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More questions to be answered

Sean Rice
Sean Rice

More questions to answer

FROM bad to worse we go, clinging by our fingertips to the precipice, waiting now for Cork or Dublin or Kerry to hurtle us over the top . . . and out of the division.
Donegal once again laid bare the inconsistencies that bedevil Mayo football and the team’s seismic shift downwards in thought and confidence since last year’s campaign.
They had started so well against Laois and Armagh that maybe they had begun to believe, like so many others, that this was going to be their year. After Down and Donegal theirs is already a buffeted dream.
You could sense defeat at Ballyshannon almost from the beginning when, against wind and slope, the towering Rory Kavanagh and Neil Gallagher took over at midfield and set the pace for a second half romp to victory.
The one crumb of comfort to which Mayo clung at the interval was Donegal’s misfortune in losing Kavanagh just before the break in much the same way as Mayo lost Aidan O’Shea the previous week.
Kavanagh felled Kevin McLoughlin with a blow and referee Marty Duffy had no hesitation in dismissing the Donegal man to the dismay of his supporters. Trailing by two points, Donegal’s adversity was Mayo’s opportunity, but minutes after the restart it became plain that Mayo had neither the muscle nor the character to save the game.
In the end too many questions hung over their performance. Where was the sense, for instance, in futile passages of short-passing when the wind and the slight slope in the pitch in their favour demanded the ball to be pegged at the goalposts at every opportunity?
Only one of their five first-half points was a long shot… from Alan Dillon out on the right wing.
Where was the sense in Alan Freeman’s defensive role in that first half when instead of mooching for scores up front the full-forward was giving away frees at the other end?
Where was the sense in Dillon and Andy Moran and Pat Harte allowing their shots to drop short and into the hands of Paul Durcan in the Donegal goal when scores were so critically required? Where is the sense in all of that… from experienced footballers?
Where was the sense in replacing Freeman or Enda Varley when Conor Mortimer, tossed about like driftwood by the physical Donegal defence, was so ineffectual? None of the forwards made a dent in the home defence in the second half and no goal ever seemed likely.
Where was the sense in bringing Michael Conroy into the forward line a few minutes from the end when it was way too late?
The slightest of openings appeared for Dillon near the end when given possession by Barry Moran, but the physique of the Ballintubber man was no match for Frank McGlynn or Eamonn McGee or Paddy McGrath and the most Dillon earned was a ’45 which goalkeeper David Clarke converted in the 69th minute… their first score of the second half.
Varley, in the 10th minute, got the only goal of the game at a time when doubt about the outcome had not fully taken hold. It was Mortimer’s chance when a sweet pass by Freeman opened up a path for him.
But rather than take on the shot, Mortimer off-loaded to Varley who got the ball into the net… and left us to contemplate Mortimer’s lack of confidence in his ability to take on the shot.
Andy Moran was the fulcrum of Mayo’s attacking strategy in the opening twenty minutes but from a defensive position. The center-forward used the ball well out of defence but was often too far from his goal to make a serious impact.
Keith Higgins was Mayo’s best performer, time and again coming to their rescue when Donegal’s big, bouncy forwards threatened to over-run the defence.
Most of that danger came from Michael Murphy at full-forward and Colm McFadden, who scored freely from long range, when they had the wind with them after the break. Murphy did not have it all his own way from Ger Cafferkey who faced the danger the big, powerful Donegal man posed with courage and conviction.
The full-back picked up a double yellow for his bravery in another piece of eccentric refereeing, and got his marching orders ten minutes from the end.
Donal Vaughan, especially in the first half, Kevin Keane, Lee Keegan, until injured, and David Clarke in goal, spared Mayo a much heavier defeat.

Cork will tog strong
NOW Cork come calling. Curiously, Mayo’s record is better against the Munster men than their Donegal experience. Last year Mayo had two points to spare when they met at McHale Park, but against a Cork side that was no more than a shadow of their regular fifteen.
Beaten by Kerry last week, Conor Counihan will take no risks for Sunday’s encounter and Mayo are likely to face the strongest the Cork manager can field.
Following their successive defeats to Down and Donegal, the mental side of Mayo’s condition will need as much attention as any physical preparation. That will not have gone unnoticed by Counihan and unless there is a dramatic improvement the outcome on Sunday will go the same way as the last two games.
Mayo could be without wing-back Lee Keegan who limped off in the second half in Ballyshannon and he will be sorely missed. But Ger Cafferkey will resume at full-back.
Midfield and the forward line pose big problems for James Horan though and the midnight oil will be burned in selecting his attacking sextet.

U-21s Produce a bit extra
YOU could almost feel the vibrations in the press box as Ray Dempsey hammered home the message to the young men gathered round him in a corner of McHale Park.
It was half-time and Mayo seemed destined for another early exit from the Connacht under 21 championship. All-Ireland champs Galway had shaken off a four-point shortfall to dominate the half and lead by two points at the break.
An unfruitful 24 minutes between Conor O’Shea’s brilliant goal and Cillian O’Connor’s second point had Mayo floundering. Having clawed back the initiative, Galway were leading the hosts a merry dance.
You wouldn’t have put a bob on the Green & Red at the break.  In comparison to the champions they were lifeless, as if lacking self-belief… and neither Ray Dempsey’s lecture nor the pounding of fresh air with his clenched fist looked likely to avert an impending crisis.
But having failed to stretch their lead after the break, Galway lost their first-half buzz, and then their accuracy, and at some stage around the start of the last quarter it dawned on Mayo that the game was not lost.
By the end of the half Galway were clinging on, Mayo buoyed by the accuracy of Cillian O’Connor, the steadfast defending of wing-back Michael Forde, and the nuisance Danny Kirby was making of himself since moving to the edge of the square, were rediscovering the form of their minor days.
Ray Dempsey’s half-time exhortations may have been a factor in his side’s recovery, but the switches of Kirby to full-forward, Cillian O’Connor to centre-half and Aidan Walsh to midfield were crucial in changing the game.
Had they lost, Kirby would have been their villain, having missed a sitter of a goal in extra time.  O’Connor with a 9-points haul had by then assumed leadership, and Mayo had built enough self-confidence to resist the effects of that miss and see them through to a date with Roscommon tomorrow (Wednesday).
I wonder, though, would they have survived if Galway’s full-forward Patrick Sweeney and centre-back Cathal Sweeney had not been forced to retire with injury. The full-forward had orchestrated their dominance in the first half, and Galway never reached the same heights when he left the field.

Just a thought …
Marty Duffy gave another display of peculiar refereeing last Sunday at Ballyshannon. Thumping players’ arms is becoming a common and successful tactic used by strong players in dispossessing opponents, yet went totally unpunished by Duffy.