FOR a while it was nothing special, just the hamstrung Mayo that has been scraping through the season. And then it burst open, all their repressed talents erupting in a blaze of colour and spontaneity that will have changed somewhat the dialogue of recent weeks about the state of their game.
That second-half excellence does not fill in the cracks of earlier struggles or their tardiness in dampening down the raw enthusiasm of a Clare side that lacked the finesse to support their confidence.
But it brought a smile to the faces of the thousands of Mayo supporters who made the journey to Ennis, and for them there was compensation of a sort for the agony endured watching Mayo flounder against Derry a week earlier.
And perhaps that was the impulse of Mayo’s recovery on Saturday, the thought of hovering so close in MacHale Park to the edge of the abyss, so near the end of everything they have dreamed of for so long.
But while a glistening 35 minutes gave new life to their campaign, it does not mean that all is well again, that the core fault of their game has been repaired. There were moments in the first half when Clare were allowed too much building time, too many gaps for their runners through the centre.
It was why Mayo trailed by two points at the interval and were it not for some brave defending especially by Chris Barrett, the wandering Kevin McLoughlin, and of course David Clarke between the posts, that deficit might have been worse.
You tend not to underestimate the seriousness of those flaws when you watch Aidan O’Shea leave such a heavy footprint on the proceedings, his high fielding and prodigious work-rate so influential once more.
You tend not to notice other flaws when Kevin McLoughlin sparkles all over the field, as if purging himself of the memory of Derry, or when Conor Loftus brings a new dimension to the forward line.
It was the vigilance of the young Crossmolina man that kicked off Mayo’s recovery a mere seven minutes into the second half when he intercepted a badly directed free, and in a flash put Cillian O’Connor through for the goal that changed the whole direction of the game.
It was only the first time Mayo led since Andy Moran scored their opening point seconds after the start. But from that moment on it was the old Mayo revitalised and compelling.
Having picked up a yellow card, Loftus was wisely replaced in the second half, sparing him a red for the type of tackles that were difficult to avoid because of the speed and low gravity of some of the Clare attackers.
Mayo had begun without Tom Parsons, who cried off before the game, but was well enough to replace in the final quarter the brilliant Seamus O’Shea, who had worked himself to the bone.
The game was no more than three minutes old when Donal Vaughan was given a black card for a tackle on Clare’s Gary Brennan. Vaughan’s misfortune was Stephen Coen’s opportunity. As partner to Seamie O’Shea in the middle of the field, he played diligently and fruitfully in a position he excelled as captain of the successful under-21 side.
The switch of Vaughan to midfield in place of Parsons at the start made room for the recall of Keith Higgins to the defence, back after a one-match suspension. And the Ballyhaunis man left no one in doubt about the quality of his performance. From the back line in the second half in particular, he orchestrated and propelled many of Mayo’s second-half forays.
Their second goal came a minute after Cillian O’Connor’s, a splendid effort by his brother Diarmuid from a pass by Cillian, who himself had been set up by McLoughlin. Diarmuid, too, has regained his appetite for the game, and his speed was significant, carrying him on one occasion in the first half through a web of tackles that almost earned him a goal.
Cork should offer a sterner test
ANDY Moran started in another change to the selected side, coming in from the start for Fergal Boland. And having executed his customary duties, adding two further vital points to that brilliant opener, Stephen Rochford decided to spare the Ballaghaderreen man for engagement in further hostilities in the games ahead.
It took Cillian O’Connor a while to adapt to the trend of the game, but once he did, once he adjusted his sights, the old menacing Cillian was back and his total take of 1-5, all reeled in after the interval, is evidence of his productivity.
For the final few minutes Mayo were down to 14 after Brendan Harrison, who is returning to the form that won him an All-Star last season, was given a black card by referee Sean Hurson. It could have been worse. Having used his complement of substitutes, the manager had no one to stand in for Harrison. But the game had by then taken its inevitable course.
Outstanding in that full-back line was Chris Barrett, having one of his most assured performances for the county. In the first half especially, when the pressure was greatest, Barrett’s interventions were timely and effective.
As ever, Ger Cafferkey at full-back discharged his responsibilities competently without the spectacular, and as usual without attracting too much attention. Behind him, no Mayo game would be complete without David Clarke having come to the rescue. He did so again on Saturday in the first half when Clare were charging through the defence relentlessly and the alarm bells ringing.
The ever-dependable duo of Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle did their utmost to curb the thrusts of the Clare men, and were mightily successful in setting up their own charges and cutting off budding attacks.
But the fault for those charges through the centre lies not with our backs but at the source, when the opposition first wins possession and sets off on runs gathering momentum by the yard which is difficult to check without fouling.
Our forwards have got to take on those charging out of the opposing defence, have got to run with them, to harry and hound them, thus reducing the opportunities for them to create scores.
Keegan, Boyle, the O’Sheas, Cillian O’Connor and McLoughlin are singled out by most of the opposition as the players to be subdued for any chance of victory. Clare failed to rein them in, but on occasions in the first half Mayo also failed to bridle some of their strong runners. It is a weakness that a fitter Mayo will overcome the longer they remain in the championship.
Still, good work all round by management and team.
Now for Cork and a sterner, more sophisticated test.