No ifs or buts this time
SOME days are diamonds a wise man once said. It’s a phrase that seemed wholly approriate when reflecting on how Mayo marched off into the sunset last Sunday evening with the JJ Nestor Cup for the 41st time.
There are ways to win big matches; converting an almost impossible free over three minutes into injury-time to beat the defending champions – and your keenest rivals – is up there with the best of them.
And for that this entire Mayo squad and management must take a bow. They remained stoic in the face of whispers and doubts, stood by their ideas and philosophies, and were rewarded with a display that was brimming with character, effort, inspiration and perspiration.
There was individual brilliance too, and it is there we must salute the match-winner. When the finer details of this match begin to blur in years to come, the 2006 showpiece will be always remembered as the ‘Conor Mortimer’ final.
The reason? His sublime point from a free 38 minutes, 42 seconds, into the second half, which was struck beautifully from beneath the scoreboard into the Bacon Factory End goal. The roar that erupted as the ball sailed between the posts will linger forever.
We will never know for sure if the free should have been awarded; the photograph confirms there was contact between Billy Padden and Finian Hanley. Did Padden fall or was he pushed? The latter, said referee Paddy Russell, and his word is final.The experienced Tipperary official had one more big decision to make after the Shrule boy wonder split the posts to give Mayo the lead for only the second time in the game.Four and a half minutes into injury-time, Galway captain Michael Donnellan shaped up to a free, 40 yards out on the left wing. He was informed that it would be the last kick of the game. He drove the football low, to the left, and wide. Game over.
It was no more than Mayo deserved. Their defence was outstanding, men like Liam O’Malley, Keith Higgins and James Nallen defying physics and reason to come bursting out with possession time and again. Midfield was where Ronan McGarrity scraped the skies, threw himself on breaking ball, and pierced Galway’s defence with penetrating runs. This was a day when he seized the moment, and dove-tailed neatly with Pat Harte.
The forwards worked hard all through but misfired badly in the opening half. Nine wides had been clocked up by the interval from a variety of angles and distances; the chances created by Mayo’s total and utter domination of the midfield sector. They owned the football for long spells but, incredibly, trailed by 0-5 to 0-4 at the short whistle.
Still, Billy Padden, Ciaran McDonald, Alan Dillon and Conor Mortimer could not be faulted for effort while the arrival of 33 year old Kevin O’Neill off the bench provided experience and guile in the scoring zone.
The sweltering heat provided the backdrop as Mayo tore into the match and shot four quick-fire wides before Joe Bergin chipped Galway into the lead on eight minutes. Padraig Joyce then doubled the advantage but Mayo were ready to roll their sleeves up.
The defence went man-to-man, taking on assigned marking duties, McGarrity set about taking control at midfield in the absence of the Galway guvnor, Paul Clancy, and Ciaran McDonald and Alan Dillon roamed the prairie in an effort to link defence and attack.
Amidst the territorial dominance and litany of wides, four points without reply were chiselled from Conor Mortimer (2, one an excellent score from play) and Ciaran McDonald, an audacious free and a ‘45. Mayo led by 0-4 to 0-2 after 29 minutes.
Galway’s economy stood them in good stead in the final five minutes of the half with Michael Meehan smacking over a ‘45 and then nailing a sweet score from play to level things up. John Healy did not have the most comfortable of afternoons between the Mayo posts and when a short kick-out when wrong, Sean Armstrong arced the lead score. He also tore his hamstring in the same movement and had to retire injured.
The second half tore by in a mix of hazy sunshine; points from Pat Harte and Conor Mortimer levelling the match in the 41st minute before Galway made a break for home. Matthew Clancy pounced for a goal two minutes later after a half-blocked shot from Damien Dunleavy deceived Dermot Geraghty, and when Padraic Joyce tagged on a free, Mayo looked in dire straits.
But there is no substitute for pride and passion on a day like this. Galway were held to just one point in the final 28 minutes while Mayo rattled off six of their own. Ger Brady, Alan Dillon (two frees) and Billy Padden all had flags before the mercurial Kevin O’Neill drove over the equaliser from long range in the 66th minute after James Nallen had broken up a Galway attack.
Then came the final, dramatic moments, when 34,613 people were treated to a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Conor Mortimer never missed a beat. He took it, he scored it, he celebrated.
Who knows what the future holds for this team and its management. But they have now won 12 of their 15 competitive matches together, including this title. No buts about it.
J Healy; D Geraghty, L O’Malley, K Higgins; D Heaney, J Nallen, P Gardiner; R McGarrity, P Harte (0-1); BJ Padden (0-1), G Brady (0-1), A Dillon (0-2); A Moran, C Mortimer (0-4, 2fs), Ciaran McDonald (0-2, 1f. 1’45). Subs used: K O’Neill (0-1) for Moran (33), T Mortimer for Brady (57)
B O’Donoghue; A Burke, F Hanley, D Burke; D Meehan, D Blake, M Comer; N Coleman, M Donnellan; M Clancy (1-0), C Bane (0-1), J Bergin (0-1); M Meehan (0-2), P Joyce (0-3), S Armstrong (0-1). Subs: D Dunleavy for Armstrong (inj, 35+1), B Cullinane for Coleman (43), K Fitzgerald for A Burke (53) P Clancy for Bane (63).
Referee: P Russell (Tipperary)