BEST FOOT FORWARD Mayo’s Kevin McLoughlin fires over the winning point against Tyrone in the National Football League in Omagh last Sunday. Pic: Sportsfile
FOR more than 70 minutes in the glorious sunshine in Tyrone’s backyard last Sunday this National League game rattled and hummed like a championship match.
Sure, it was rough around the edges and there were enough unforced errors and bad wides to keep a stats team in work for the week, but it was compelling viewing too.
The teams were level eight times in all and, with the finish line in sight, it looked like they wouldn’t be separated.
Tyrone had kicked 14 wides and looked set to leave the win behind while Mayo were making hard work of creating a shooting chance never mind a match-winning score.
But then came a moment of clarity, composure and sheer class from the under-stated Kevin McLoughlin.
More than a minute of injury-time had elapsed when Donie Vaughan delivered a firmly-struck pass down the right wing that McLoughlin took in his stride.
Seizing the moment, he cut inside, made an angle for himself and arrowed the ball confidently over the Tyrone crossbar.
It always looks easy when you know how.
We’d love to tell you that was the end of that but, thanks to the erratic referee Conor Lane, another five minutes of stoppage time followed, much of which was pock-marked by further stoppages to deal with injuries, scuffles and bookings.
Tyrone’s frustration was evident in those closing minutes as they tried (and failed) to carve out an equaliser that their efforts deserved but their shooting didn’t.
A few of their players also got caught up playing the man and not the ball late on with the likes of Darren McCurry, Cathal McCarron, sub Henry Loughran and even Mattie Donnelly all seeming to be intent on making it personal while Mayo took care of business.
Loughran’s late high tackle on Cillian O’Connor was extremely reckless and deserved a red card, with the Mayo captain having to be helped to the dressing-rooms after the game as he was visibly unsteady on his feet.
The sight of O’Connor being assisted from the battlefield was a fitting image after the game we had just witnessed.
After the back-to-back defeats against Cavan and Dublin, and the prospect of relegation looming large on the horizon, this was a gut-check for Mayo.
Thankfully, they gave us plenty of evidence to suggest that they’re up for the fight when the chips are down.
And while the finer points of both the defensive and offensive game-plans still require plenty of work, the intensity, physicality and drive that underpins everything returned to their collective play with a vengeance.
It was obvious early on as the teams went score for score with Paddy Durcan, Shane Nally, Kevin McLoughlin and Cillian O’Connor trading points with Darren McCurry, Niall Sludden and the elusive Mark Bradley.
The sides were level four times during a cagey first 25 minutes which also saw Lee Keegan and Niall Sludden receive black cards for separate incidents of ‘deliberating pulling down an opponent’.
The only goal of the day arrived on 29 minutes and, after shooting blanks in the last five games, it was worth waiting for.
Tom Parsons’ strike was conceived by two direct footpasses from Keith Higgins and Fergal Boland which bypassed Tyrone’s security system at the back, and when Cillian O’Connor picked out Andy Moran on the edge of the square, the damage was done.
His lay-off to the incoming Tom Parsons couldn’t have been timed any better either, and the big midfielder cracked a low shot into the corner of the net past Niall Morgan.
That rare and wonderful Mayo goal allowed them to lead at half-time by 1-6 to 0-8 and galvanised them for a rip-roaring second half.
The sides were level again four times before the end of normal time as Tyrone managed to mine four points from McGeary, McCurry and Bradley (2) amidst the mayhem of their litany of wides and butchered chances.
Down at the other end, Mayo took five shots at goal in the entire half and came away with four points too.
It was a tale of two attacking systems and decision-makers.
Cillian O’Connor landed three of those points; a 45’ and a long-range free were nothing short of inspirational.
So too were the arrival of Messrs O’Connor, Vaughan, Doherty and Aidan O’Shea from the Mayo dugout during the course of the second half as Stephen Rochford rolled out the big guns.
Danny Kirby was lost to a black card as the pace quickened and things got tetchy, but that was why it was so important to have a cool head in the testing conditions late on.
Kevin McLoughlin’s point could yet change the course of Mayo’s season, but only if they take something from next Sunday’s game with Donegal and stay in the top flight.
Anything less would leave this Tyrone success feeling like a hollow victory.
D Clarke; C Barrett, B Harrison, K Higgins; P Durcan (0-2), L Keegan, C Boyle; T Parsons (1-0), D Kirby; F Boland, S Nally, D Drake; K McLoughlin (0-2), A Moran, C O'Connor (0-5, 3fs).
Subs used: S Coen for Keegan (BC, 25); D O'Connor for Boland (44); D Vaughan for Kirby (BC, 53); A O'Shea for Moran (54); J Doherty for Drake (63); C O'Shea for Nally (65).
N Morgan (0-1, 1f); P Hampsey, C McCarron, R McNamee; A McRory, R McNabb, T McCann (0-1); C Cavanagh, M Donnelly; P Harte, N Sludden (0-1), K McGeary; D McCurry (0-2), S Cavanagh (0-2), M Bradley (0-3).
Subs used: C Meyler for Sludden (17); C McShane for McNamee (52); H Loughran for McNabb; J Monroe for McRory.
Referee: C Lane (Cork)