’s crowd at the nice, compact midlands venue was a very small one – I’d say it was under a thousand – split evenly enough between the two sides.
The first half turned out to be an even split too: we stayed with them for the first fifteen minutes but they then sped away from us over the next fifteen, building up a lead that we’d never manage to reel in. We got the day’s opening score – a free from Kevin McLoughlin – with Aidan O’Shea landing our first point from play after they’d levelled. A Jason Doherty free from well out brought us level after two Paul Devlin scores had edged them in front and then this collector’s item, a ‘45’ from goalie Robert Hennelly, cancelled out a well-taken point from play from their midfielder Peter Fitzpatrick.
We had been doing okay in that opening fifteen minutes, with Kevin Keane expertly marshalling the full-back line and Aidan O’Shea in the thick of it further out but already there were signs of a lack of punch in our forward line, with players turning into tackles and labouring to make any progress at all in the final third of the field.
What we didn’t expect was a Down blitz but that’s what hit us over the next ten minutes or so. Paul Devlin started it off with a free after Kevin McLoughlin handled the ball on the ground and three rapidly-taken points from play followed as they went four clear. Mikey Sweeney pulled one back but this was immediately answered at the other end. Points were now being traded in quick succession, with Down extending their lead to five before Aidan O’Shea boomed his second of the day over with his left to cut the gap to four.
Their full-forward, Paul McComiskey, pointed from play to move Down five ahead again but just before half-time we broke through for a morale-boosting goal, with a slick series of passes putting in Cathal Carolan whose thunderous shot smashed off the underside of the crossbar and Neil Douglas palmed the rebound into the net to leave us just two points adrift after what had been a fairly ropey first-half performance.
There was plenty to ponder on at half-time but as it turned out, I hadn’t much time for pondering as TIALTNGO and myself had arranged to meet up for a brief Mayo GAA bloggers’ plenary session. We agreed the team was in a bit of bother and would need to take a leaf from the seniors’ copybook in terms of their second half performance but the resumption of play then brought our plenary to a rapid conclusion.
Cathal Carolan got us off the mark quickly on the resumption with this score from play to bring us within a point of them but they then struck decisively at the other end. First came a fisted point from McComiskey and then they worked the ball from one end of the pitch to the other, with Paul Devlin fisting it home for a goal to give the Ulster champions a five-point cushion.
They notched another from play soon after and the writing now appeared to be on the wall for us. But just as we might have been forgiven for thinking that the match was over, Mikey Sweeney rounded off a fine move to fist home our second goal of the day.
Down’s centre-back, John Fitzpatrick, was then ordered off when he picked up a second yellow for hauling down the goalbound Donal Vaughan. Kevin McLoughlin pointed the resultant free but then a minute later missed another one from exactly the same position.
The momentum was now with us but we couldn’t make it count as the Mourne lads broke up a succession of attacks and then their half-forward Conor Maginn ran a full thirty yards without a Mayo hand being laid on him before firing over to extend their lead to three.
With the extra man, we were winning more ball but we couldn’t get it into the danger zone as Down showed they were no slouches in the Nordie black arts department, with a series of carefully executed fouls committed well outside our scoring range which broke up our momentum. To make matters worse, at least three frees we won from such fouls were pumped aimlessly into their full-back line only to be gathered gratefully by a Down defender and cleared.
(Speaking of black arts, have a look at this distracting run by Down’s Conor Maginn, which was clearly aimed at putting off Robert Hennelly as he was about to take his second ‘45’ of the day. It worked, as this one tailed off wide and the ref never spotted this achingly obvious yellow card offence).
With time running out, we needed a goal to keep us in it but all we could manage was another Aidan O’Shea point from play, while they closed out the day’s scoring with a McComiskey free to seal a three-point win.
It was a disappointing result as this team had – or so we thought – a genuine chance of going all the way this year. However, we were well and truly ambushed today and we simply had no answer when Down upped the ante midway through the first half and again early in the second period. In truth, we never looked like winning today and but, for the two goals, we could have taken quite a beating.
In terms of performances, it was a bit of a mixed bag. Kevin Keane had his hands full with Down’s dangerman Paul McComiskey – whom a Down man told me after the match was their new James McCartan – but he still showed more than a few touches of class at full-back. Donal Vaughan and Kevin McLoughlin did okay in spots too but neither were as prominent as they might have been expected to be, given their positions as senior panellists.
Tom Parsons was a real disappointment, not least because he was the side’s captain. While he fetched a few lovely balls, he was in no way dominant in midfield and was unable to make any of those penetrating runs that have become his trademark at senior level. Beside him, Aidan O’Shea worked tirelessly and shot three great points but at times he looked utterly knackered. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that his stellar performance for the seniors last Sunday told against him today. He now clearly needs a bit of a rest from football and not just because of his upcoming Leaving Cert either.
Cathal Carolan and Mikey Sweeney were the pick of a forward line that never got motoring at all. Carolan got subbed in the second half, which I though was odd as he’d showed a fair bit appetite for the game unlike most of his colleagues in the attack. Aghamore’s Cathal Freeman, who was named in the subs but was obviously not fit to take any part in proceedings, was a huge loss to this sector.
The other odd thing – and a factor that arguably cost us the game – was our lack of a reliable free-taker. We missed at least five scoring opportunities from frees today, including sitters from Jason Doherty and Kevin McLoughlin, and, had all those gone over, it could well have been a different result. When you think back to how Aiden Walsh repeatedly kept the minors in it last year with a succession of booming long-range frees (including this spine-tingler at Croke Park), you’d wonder why he didn’t feature in the U21 panel this year. The lack of a free-taker is, of course, also a problem for us at senior level and it’s one that needs to be addressed. Time for a Maurice Sheridan travelling workshop, I think.
So that’s the end of the road for this year’s U21s and unfortunately today’s loss means that we’ve now racked up three All-Ireland semi-final defeats on the trot at this level. This repeated failure at national level takes the shine somewhat off our provincial dominance at this level but today at least we were simply beaten by a better team and there’s no shame in that. I’d expect Down to have a right crack at Cork in the final in two week’s time and if they do manage to go on and claim their second U21 All-Ireland, we will I suppose be able to bask in their reflected glory. But we’ll also have other fish to fry ourselves over the coming summer and, in this respect, I think we may have reasons for cautious optimism about what the rest of the year might hold for us.
MAYO: Robert Hennelly (0-1, a ‘45’); Eoghan Reilly, Kevin Keane, John Broderick; Donal Vaughan, Lee Keegan, Kevin McLoughlin (0-2, frees); Tom Parsons, Aidan O’Shea (0-3); Cathal Carolan (0-1), Frank Burke, Brian Gallagher; Mikey Sweeney (1-1), Neil Douglas (1-0), Jason Doherty (0-1, free). Subs: Sean Prendergast for Broderick, Niall Prenty for Gallagher, Alan Freeman for Carolan.