SPOT THE BALL Mayo’s Patrick Kiely battles for the sliothar with Sligo’s Gerard O’Kelly-Lynch and Conor Griffin during their Nicky Rackard Cup match last Saturday. Pic: David Farrell Photography
THERE was no place to hide from that sinking feeling that enveloped all of us who follow Mayo hurling when the final whistle was blown at Scarden pitch near Strandhill in Sligo on Saturday afternoon.
One more point and we would have been looking forward to a Nicky Rackard Cup semi-final showdown next Saturday. The devastation was raw and real after a second half rally that came so close to rescuing what looked like an impossible scenario at the interval.
One can only surmise what a massive difference it would have made if Mayo had Keith Higgins, Fergal Boland, Stephen Coyne and Brian Morley available on Saturday, but one would have to assume, on all known form, that it would have been enough to get us over the line in style.
Mayo will look back in horror on a horrendous opening which saw them 2-2 in arrears after just seven minutes. Gerard O’Kelly-Lynch slashed the Mayo net twice in that period. In the land of Ben Bulben, Mayo now faced the steepest climb of all.
When the interval rolled around, Sligo held all the aces and led by a staggering 2-13 to 0-7. It could have been worse were it not for a fine save by goalie Stephen Lenehan and a timely interception by Cathal Freeman.
The Sligo side was a revelation in the first half and one could see how Tyrone was caught flat-footed by them two weeks ago. In contrast, Mayo seemed sluggish and out of tune while Sligo foraged with intensity for every ball in a devastating display of skill and speed and passion.
Incredibly, Mayo had to wait to the 18th minute of the half to get their first score from play, a fine long range strike from Seán Regan. Adrian Phillips and Seán Regan added further points from play before the interval with Shane Boland tagging on three from frees and Cathal Freeman also on target from a free.
In fairness, it was the Sligo lads who did all the classy stuff in the first half. They dominated so many sectors of the field and picked off some outrageous scores from play with O’Kelly Lynch, Gary Cadden, Joe Starr and Conor Griffin raising white flags and Keith Raymond showing unerring accuracy from placed balls.
The defence was excellent too with Rory McHugh showing exquisite skills that marked him out as a hurler apart.
One wonders what Nicky Rackard would have thought of it all, the man whose name adorns this cup. Nicky was one of the famous Rackard brothers from Killane in Wexford whose stars blazed across the hurling sky in those halcyon days of the mid-1950s when Wexford became a new hurling power.
He would surely have been surprised that Mayo, favourites at the outset to win the cup this year, were trailing Sligo by 12 points at the short whistle. Being frankly honest, we did not see this coming.
We could have done with a “Gerry McInerney” figure on Saturday ...the legendary Galway half-back once famously described by the great writer Con Houlihan as a “cross between a Beatle and a gunslinger from the Old West.”
Mayo’s situation seemed almost forlorn and yet they produced the kind of rally during the second half that seemed almost as remote as Rockall island.
The introduction of Daniel Huane, Eoin Delaney and Padraig O’Flynn for the start of the second half helped reinvigorate Mayo. Cory Scahill, Seán Regan, Shane Boland and Adrian Phillips, along with David and Seán Kenny, and the full back line of Conor Murray, Conor Daly and Seán Mulroy, were pivotal in guiding the rally that seems totally out of Mayo’s reach at the interval.
Point by point they began to reel in a Sligo team that was rampant in the first half and was now suddenly drifting in the sea of the fresh and surging waves of Mayo pressure. Points from Corey Scahill, Seán Regan, Adrian Phillips and Shane Boland saw the gap down to eight.
Keith Raymond converted a free for Sligo but the Mayo rally was back on track with four points from Shane Boland and another from Seán Kenny. Joe Starr landed a long range point for Sligo but points from Phillips and Boland left four between them entering time added on.
Mayo hearts gladdened when Adrian Phillips showed pure class in outfoxing the Sligo defence and riffled the ball to the net. Kenny Feeney, who has just come on four minutes earlier, converted a long range free to tie the game.
Time was now Mayo’s biggest enemy but they surged forward again with a block-down that resulted in a 65’. Kenny Feeney was assigned the task with all the accompanying pressure. His strike drifted agonisingly close but just outside the right upright. A one point win would have been enough to secure a semi-final place for Mayo and the expense of Tyrone but the Gods, for the second weekend in a row, did not smile favourably on last minute Mayo free-takers.
It was easy to understand the desolation felt by the Mayo players and management team at the final whistle. In the finest tradition of sporting neighbours, we now wish Sligo the very best in their semi-final game this coming weekend. For Mayo hurlers, it truly is a case of ‘what’s another year’.
M Burke; J Weir, N Feehily, K O’Kennedy; K Banks, R Cox, R McHugh (0-1); K Raymond (0-6,4f), J Starr (0-1); K Gilmartin, C Griffin (0-1), S Crowley; Gary Cadden (0-2), G O’Kelly Lynch (2-2), B Shannon.
Subs used: M Gordon (44) for S Crowley (0-2,1f), T O’Kelly-Lynch (46) for B Shannon, K Prior (55) for K O’Kennedy, A Kilcullen (60) (0-1) for G Cadden, N McDermott (68) for K Banks.
S Lenehan; C Murray, C Daly, S Mulroy; B Hunt, D Kenny. C Freeman (0-1f); K McDermott, S Kenny (0-2); S Regan (0-2), K Kiely, P Kiely; S Boland (0-9,7f), A Phillips (1-3), C Scahill (0-1).
Subs used: D Huane for C Freeman (inj), E Delaney for K Kiely, P O’Flynn for P Kiely (halftime), J Gallagher (51) for K McDermott, K Feeney (0-1f) for C Scahill (67).
Referee: S Stack (Dublin)