BAD DAY AT THE OFFICE Mayo manager Mickey Moran reacts after Kerry’s second goal last Sunday.
Mayo unable to take final step
IT’S a familiar script, a traditional result, the ritual slaying of a dream. And the pain gets no easier. Not for supporters, not for well-wishers, not for the players. From those fleeting, euphoric moments of victory over Dublin everyone has been unceremoniously dumped back into swinging depths of the abyss. We dared dream once more, and paid a heavy price.But not from this quarter will there be a public hanging. No blame will be attached to those who made the gallant effort to haul Mayo out of the swamp of despondency. In the half light of their semi-final success we were given a glimpse, however brief, of the status ultimate success confers. Against Dublin Mayo peaked. It was their All-Ireland. On Sunday we were back on well-trodden territory.
You can only imagine the feelings of players this week as they try to piece together how it all went wrong. Throughout the past nine months they have sacrificed much in their bid to cast off the timeworn shibboleths of failure. Their dedication and commitment have been exemplary. Against Dublin they achieved something new and warming. It will not have been overshadowed by Sunday’s collapse.
There are talks now of retirement. David Brady made his intentions clear in the dressing room afterwards. The interest to sustain another year of such commitment will have been drained from him when the new season begins.
His going will have brought back memories of great performances early in his career, but scarcely anything he recalls is likely to match that of his final performance for the Green and Red. He had been the standby for midfield, but found himself manning the full-back berth, sent in to try to rescue the game from the overpowering waves of the Kerry attacking machine.
Kieran Donaghy was the rock on which Mayo were foundering. He had made one goal and scored another by the eighth minute when Brady was asked to take over responsibility at full-back. We had wondered what plan Mickey Moran and John Morrison had drawn up to counter the danger posed by the big Kerry full-forward, to bring an end to the long calamity of Mayo disasters. We had not reckoned on the instantaneous conversion of a midfielder to a successful fullback.
Brady was unable to stem every leak in the Mayo defence, but he brought strength and character to his resistance, and from his first welcoming brush with the Mayo man, Donaghy became aware that he was up against a tough, no-nonsense opponent.
Brady’s initial positive clearances did spur Mayo’s mini-revival. In no time at all Kevin O’Neill had the ball in the net, their first score. Kerry had by then sorted out some of Mayo’s customary stars and clocked up a total of 2-4. But none of that, and little of what was to follow, was the fault of Brady. On a dreary day for Mayo, it was perhaps fitting that his valedictory should have been so well crafted.
That goal by O’Neill set the game up for a continuation of their fight-back over the final twenty minutes of the first half, but in between Colm Cooper scored their third goal rocketing Kerry into a twelve-point lead in 24 minutes. It was a forlorn Mayo who headed for halftime, unable to make any real dent on the Kerry defence other than O’Neill’s goal in which Aidan Higgins and Conor Mortimer had a big hand.
A minute before the end of normal time in the first half, however, Pat Harte carved out a beauty and O’Neill was at the heart of it. And it was O’Neill who scored their third a minute later when he clutched a rebound off the upright from Ciaran McDonald and stuck it in the net. Suddenly a bizarre game had caught the imagination. Mayo had cut a 12-point deficit to six and, although outplayed by Kerry, they were still hanging on.
Indeed, O’Neill was given the chance to shock Kerry in the second minute when he was put through by a quick free from Ciaran McDonald, but he couldn’t manage to get the ground ball past Diarmuid Murphy in the Kerry goal.
Curiously, they took off O’Neill a short time after the resumption, and it seemed as if a creative touch had been lost to the attack. The Na Fianna man did not return and his departure brought to an end his romance with Mayo football over the past nine months.
Retirements and Mickey’s future
BROUGHT in from the cold in the autumn of his football career by Mickey Moran and his selectors, O’Neill repaid them generously with some brilliant scores.
His was a fairytale return to the Mayo limelight, and he won the hearts of those who have watched him perform throughout the championship. He, too, may be on the verge of finally bowing out, although no hint of his intentions was disclosed afterwards. Should he finally decide to call it a day with Mayo he will have the memories of those goals to warm him in the winter ahead.
Nor did James Nallen give any hint of his intentions. Nobody will urge the Crossmolina man into retirement, for he is capable of storming back to his old form in the months ahead. His has been a decade of dependability in the heart of the Mayo defence, and still may have something to offer. His form on Sunday may not have met the high standards he has set himself, but no one can deny the force he has been in Mayo football.
David Heaney took over Nallen’s role when David Brady made his entrance. It is to his credit that Heaney’s game suffered little following his experiences in trying to combat the skills of Donaghy. The Swinford man has been an exemplary captain all season. He, too, has given long and diligent service to the county, and would seem to have enough in reserve to remain as anchorman in the defence for a further period.
I don’t know whether Ciaran McDonald is contemplating retirement. He will not have been pleased with his performance against Kerry, especially in the second half. But all year he has been the glistening figure among the Mayo fifteen, attracting the admiration of the whole country for his array of ball skills. He is still capable of producing winning touches from his vast collection and the hope must be that this rich talent will still be available to Mayo management.
McDonald was not the only star that failed to shine. None of those who dismantled Dublin’s ambitions were allowed the freedom to repeat those performances. Neither Alan Dillon, Conor Mortimer, Ronan McGarrity nor Ger Brady were able to shake off the adhesive nature of Kerry’s marking. The supply that has always been their oxygen didn’t emanate from midfield or from anywhere else.
They were starved of good ball, yet were outplayed for whatever scraps did come their way by the raging spirit of the Kerry backs. Their return of a single point from play is evidence of the straitjacket in which they were bound.
The loss of midfield was crucial. Mayo did not compete with Darragh Ó Sé and Tommy Griffin. Very few of the essential breaks were won. It was as if they were restrained by some invisible presence. Pat Harte salvaged something from the bruising battle, and the manner in which he set up the goal which he eventually finished to the net was an indication of his potential. He’ll be back. So, too, will McGarrity if only to prove that this was an off-day.
The substitution of Billy Joe Padden in the second half was surprising. The Belmullet man was the most industrious of the forward line in the first half, and none of the four replacements rose to his standard. Padden, as this writer has often noted, is at his most effective from a central position. From his cramped conditions on the wing he still managed to take on the Kerry defence, in the first half especially, and had enough left in the tank to cause some worry to the opposition in the second half.
Otherwise, there was little Mayo could do to dam the tide of Kerry scores. They were too loose, too reluctant to shut out the Kerry forwards, to tackle with anything like the spirit of their Dublin performance.
For the first time in their short reign as Mayo bosses Mickey Moran and John Morrison will have come face to face with the stark reality of Mayo’s unpredictability. Perhaps you have to experience this paradox, this fickle nature of their character, in order to dream up some corrective measure.
It will concentrate their minds over the winter months. They and Kieran Gallagher have had a good year. They were an unknown quantity when they took up the reins in Mayo, but have brought imagination to their work, have taken the drudgery out of training for the players, have been innovative and impressive.
Trying to sort out the Mayo mind is something in which no manager has had any real success. To the rest of Ireland Mayo have been the great underachievers in football. If Moran and Morrison and Gallagher succeed in changing all that they will have the blessings of Mayo people everywhere.