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Mayo make us proud again

Sean Rice
Sean Rice

Mayo make us proud again



ABOVE any match down the decades this was not the one to miss. Yet we did… because of domestic commitments. But while television does not reveal the full picture, the etchings of a new spirit of discovery were crystal clear as Mayo set about dismantling the myths surrounding the invincibility of the All-Ireland champions.
For once it would have been nice to emerge from the Croke Park press gallery without the crestfallen face of defeat… to watch some colleagues from the national media, still stunned by a Mayo they did not think existed, chew their words.
That pulsing fulfillment is not transmitted in a television screen in the corner of a room, but it did convey the indomitable spirit with which Mayo went about their work, an unflagging determination not seen from the Green & Red in Croke Park for many a long day.
We won’t get too carried away with a victory that was Mayo’s first over Cork in the championship since 1916. But a lot of water has flowed under the bridges since that historic year, a lot of disappointment.
Still, you could not fail to see the grit first evident in the Connacht semi-final against Galway and in the final against Roscommon, resume in Sunday’s showdown, and especially in the final minutes when heads remained cool and hearts brave in the face of Cork’s desperation.
Television does one good thing. It brings you the close picture of every duel, and in every Mayo face was reflected the mental toughness with which they challenged for every ball, and carved out every score.
Their nervous start had us all worried. The penalty conceded in the 7th minute from which Donacha O’Connor tucked the ball into the corner of the net evoked memories of other disasters, as Mayo struggled to handle Cork’s big names.
The All-Ireland champions were then toying with Mayo, passing the ball back and forth with a certain arrogance that suggested they could scythe through the defence at any given time.
Even in those shaky moments the one heartening thing in Mayo’s performance was their midfield. The O’Shea brothers were not yielding midfield. This is where Alan O’Connor and Aidan Walsh were expected to lay the foundation for Cork’s win.
Instead the two brothers were competing more than adequately. In fact they were winning the aerial ball, but sometimes lost possession as they tried to break away, allowing Cork to pick up a lot of those breaks.
But the drive of Seamus O’Shea was inspirational in those early minutes and, as the game progressed, the vaunted Cork midfield withered when Kevin McLoughlin and Cillian O’Connor moved out to win the breaks.
That little oasis created by the O’Sheas was evident even when Mayo went six points behind and Cork dominated the possession.
When, however, 19-years-old Cillian O¹Connor, who grows in stature by the day, scored his and Mayo’s second point, both from frees, the persistence of the O’Sheas began to pay off, the half-backs pressed forward and Mayo advanced deeper into Cork territory.
Their first point from play in the 20th minute came from the determined boot of McLoughlin, the work leading up to it done by Alan Dillon and Andy Moran.
And when McLoughlin, whose battling qualities was a feature of the game, strode through the Cork defence and stuck the ball in the right-hand corner of the net, the match began to take on the shape of a real tussle, not the one-sided bore that so many had expected.
The one problem still dogging Mayo’s progress was ceding possession to Cork in solo runs, attempting unsuccessfully to solo out of tackles. That led to Cork’s immediate reply to McLoughlin’s great goal. Aidan O’Shea was dispossessed, Cork came down the field in waves and in a flash of brilliance Paul Kerrigan flicked the ball into the net.
On many other occasions Mayo would not have survived a setback of that nature.
But O’Shea redoubled his efforts, Andy Moran, now at full-forward in a clever switch by James Horan that had a profound influence on the outcome, Alan Freeman enjoying greater freedom on the wing, and the backs beginning at last to close down their opposite numbers, were all building to a big result.
Moran, efficient, clinical all-rounder that he is, was a singular success in leading the attack. It is to the credit of those who delivered perfect ball to him that the Ballaghaderreen man was the star of the show, outclassing full-back Shields, one of Cork’s rising stars.
By half-time the effects of Cork’s solar plexus punches were becoming less painful. Having scored six times to Cork’s two in the last eighteen minutes was a clear indication of the merits of Mayo’s recovery which took them to within two points of the champions at the interval.
YOU can’t depend entirely on a growing Mayo characteristic of producing their best football in the second half. Cork’s lethargy suggested that as All-Ireland champions they might find a greater edge to their game after the break.
But it was Enda Varley who scooped over the first score of the second half from a free after Aidan O’Shea won possession outfield.  Then, the growing reputation of goalkeeper Robert Hennelly ­ and the Breaffy man was once again on top of his game ­ was reflected in his equalising point from a 45’ four minutes into the second half
I think it was at this early stage that everyone watching had visions of an upset. The manner in which Alan Dillon tacked on his first point, Mayo’s lead for the first time, demonstrated his leadership qualities.
The redoubtable captain, striding down the left wing, booted the ball for Cillian O’Connor behind the defence. Dillon ran on, took a clever return pass from his young fellow Ballintubber man and sank a nail in Cork’s coffin.
From that moment on, Mayo played as their fans have always hoped they would… with grace and strength and confidence. The defence dug in, each playing for the other, assisting, covering and clearing in a fashion that is reached when a brick wall would not deter them.
Keith Higgins, personified that confidence in sprinting down the field to peg the ball over the bar and give Mayo the lead again after John Miskella had neutralised Dillon’s point a few minutes earlier.
That would be Cork’s only score of the second half. As Mayo frustrated their every effort the champions fell into disarray. Mayo had reached a rare state of mind when every fibre of controlled aggression was activated to stop Cork. The wind was in their sails. And this was no fluke.
It all could have gone pear-shaped if Fintan Goold had buried the ball he was given inside the defence with only the keeper to beat, but Hennelly’s quick dash from the line hampered his shot and it whistled harmlessly wide of the target.
It was the only time in the second half that Cork really threatened.
Having given away the penalty, Ger Cafferkey had a sound game at fullback, but the capacity shown by Higgins, Tom Cunniffe, Richie Feeney, Donal Vaughan and Trevor Mortimer was demonstrably spirited and tenacious. Nor did they give away foolish frees in stopping the likes of Donnacha O’Connor, Pierce O’Neill and Fintan Goold.
Led once again by the unstinting work of Alan Dillon and the nous of Andy Moran, the forward line as a unit was impressively confident on the ball and wasted few enough opportunities.
Cillian O’Connor showed touches of class and composure beyond his years while Alan Freeman, and Jason Doherty, Ronan McGarrity and Peadar Gardiner, when they came on, gave a peep of the strength of James Horan’s bench.
A good day all round, then for team and management… a day to remember for hard-pressed Mayo fans. Well done all.