Mayo refuse to leave the stage
WE’LL not quibble with the result. The breathtaking finale owed as much to the mental as to the athletic attributes of the Mayo participants. As a contest it may have lacked the bustling image and the clinical finish of serious All-Ireland contenders, may not have won the admiration of the gurus sitting in judgement in Dublin, but it showed that football can be just as enjoyable, as keen, as tense, as thrilling, without the physical quality, and the spoiling strategies which have become such an essential demand for success. This may not win All-Irelands, but so long as there are teams like Laois and Mayo around Gaelic football will be an appealing advertisement for everyone.
The result could have gone either way. It did not deserve to. But it took the composure of Conor Mortimer to keep Mayo’s hopes alive of a meeting with Dublin in the semi-final. It was not quite a re-enactment of his winning point in the Connacht final but, although from a less difficult angle, it may have been more onerous. He won the free for that score with single-minded determination. If he had missed, Laois would have stolen the show. A miss against Galway would have ended in a draw.
Nor must we gloss over the quality of the score that began the rein-in of an ominous Laois lead three minutes before the end of normal time. Under 21 captain Aidan Kilcoyne had replaced Ger Brady on the ‘forty’ a short time earlier and the manner in which he sped towards goal before gliding the ball over the bar suggested that the Knockmore man is maturing nicely.
Had Mayo lost we might have had reason to turn our fault-finding radar on a few incidents at crucial stages in that second half . . . the poorly controlled pass of David Heaney in the 60th minute that ended in a point by Donal Brennan after Andy Moran had fired Mayo into the lead; the lapse in judgement of Ciaran McDonald in attempting a score from the sideline near the end of normal time when Mayo were trailing by a point, and the inexplicable wildness of a cross by Pat Harte less than half a minute from the end when he had all the time in the world to wait for support that would offer a chance of a winning point.
Yet all of those incidents would surely have faded into insignificance if Mayo had fully availed of all the chances they themselves had invented in the first half. A bucket of wides, together with a bundle of goal chances, riddled their play. Other than one goal gift - when a shot from Brendan Quigley came back off an upright - no equivalent amount of opportunities were presented to Laois. Like the Connacht final, Mayo should have been miles ahead at half time. Instead they trailed by a point.
Both sides traded outfield supremacy in that first half, Laois building a four-point advantage over eighteen minutes while Mayo were going through an erratic period. Mayo’s dominance was more staggered throughout the half. No significant superiority was being won at midfield. Padraic Clancy and Ronan McGarrity were each playing well while Brendan Quigley and Pat Harte were cancelling each other out, although Harte may have shaded that contest.
McGarrity’s defensive work, his interventions and his covering were, however, vital at a time when Laois were threatening to break through their lines. Danger always emanated from the combined efforts of Ross Munnelly, Chris Conway, Noel Garvan and Billy Sheehan, and caused a few jitters in the defence. The Ballina man helped to steady his colleagues.
McGarrity injured a knee in the second half and because of a delay in having him attended to, Mayo were down to fourteen men for longer than was necessary and conceded a point at that time. Barry Moran, who had already replaced Kevin O’Neill, moved to midfield and performed creditably.
Keith Higgins was Mayo’s best defender throughout that period, but the defence as a whole was under pressure. The Laois forwards were given too much space. The duels between David Heaney and Noel Garvan were even enough, although Garvan scored a couple of fine long range points.
When he began to move forward in the second half, Heaney’s powerful surges upfield troubled Laois. The path on one of his spurts was opened for him by Keith Higgins and the point with his left foot was a well merited result.
James Nallen had a good first half, but the pace of the game eventually caught up with him. The Crossmolina man has been a great servant to Mayo and the special ovation he was given when replaced in the final quarter by Pat Kelly was genuine acknowledgement of a decade of distinguished service.
Pat Kelly was not long enough on board to make an impression, but we are all aware of his battling qualities. Has any consideration, I wonder, been given to converting Billy Joe Padden to centre-half back? Billy Joe is out of position at right half-forward. His talents are lost. There is a train of thought that suggests that since a midfield position is not available to him that he could become the ideal replacement for James Nallen . . . when the great man steps down. I think it is a move worth a try on an appropriate occasion.
Still nothing quite like our McDonald
PEADAR GARDINER, Dermot Geraghty and Aidan Higgins met their separate challenges with various shades of success. Gardiner’s deep running caused headaches for the Laois defence. Aidan Higgins had a good seventy minutes and will be remembered especially for discerning the danger to which John Healy had exposed his goal after leaving his line to challenge unsuccessfully for a high ball. Manning the goalmouth, Higgins averted danger with a quality save from Ross Munnelly.Dermot Geraghty found a cracker in substitute Donal Brennan from whom most of the danger came in the second half. But why Keith Higgins was replaced is baffling. Maybe, as Mickey Moran implied, the Ballyhaunis man had begun to suffer from fatigue. Maybe a season of excessive football and hurling demands has begun to catch up with the young man.
The Laois defence had of course their own troubles. The Mayo forwards swarmed around them, poking, prodding, stumbling, scoring. Alan Dillon’s moves were trenchant and exciting. He was a constant threat, and played with real heart. Conor Mortimer did not get the same quality of ball that arrived to him after the break. He made up in the second half for all that in what turned out to be a brilliant duel with Joe Higgins.
Kevin O’Neill linked up well in the early part of the game, especially with Ciaran McDonald, his little flicks and feints gentle reminders of more promising days with Mayo and Knockmore. Ger Brady did not dominate the centre like he can and Billy Joe Padden might have had two goals.
Billy Sheehan and Ciaran McDonald were the two forwards sent roving by Mick O’Dwyer and Mickey Moran. McDonald was by far the more industrious and the amount of ground he covered in the first half left him close to exhaustion near the end. His passing was as sharp as ever, but his deliveries not always won by the two inside men, in the first half in particular. If anything he worked harder than in the Connacht final, but with less productivity.
Sometimes you wonder if the advantage of the unrestricted game on which McDonald feeds is not offset by his absence from the forward line. Without him outfield the flow to the forwards becomes irregular. Without a player of his experience and subtle creativity up front the forward line is less potent, less convincing. Some crave for his rich skills to be put to use exclusively in the forward line. But if confined to a conventional role McDonald’s game somehow suffers.
Although he was unsparing of himself on Sunday his achievements did fall a little short of his Connacht final performance in execution and perception. Yet without the Crossmolina man Mayo football would be much the poorer.
So it is back to Croke Park on Sunday for another joust, each a little more knowledgeable about the other, a little wiser. Those who starred for both sides on Sunday may be marked men next time out. The hope for Mayo is, however, that Ronan McGarrity will be fit enough to resume at midfield and that no other injury will have been picked up in the meantime. Their extra qualifying games had Laois noticeably sharper in many of the exchanges. The draw ought to have closed that gap for Mayo. Maybe, they will clinch it on this occasion.
MISSED OPPORTUNITY Mayo’s Billy Joe Padden kicks a point, but not a goal, against Fergal Byron of Laois during Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final. Pic: Sportsfile