Well, that was a lot closer than I certainly expected today’s Division Two North clash with Westmeath at Cusack Park would be. While we were never really in danger of losing this one, we never looked like we’d win it convincingly either. Three points separated the teams at the finish and you’d have to say that was a fair enough reflection of how the contest had gone.
We had a disjointed air about us early on, a reflection I’d say that had something to do with the flurry of late changes we made before the ball was thrown in. We made three switches to the starting fifteen and several more to the bench as well and I don’t think we can claim to have improved matters in the process.
It was a surprise to see Ben Doyle start instead of Enda Hession, who’d enjoyed such a solid debut last weekend and who could really have done with a second outing. The young Westport player didn’t have a happy time on his debut, coughing up a few cheap frees, which Westmeath converted, and he was also off the pace for their first goal, which they bagged opportunistically with just two minutes played.
This happened when an attempt at a point came off the upright and Loughlin was on hand to win the race for the rebound. He had plenty of time to round Robbie Hennelly and slot it to the net.
We opened our account on five minutes. Eoghan McLaughlin – who started instead of Rory Brickenden – ended a patient move with a left-footed strike to grab our opening point.
Heslin, from a free, restored the home side’s three-point advantage. They looked by far the more settled team at this stage, though even then their tactic of withdrawing everyone into their own half had the look of one that wasn’t eventually going to carry the day for them.
We seemed rushed and uncertain by comparison. A heavy shower of rain that fell as the match was underway made ball handling and bit tricky and we repeatedly lost possession through a mixture of fumbles and misplaced passes.
But gradually we began to warm to our task. Paddy Durcan – who gets my vote as Man of the Match – was to the fore, shooting over on the burst. Then Conor Loftus – our third change from the team we’d named in advance, as he started in place of Kevin McLoughlin – smashed over a nice score from well out.
We had a penalty shout (a new rules one) soon after. Ryan O’Donoghue was fouled close to goal but all we got was a free. While this didn’t seem to be rough justice from our perspective, when we got pinged under the new rules in very similar circumstances a bit later on, that decision took on a very different hue.
Cillian banged over the resultant free to pull us level. Two nice points from Mattie Ruane – who put in another big shift for us today – after the water break sent us two clear and we began, for the first time, to look a bit comfortable.
We swapped points, Egan for them, Conor with an absolute peach for us, before Heslin knocked over a free for them to cut the gap back to one.
Then came the penalty award for them. I’ve no real problem with it – Diarmuid O’Connor did foul his man and, under the new rules, the decision to black card him and award them a spot kick was merited. But sauce for the goose and all that – if that’s the way that decision went then the earlier one should have gone our way too.
Heslin sent Robbie the wrong way from the spot. Now back in front by two points, Westmeath had the chance to apply some pressure on us but they failed to do this. Instead, by the time Diarmuid came back on, after a minute was played in the second half, we were just a point in arrears.
It’s hard to understand the home team’s approach in this period. They kept the bus parked, with fifteen behind the ball, only coming forward during infrequent breakouts.
We wiped out their lead with points from Ryan O’Donoghue, from a mark, and a free from Cillian, after Oisin Mullin had been pulled down and the ball was moved up for dissent.
Heslin edged them back in front – the Westmeath lads were now hitting the deck at the slightest touch – but we responded with a score from Jordan Flynn from a quick pass by Cillian. They had the final say of the half, though, Heslin hooking over off his left to send them in a point up at the break.
We made three changes before the restart. Colm Boyle came in for Ben Doyle, Kevin McLoughlin replaced Jordan Flynn (who was on a yellow so that made sense from a precautionary point of view) and Fionn McDonagh gave way to Bryan Walsh.
They got the first score of the second half. O’Toole claimed a forward mark but then proceeded to claim a fair few yards as well before his free shot at the posts which he pointed.
That was the only score they got for close on twenty minutes, however, as slowly but surely we tightened our grip. We sent over five points without reply, finally gaining some ascendency in what was turning out to be a contest that was way too close for comfort for us.
Tommy Conroy, who never really sparked today, scored after a neat one-two with Ryan and then, after Diarmuid blazed a goal chance narrowly wide, Cillian knocked over a free off the outside of his boot from well out on the right.
We had a scare soon after as a ball into Heslin who was steaming towards the square looked no better than fifty/fifty from Robbie’s perspective. The ‘keeper was brave and decisive, though, taking ball and man to clear the danger and leaving Heslin briefly seeing stars.
Westmeath’s defending was agricultural at the best of times – with lots of slapping, hitting and holding – but the free count against them was now starting to mount. Worse still from their perspective, these fouls were being committed within range from Cillian’s point of view and the Ballintubber man really had his eye in today.
We re-took the lead, one we took into the second water break, when Cillian pointed after, once again, Tommy was fouled and, once again, the ball was moved up for dissent. Just before that break James Carr joined the fray, replacing Conor Loftus. Once play restarted we got to enjoy the uplifting sight of Boyler on the charge upfield. The move ended in another free for us and another score from Cillian. Paddy then raided forward, knocking it over from the right wing to extend our lead to three.
Connellan burst forward to pull one back for them. Then Bryan Walsh won a mark, didn’t fancy a shot at the posts so instead dinked a quick pass to Ryan who gave it back to him and, now closer to the posts, he found the target.
Rory Brickenden came on for Eoghan McLaughlin, ten minutes out now from injury time, as we moved four clear. Oisin Mullin, up in the opposition’s full-back line was the player fouled this time. Same result from Cillian, though, who pointed with ease.
We should have closed out the game without too much effort from there. But two well-taken ‘45s by Loughlin gave them renewed hope, the first one coming when Robbie superbly turned behind a close-in goal attempt for them.
Scores then came in quick succession. Kevin McLoughlin, Heslin (a free) for them and Paddy all pointed in as many minutes before that great Westmeath servant Kieran Martin, not long on the field, booted over two fine points to cut the gap right back to the minimum.
We’d made our final two changes by then, Aidan Orme replacing the out-of-sorts Tommy Conroy while Jack Carney made it a proud day for Kilmeena as he was introduced very late on for Diarmuid O’Connor.
With the game in injury time and just a point separating the sides, the notion that we might yet get felled by a last-second hammer-blow wasn’t at all fanciful. It was then, however, that Cillian showed perfect timing in getting his first point from play of the day and he followed this up with a free soon after for his eighth point of the game. This was the final score of the contest as we won in the end by three points.
This wasn’t a great performance, it was in fact little more than a middling one. Early on we looked too rushed in what we were trying to do and we made way too many unforced errors.
We found Westmeath’s rather crude park-the-bus approach difficult to break down, though it didn’t help matters that the ref too often took a charitable view of their repeated blatant fouling. Eventually, though, it was the concession of too many scoreable frees that proved their undoing.
On the plus side, we won and the win guarantees us a place in the Division Two semi-finals, regardless of how next week’s match against Meath goes. That semi-final game is a big one because if we win it we’re back in Division One at the first attempt.
Ahead of that, though, we’ve a Round 3 meeting with the Royals back at MacHale Park next weekend. We’ll want to keep this winning run going but I’d say James Horan will also be keen to eliminate from our play the next day the things that made today’s win way harder work for us than it really should have been.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Ben Doyle, Oisin Mullin, Lee Keegan; Michael Plunkett, Paddy Durcan (0-3), Eoghan McLaughlin (0-1); Matthew Ruane (0-2), Diarmuid O’Connor; Fionn McDonagh, Conor Loftus (0-2), Jordan Flynn (0-1); Tommy Conroy (0-1), Cillian O’Connor (0-8, seven frees), Ryan O’Donoghue (0-1, a mark). Subs: Colm Boyle for Doyle, Kevin McLoughlin (0-1) for Flynn, Bryan Walsh (0-1) for McDonagh, James Carr for Loftus, Rory Brickenden for McLaughlin, Aidan Orme for Conroy, Jack Carney for Diarmuid O’Connor.
Who was our MOTM against Westmeath? Pick your top three performers
- Paddy Durcan (36%, 675 Votes)
- Matthew Ruane (16%, 306 Votes)
- Cillian O'Connor (11%, 212 Votes)
- Robbie Hennelly (9%, 173 Votes)
- Conor Loftus (5%, 93 Votes)
- Ryan O'Donoghue (5%, 89 Votes)
- Oisin Mullin (4%, 73 Votes)
- Lee Keegan (2%, 34 Votes)
- Colm Boyle (2%, 34 Votes)
- Kevin McLoughlin (2%, 32 Votes)
- Michael Plunkett (1%, 25 Votes)
- Diarmuid O'Connor (1%, 22 Votes)
- Bryan Walsh (1%, 18 Votes)
- Eoghan McLaughlin (1%, 17 Votes)
- Jack Carney (1%, 17 Votes)
- Tommy Conroy (1%, 15 Votes)
- Jordan Flynn (0%, 9 Votes)
- James Carr (0%, 8 Votes)
- Ben Doyle (0%, 8 Votes)
- Aidan Orme (0%, 6 Votes)
- Fionn McDonagh (0%, 5 Votes)
- Rory Brickenden (0%, 4 Votes)
Total Voters: 913