Mayo run out of road
AFTER all the talk about the unfamiliar journey we were going on last Saturday to Limerick city, it seemed ironic that the destination turned out to be one we know only too well.
No other county has endured more defeats in big championship games down through the years; there’s even been a book written on the subject of Mayo’s trials and tribulations when it comes to ending the long wait.
Unfortunately, last weekend’s reversal makes a compelling case for inclusion in the next edition.
For all the hard knocks and heartbreaking losses over the last 63 years, very few contained as much drama, excitement, controversy, incident and tension as this one.
There was any amount of blood and sweat spilt after almost two hours of abrasive, bone-shaking action, and tears flowed freely afterwards as Mayo players and supporters acknowledged the end of an era.
James Horan’s decision to step down after the game confirmed that a memorable and very successful chapter in Mayo’s story had come to a close.
History will be kind to the Horan era but this week, as all concerned reflect on another one that got away, there will be no shortage of regrets, ifs, buts and maybes.
In time this group of Mayo players will realise that they played their part in a remarkable period for the county; dark days in Markievicz Park and Pearse Park back in 2010 now seem like a different lifetime.
And, who knows, maybe the best is yet to come.
But last Saturday evening we were reminded that football is a very simple game, especially when it’s played by a group of well-drilled, well-organised and highly-motivated Kerry players. Men on a mission, armed with a few game-plans, and with players like David Moran and Kieran Donaghy to lead the charge. They bent the game to their will and dragged Kerry over the line to victory.
Mayo played their fair share of sparkling football too, and left everything on the field in pursuit of victory, but they had failed to learn the lessons of six days earlier.
And they were made to pay the ultimate price.
The conversation would be very different this week had Robbie Hennelly’s last kick of the game at the end of normal time been converted. However, his 45m free into the teeth of the wind fell just short of the Kerry goal where it was punched clear by the gargantuan Donaghy.
It was a superb effort by Hennelly, and it would have been a suitably special end to an epic, marathon of a match.
Instead, both teams faced into extra-time after finishing all square at 3-11 apiece and we continued to hope for the best.
Mayo’s best on the evening though wasn’t good enough and, despite hitting the front with quickfire points from the excellent Cillian O’Connor and Kevin McLoughlin, they failed to score for the last 20 minutes of the additional period.
Kerry’s monopoly on possession and the presence of Messrs Donaghy and O’Donoghue meant they always threatened scores, and an unanswered five points was more than enough to eventually get the job done.
The below-par performance by the referee is well documented elsewhere in these pages, but a couple of very debatable close-in frees got Kerry up and running in extra-time.
They then picked off three superb points in the second period from Jonathan Lyne (2) and Paul Geaney to make the decisive break for another All-Ireland Final as Mayo ran out of energy, ideas and time down the home stretch.
A late brawl involving a cluster of players, plus an incursion onto the field by an irate supporter, did nothing to help their attempts at a rescue mission. Neither did Kerry’s willingness and ability to disrupt their opponents and engage them in sideshows in the dying moments.
It was a masterclass in game management.
This replay had everything, including three penalties, a black card, a red card, controversy aplenty, and two teams who were more than happy to throw themselves into a full-blooded contest.
The first quarter was incredibly tense and frenetic as the crowd of just over 36,000 created an electric atmosphere inside the tight confines of the Gaelic Grounds.
Kerry led by 0-2 to 0-1 after 19 minutes as both sides weighed each other up; then Mayo struck for 2-2 in four incredible minutes, and the match caught fire for the evening.
The first goal came from a Cillian O’Connor penalty after he was hauled down in the square.
Two minutes later he netted again, this time a soccer-style tap-in after a brilliant catch, marauding burst, and pass from Aidan O’Shea.
O’Connor also tacked on a couple of frees during this scoring spree and Mayo were 2-3 to 0-2 up, against the run of play.
Kerry’s dominance around the middle of the field was worrying: in that first half they won 16 kick-outs to Mayo’s three, and 8 turn-overs to none for the Connacht champions. Something was not quite right.
With so much ball raining in top of the Mayo full-back line, Kieran Donaghy and James O’Donoghue always looked capable of creating havoc, although Keith Higgins was at his inspirational best as he tried to shackle the latter.
Donaghy was a different matter though; and the hulkish full-forward caused havoc for Ger Cafferkey all evening.
He also scored the Kerry goal in the 29th minute that got them back in the game, booting a loose ball past Robbie Hennelly from close range after Higgins had done brilliantly to block O’Donoghue’s goalbound shot.
At half-time Mayo led by 2-5 to 1-5, and we were set up for a fascinating the second half.
The sight of both Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor on the sideline for the start of the second period was a big blow to Mayo; both key men injured after an earlier accidental collision.
Both returned to the fray later, but the impact had taken its toll on O’Shea, in particular, and he was obviously feeling the effects.
The third quarter saw Kerry up the ante and Donaghy and O’Donoghue really went to town around Mayo’s understaffed and over-worked full-back line.
O’Donoghue picked off two points from play and also buried a penalty after he went down under an innocuous challenge in the square.
Then sub Marc Ó Sé galloped upfield to land an inspirational score and Kerry led by 2-8 to 2-6 with 20 minutes to go.
Mayo’s backs were to the wall.
They were in dire need of inspiration and, credit to Andy Moran, he provided it, popping up in the square to flick a loose ball to the Kerry net for a precious, golden goal.
Mayo were back in front, despite their malfunctioning middle-third, and the problems down at the other end.
O’Donoghue tied the match up again on 54 minutes as the atmosphere reached fever pitch.
A couple of superb scores from Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor saw Mayo ease clear.
However, by the 61st minute, Kerry were within touching distance again after O’Donoghue popped over a free and moments later the Legion marksman drilled in another goal from another debatable penalty award.
Mayo were two down with seven minutes to go.
Once more they went to the well, pushed themselves to the limits, and found a way back, as sub Mickey Conroy and Donal Vaughan grabbed the scores to send us to extra-time.
Late on, Cillian O’Connor was red carded for catching a Kerry defender with a stray boot but it got lost in the madness.
The rest is now history, written by Kerry winners.
No glory this year then, but honour in defeat for a fine Mayo team who came up just short once again.
B Kelly; P Murphy, F Fitzgerald, S Enright; A O'Mahony, P Crowley, K Young (0-1); D Moran, A Maher; M Geaney, J Buckley, D Walsh; P Geaney (0-4,3fs), K Donaghy (1-0), J O'Donoghue (2-6, 2-0 pen, 2fs)
Subs used: M Ó Sé (0-1) for Enright (22mins); BJ Keane (0-2, 2fs) for P Geaney (42); P Kilkenny for Fitzgerald (black card, 42); D O’Sullivan for Buckley (55); K O’Leary for M Geaney (61); J Lyne (0-2) for D Walsh (70); B Sheehan for O’Mahony (83).
R Hennelly; K Higgins, G Cafferkey, T Cunniffe; C Boyle, D Vaughan (0-1), L Keegan; S O’Shea, B Moran; K McLoughlin (0-1), A O'Shea, J Doherty (0-3); C O'Connor (2-5, 1-0 pen, 3fs), A Moran (1-1), A Dillon.
Subs used: T Parsons for B Moran (half-time); A Freeman (0-1, 1f) for A O’Shea (blood sub, half-time); M Conroy (0-1) for O’Connor (blood sub, half-time); M Conroy for Dillon (57 mins); K Keane for Cafferkey (68); R Feeney for A O’Shea (70); A Freeman for A Moran (70); B Harrison for Vaughan (79); C Barrett for Boyle (83).
Referee: C Reilly (Meath)