STOPPED IN HIS TRACKS Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor tries to go past Galway’s David Wynne during Sunday’s Connacht SFC semi-final. Pic: Sportsfile
JUST like last summer, one door closes for Mayo and another one opens. But they will need no reminding that the long and arduous Qualifier route back to Croke Park is fraught with danger and there are no guarantees of a happy ending.
If last Sunday’s provincial semi-final defeat to Galway has taught Mayo anything, it’s that the times are changing.
And this season could be over before it even begins unless Stephen Rochford and company can circle the wagons again.
But we’ll begin our account of a windswept day in Salthill at the very start.
Having won the toss, Mayo elected to play against the wind in the opening half. And things were going pretty much to plan for the first 25 minutes as Galway struggled to win their fair share of possession and threaten David Clarke’s goal.
They were a point up, 0-7 to 1-3, but the majority of their scores had come from long-range efforts with Damien Comer, Gareth Bradshaw, Michael Daly, Shane Walsh and Johnny Heaney all hitting the target from distance.
Mayo, meanwhile, seemed to be fairly content with the amount of possession they were enjoying (as high as 65% at one stage) while they had nicked four precious scores.
Stephen Rochford’s team actually only led last Sunday for the sum total of two minutes; that was after Kevin McLoughlin’s goal on six minutes as he reacted quickest to a ball that came down off the post, and smacked it past Galway goalkeeper Ruairi Lavelle.
The large Mayo contingent in the crowd of just over 22,000 roared their approval too when McLoughlin and Cillian O’Connor (2 frees) also picked off points.
Everything seemed to be going to plan, with the gale-force wind to blow at Mayo’s backs in the second period.
Then, on 26 minutes, Keith Higgins was shown a red card by referee Joe McQuillan after he raised his leg and caught Galway’s Damien Comer.
In that moment, everything changed.
Mayo reorganised themselves as best they could in the final thirteen minutes of the half and shared four points evenly with their hosts.
Two 45m kicks from Seán Armstrong kept Galway tipping along in front while Fergal Boland curled over a superb score for Mayo in response.
By the short whistle, Galway only led by the bare minimum (0-9 to 1-5) and 14-man Mayo would have been relatively pleased with their position; the sending-off of Higgins notwithstanding.
Sure, there was work to be done but Mayo were about to turn around with the breeze behind them and we expected them to tweak their game-plan accordingly.
But Galway were the ones who forced the pace after the restart, bursting out of the blocks as they did in the first half, to shoot two quickfire points from Seán Armstrong (free) and substitute Eamonn Brannigan who both made light of the windtunnel around the Mayo goal.
The visitors didn’t have a good third-quarter and were trailing by four points (0-13 to 1-6) on 45 minutes after the accurate Armstrong drilled a 45m kick and Damien Comer tacked on a trademark effort from play.
Ominously, Galway were playing with confidence, buoyed by the comfort of an extra man, and the home crowd sensed that Mayo’s scalp was there for the taking.
Stephen Rochford tried to get the show back on the road by springing Aidan O’Shea and Danny Kirby, but with an understaffed Mayo persisting with trying to play out from the back, they were finding it hard to get scores.
An excellent snapshot effort from Andy Moran on 48 minutes turned out to be his final act of the day while Paddy Durcan fired over a huge point on 55 minutes to keep things interesting.
Crucially though Galway managed to make the most of their numerical advantage by launching a few daring counter-attacking raids, with two frees converted by Gary Sice in quick succession to wipe out Mayo’s earlier efforts.
Gary O’Donnell was also denied a goal by a fine save from David Clarke.
The champions were keeping the challengers at arm’s length as the hour mark approached, but soon after Galway seemed to ‘hit the wall’ as Mayo threw more caution to the wind.
With Galway ’]keeper Ruairi Lavelle looking anything but surefooted, goal chances were coughed up, but not taken, by both Danny Kirby and Diarmuid O’Connor as the tension mounted.
Instead it was left to three unanswered points (two frees) from Cillian O’Connor down the home straight to set up a grandstand finish.
The records will show that Mayo had eight minutes to try and manufacture an equalising score, but two bad wides from substitute Evan Regan and an off-target Cillian O’Connor free from long range was all they could manage.
In the end, time ran out for Mayo and now they must try and go again when the All-Ireland Qualifiers journey begins on Saturday, July 1.
R Lavelle; C Sweeney, D Kyne, D Wynne; G O’Donnell, G Bradshaw (0-1), L Silke; P Conroy, F Ó Curraoin 6; T Flynn, M Daly (0-1), J Heaney (0-1); S Walsh (0-1), D Comer (0-2), S Armstrong (0-6, 3fs, 3 45s).
Subs used: G Sice (0-2, 2fs) for Flynn (29 black card); E Brannigan (0-1) for Wynne (ht); D Cummins for Daly (69); M Lundy for Sice (72).
D Clarke; C Barrett, G Cafferkey, K Higgins; D Vaughan, L Keegan, P Durcan (0-1); S O’Shea, T Parsons; F Boland (0-1), D O’Connor (0-1), S Coen; K McLoughlin (1-1), C O’Connor (0-6, 5fs), A Moran (0-1).
Subs used: A O’Shea for S O’Shea (48); D Kirby for Moran (48); J Doherty for McLoughlin (58); E Regan for Boland (61); C Boyle for Vaughan (68); D Drake for D O’Connor (72).
Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan)