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Another step in the right direction

Sean Rice
Sean Rice

Another step in right direction

WE travelled anxiously. There was nothing in the history of their meetings to be sanguine about. Three victories and eight losses was the sum of Mayo’s success over Armagh through decades of league encounters.
In their own backyard our hopes of survival were similarly speckled. You could not dismiss the feeling that somehow, the Orchard County had become a sort of bogey team.
If measured against Armagh’s win at McHale Park last season a draw, we thought, would have been a positive result. To our surprise what materialised was more than either Armagh or we expected.
And it was no accident that Mayo pulled out a performance sprinkled with a variety of qualities that serve mainly to tease the imagination. Like last season, they were good most of the time. But they also had lapses of concentration to remind them of a distance yet to travel.
And what better example to drive home their stage of development than the incident in which they almost conceded a goal at a crucial moment in the game.
Mayo were leading by five points in the 61st minute, and cruising, when Armagh full-back Brendan Donaghy embarked on a run that took him through a cluster of tackles right up to the edge of the rectangle.
He had beaten the whole defence and would have had the ball in the net but for an amazing intervention by Colm Boyle, who had replaced Kevin Keane a short time earlier. The Davitts man sprinted in from the right wing and in a spectacular dive managed to turn the ball, bound for the net, around the post.
A goal then would have reduced the lead to two points, and with the crowd behind them, might have been the catalyst for a spectacular win by the home county.
The incident explained two significant facts: 1) the extent to which Mayo players are prepared to risk serious injury for their cause, and 2) the lesson that big leads can conceal big traps.
Boyle ended up injured in the back of the net, but was able to continue, and Mayo recovered superbly after that fright to finish as brightly as they had begun, their six-points margin of victory reflecting truly the command they held for so much of the seventy minutes.
They hit the front running, building a lead of 1-4 without reply, all of it forged on the anvil of splendid teamwork and organised raids.
Midfield was their bedrock. Aidan O’Shea won that hands down. And if beside him Barry Moran did not reach his recent high standards, he and O’Shea are the best midfield partnership we have seen so far this season.
Ger Cafferkey made a welcome return to full-back, with a consummate performance and was the main prop of the defensive bulwark in which each of the six played essential roles. Richie Feeney and Lee Keegan were impressive keystones on the wings; Donal Vaughan is growing into the centre, and corner-backs Kevin Keane and Keith Higgins sturdy and resilient.
There was more cohesion in the defence than in the Dublin ‘half’ game, and it wasn¹t easy against interchanging, quicksilver forwards.
Armagh concentrated mostly on probing the left wing in the first half and while no ruse escaped Anto Duffy, Gavin McParland or their top scorer Aidan Forker, the Mayo backline remained intact … except for that one serious break of Donaghy.
Mayo pressure at the other end reduced the assistance the Armagh half-back line was able to afford their forwards. Alan Freeman, Alan Dillon and Jason Doherty used the width of the pitch to give expression to their skills. Three of Freeman’s five points came from frees, each of the other two from left and right boots.
Enda Varley repaid the selectors’ confidence in him with a competent performance while Andy Moran and Conor, when he began to battle for possession, fitted in nicely.
Armagh never fully recovered from the shock of Mayo’s goal in the seventh minute, an opportunist score by Andy Moran when he took advantage of a ‘45 by David Clarke that fell short and was knocked into the path of the full-forward.
In those seven minutes Mayo’s ambition became clear. They were up for it. This was a game that had to be won, and all were keen to contribute.
It was a full sixteen minutes before they scored again, forced into a defensive mode by Armagh’s urgent need to ease their crisis. And although they led by four points at half-time you wondered was it enough to secure a win.
The manner in which they swept Armagh aside after the break was a reassurance that Mayo had lost nothing in spirit or determination to wrest the two points.
Bouts of brilliance were rewarded with four points in a row, some stemming from clever distribution out of defence. As if programmed they swamped Armagh. Eight points ahead, ten minutes in, they looked good.
And then they switched off  until Boyle made that wonderfully brave interception, and the rhythm returned.

Mayo must be up for Down
DOWN come on Sunday in the wake of one league win and two defeats, the latest to Kerry last week by six points.
Unlike their meetings with Armagh, the history of Mayo/Down clashes reveals a more balanced outcome with seven victories each and last year’s draw at McHale Park.
With a series of important clashes over the next few weeks, changes are inevitable in James Horan¹s selections, but the hope must be that none will take the field less committed than last Saturday’s squad.
That, of course, has been the motivating force of the manager’s preparation, ensuring that there is competition for every position, and those who take the field next Sunday will be no less prepared, and no less skilled.
Of the side that drew with Down last year, Mayo will be without Tom Cunniffe, Cathal Hallinan, Ronan McGarrity and Mark Ronaldson at least. New faces have laid strong claims to selection, and those on the periphery will have to fight hard to get back into the team.
Having lost twice already, Down are in no mood for another defeat and James McCartan is looking to the likes of Dan Gordan, Mark Poland, the Clarkes and Benny Coulter to sneak a critical result.
Their draw last year will give them heart, and Mayo are not sufficiently mature yet to promise a repeat of the form they produced last Saturday. Since Down are neither a Dublin nor Kerry, expectations in Mayo will be high … and that’s when Mayo are vulnerable.
Down tackled hard last week against Kerry, resulting in Conor Garvey being sidelined for two yellow cards. Conor Laverty also incurred the wrath of the referee and was being similarly dismissed until the referee was informed by a sideline official that the yellow card was Laverty’s first.
A win for Mayo ought to be the result, but they¹ll have to fight for it.

No conclusions from club draw
AT first glance one would expect Garrymore, Knockmore, Castlebar, Crossmolina, Ballintubber, Breaffy, Ballaghaderreen and Ballina Stephenites to qualify for the championship play-offs following the draw made last week.
Others will have something to say about that … especially Davitts, Shrule/Glencorrib, Westport and Kiltane, who host the Mitchels in the first round in Bangor.
Westport emerged at the worst end of the draw, sandwiched as they are among Ballina, Ballaghaderreen and Tourmakeady. But they’ll be inspired by the performances of Kevin Keane and Lee Keegan for their county, and manager Tomás Tierney will have them motivated for their first game away to Ballina.
We’ll have a closer study later.

Just a thought …
One solution to the dilemma in which the powers that be find themselves about the intractable matter of payment of managers might be to ban the import of managers from outside counties.