WINNING SMILES The Mayo senior hurling squad are pictured after beating Down in the Division 2B league final last Sunday. Pic: Ciara Buckley/Memories Thru A Lens
MAYO, who were involved in a regulation play-off with Roscommon to retain their Division 2B status last season, completed a remarkable rehabilitation journey when securing promotion to Division 2A of the NHL at Breffni Park, Cavan, on Sunday.
They shaded the verdict over a Down team that battled bravely to the end, but few could begrudge Mayo their win on this bitterly cold day in Cavan.
The heroic nature of this Mayo panel that manifested itself in the game against Wicklow was much to the fore in Breffni Park.
A herculean effort was needed to get the better of Down and that is what they produced on a day that brought joy to the hearts of all Mayo folk who made the journey.
The Ulster men got off to a flying start and led by 0-5 to 0-1 after 13 minutes when aided by a strong wind. Dáithí Sands and Declan McManus landed excellent scores and the tide was flowing strongly in their favour at this stage.
Mayo needed something to halt the Down momentum and two points from frees by Kenny Feeney served that purpose.
Football All Star, Keith Higgins, who gave his allegiance to the Mayo hurlers for the current campaign, fired over an inspirational point after taking a perfect pass from Cathal Freeman and the margin was now down to one.
Caolan Bailie extended the Down lead to two points a minute later but fortune smiled on Mayo in the 23rd minute when a long delivery by Cathal Freeman broke loose in the Down goalmouth and Brian Morley rushed in to tap it to the net.
A fine strike by Down’s top scorer Paul Sheehan saw them hold a one point lead, 0-9 to 1-5, at the interval. But it scarcely looked enough on a day when the elements were always going to play a central role.
You could sense an air of quiet confidence as Mayo retired for the half-time break. The defence had coped tremendously well with the vigorous Down attack, with Cathal Freeman in magnificent form and leading by example.
Michael Morley and David Kenny got through a mountain of defensive work while Brian Hunt, Conor Daly and Daniel Huane were tireless in their efforts at blocking, chasing and clearing their lines.
While Declan McManus added a point from play for Down two minutes into the second half, they went the next 17 without raising a flag.
Mayo nailed six points during this period with some magnificent scores from play by Kenny Feeney and Cathal Freeman.
Both players were immense for Mayo.
Seán Regan also secured some superb primary possession, fetching high balls on a few occasions, and putting the Down rearguard under a lot of pressure. Kieran McDermott and Conor Henry put in solid shifts around centre-field with Shane Boland also getting in some good work during this critical stage of the showdown.
As Keith Higgins surged into the game in the second half, he created a brilliant opening before directing a pass across the Down goalmouth where Seán Mulroy narrowly failed to make contact with his batted effort that would surely have resulted in a goal.
Mulroy had a shot from distance off the upright a few minutes later as Mayo maintained momentum and pushed for glory.
One of the scores of the day came 10 minutes from time when Kenny Feeney somehow managed to secure possession without his hurl courtesy of a ‘jumped lift-up’, hand-passed to Higgins and the Ballyhaunis man flighted over a peach of a point from the far sideline.
Down, helped by resilient displays from Caolan Teggart, Peter McManus, Declan McManus, Caolan Bailie, and the highly impressive Paul Sheehan, stayed in touch and two late points from Sheehan saw the gap down to three points. But when Kenny Feeney converted a Mayo free five minutes into time added on, the cup was on its way to Mayo.
It was a poignant moment for Mayo captain Cathal Freeman when he held the cup aloft along with Keith Higgins.
His only brother Adrian, who was hurler of the year in Mayo in 2009 and who represented Ireland in the U-21 Shinty International against Scotland in Inverness in 2007, died in a road accident in Australia in May 2010 at the age of 24.
“This is a special day for us all in Mayo hurling. It is just reward for the incredible amount of work being put it by some very dedicated people. It’s a huge honour for me to captain the team today,” said Cathal.
D O’Brien; D Huane, C Daly, B Hunt; M Morley, D Kenny, C Freeman (0-1); C Henry, K McDermott; S Regan, K Feeney (0-12, 0-9f), B Morley (1-0); S Boland, K Higgins (0-2), S Mulroy.
Subs used: C Scahill for B Morley (61), A Brennan for C Henry (63), D McTigue for S Boland (70), S Kenny from S Mulroy (73).
S Keith: L Savage, C Teggart, M Hughes; P McManus, M Fisher, J McManus; R Branagan, M Magee; C Bailie (0-1), D McManus (0-2), P McCrickard (0-1); P Sheehan (0-7, 0-5f), E Sands, D Sands (0-2).
Sub used: D Toner (0-1) for R Branagan (44).
Referee: G Quilty (Kilkenny)
MAYO will be in action again in the first round of the Christy Ring Cup on Saturday, May 12.