Photo: Mayo Mick
As we were coming into the outskirts of Mullingar early this afternoon, The Brother all of a sudden broke into song, specifically a number extolling the virtues of the town we were about to enter and how poorly other places of note – Brussels, Constantinople, Madrid and The City of the Russian Tsar among others being name-checked in this context – compared to Joe Dolan’s birthplace. Come half-time at Cusack Park, however, we weren’t exactly singing the praises of the place.
It wasn’t just the damp, misty rain that fell most of the afternoon that had us muttering darkly at the break, nor the fact that we found ourselves slumming it out in the open on the terrace across from the teentsy-tiny stand that was full half an hour and more before throw-in. Instead it was what we had just witnessed in that opening half, which had seen us race into a nine-point lead and seemingly heading out the gate and over the hills only for the home team to reel us right back in to lead by a point at the break.
It took Westmeath a full five minutes to get the ball past half-way and in that time we already had 1-1 on the board. The opener – a goal from Lee Keegan – was created by the quick-thinking Mikie Sweeney who spotted the captain roaming forward and popped a swiftly-taken free over the cover to him. Lee buried it and we were off and running.
Photo: Mayo Mick
Kevin McLoughlin added a point from play before Westmeath got their opener from a free but we then surged clear with a flurry of scores. Three points from play in rapid succession from Alan Freeman, Enda Varley and Aidan O’Shea was followed by a second goal, this one from Mikie Sweeney. The Kiltane man grabbed a loose ball that the Westmeath backline couldn’t deal with, which had emanated from a pot-shot by Donal Vaughan, and rifled it to the net.
2-4 to 0-1 up and rampant, we should, without doubt, have gone on and buried them before the break. We were on top all over the field and just needed to keep the foot on the accelerator for another ten or fifteen minutes and the thing would have descended into a duck shoot.
Instead, we allowed them back into it and the catalyst for this fairly incredible turn of events was their opening goal. A ball lofted into the square, Robbie rashly going to claim it and the forward nicking in and flicking it over him to the net. Two pointed frees followed for them – with Kevin Keane seeing yellow for the second one – as they cut the gap to four.
Two points in reply for us, the first another Aidan O’Shea one and the second by Lee Keegan following a trademark surging run forward, should have righted us but they then responded with two at the other end, the second a free awarded when Dessie Dolan went down a tad too easily.
Alan Freeman then bashed over a long-range free but that was our final score of the half. In that frantic ten-minute spell before the break, the home side completely dominated, winning everything at midfield, claiming all the breaks and passing and moving with increasing confidence. They hit us with 1-3 without reply over the course of that purple patch, their second goal of the game being the highlight as James Dolan got on the end of a flowing move and crashed the ball home.
Photo: Mayo Mick
I’d say our lads would have been far happier to see the dressing room at half-time than they were as it gave us a chance to calm down and regroup. We’d lost all shape in that period of Westmeath dominance but while it was galling to end up going in behind having been so far ahead, we still looked to have enough quality to win the match once we got going again.
David Drake for Kevin Keane, with Colm Boyle reverting to the corner, was the only change we made at the half-way mark. In truth, any one of at least six players could have been hauled ashore at that stage but, perhaps mindful of the atrocious playing conditions, James opted against wholesale changes prior to the start of the second half.
Photo: Mayo Mick
The first change we made, ten minutes or so after half-time, was a hugely significant one. To a thunderous cheer from the large travelling support, Cillian O’Connor made his comeback entrance and immediately set about stamping his influence on the game.
We had already drawn level by then – Heslin pointed a free for them soon after the restart but frees from Kevin McLoughlin and Alan Freeman brought the match back to parity – but our increased intensity in that third quarter saw us open up a decisive four-point lead on the Lake County.
Photo: Mayo Mick
Kevin McLoughlin got the first of these from play, then came another placed ball from Freeman – when a rapid move forward ended with Jason Doherty getting hauled down – and another from play by Lee Keegan, off a ’45 that was played short. Another ’45 produced another point, with Alan Freeman teeing up David Drake for a lovely curling effort that sailed over to send us four clear.
The subs were coming thick and fast now, with Seamus O’Shea on for Jason Gibbons (the Ballintubber man having put in another good, hard-working shift), Mickey Conroy on for Mikie Sweeney (whose influence had faded after that explosive start) and Brian Gallagher on for Jason Doherty (for whom little went right in the first half but who continued plugging away until he was withdrawn).
Conroy had an assist for a Freeman point soon after, following an astute long-range pass in by Keith Higgins but the biggest roar of the day came after that, when Cillian O’Connor boomed over a massive free from out on the sideline. Seamus O’Shea then won the kickout following that one and fed Brian Gallagher for a smartly taken point and, following Westmeath’s scrambled third goal, the Claremorris man then notched another to seal the five-point win.
It wasn’t a classic performance, for sure, but neither was it one to be unduly concerned about. We got from this match what we came for – the two League points on offer – and, despite that second quarter meltdown, we still won the game with plenty to spare.
The conditions were abysmal today and it was difficult for us to continue executing our fast-moving, high tempo approach in that kind of weather. But when the chips were down in the second half, we upped the gas very effectively and had the game in the bag well before the end.
Best for us today were Colm Boyle, the ever excellent Lee Keegan, Aidan O’Shea, Jason Gibbons (for sheer workrate alone), Kevin McLoughlin, Keith Higgins, Alan Freeman and, in the first half, Mikie Sweeney. David Drake, Seamus O’Shea and Brian Gallagher also performed well off the bench but special mention has to go to Cillian O’Connor who oozed class throughout his second half cameo.
With Cillian back in business, we’re a different team so anyone thinking of writing us off after today’s somewhat erratic performance needs to think again. We’ve much to work on, for sure, but we’ve plenty to work with and we’re only getting going this year.
Cork will be a big step up next weekend but, their good league form notwithstanding, they’re not a team that we should be quaking in our boots about. Instead, we need to view this one as the match in which we can cement our Division One place, while building further for the summer that’s coming ever closer.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Brendan Harrison, Ger Cafferkey, Kevin Keane; Lee Keegan (1-2), Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle; Aidan O’Shea (0-2), Jason Gibbons; Kevin McLoughlin (0-3, two frees), Jason Doherty, Keith Higgins; Enda Varley (0-1), Alan Freeman (0-5, three frees), Mikie Sweeney (1-0). Subs: David Drake (0-1) for Keane, Cillian O’Connor (0-1, free) for Varley, Seamus O’Shea for Gibbons, Michael Conroy for Sweeney, Brian Gallagher (0-2) for Doherty, Cathal Carolan for Higgins.