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We just weren't good enough

Sean Rice
Image of Mayo's Peadar Gardiner
Meath’s Seamus Kenny holds back Mayo’s Peadar Gardiner during the All-Ireland SFC Quarter-Final at Croke Park last Sunday.

Mayo just not good enough



Sean RiceSean Rice

ONCE more Mayo buckle in Croke Park under the pressure to be as good as followers think they can be. For a few minutes hearts were thrilled with a zippy opening. But as the game wore on and Meath’s muscle got the upper hand, old doubts surfaced again. And in the end Mayo were swept spectacularly off course.
Forget all the ifs and buts, the what-might-have-been, if linesmen and umpires had not made incorrect calls. Bad calls, bad luck change nothing. You make your own luck. Mayo are out of the championship, full stop. Not for the first time has had this column to remark that a team must be good enough to survive the inadequacies of referees and umpires.
Fact is that Mayo were simply not good enough on Sunday. They fell down in all the central positions . . . where it was thought a solid foundation had been laid. Once Meath uncovered those weaknesses they grew in confidence and in the final minutes nothing could stand in their path to the semi-final.
For more than fifteen minutes Mayo played as well as had been hoped. It was an opening period unlike anything they have played this year . . . fast, clean, incisive.  They won the breaks at midfield, and the Meath defence was stretched. Four points were clawed out, two from play by Aidan Kilcoyne and Andy Moran, two from frees by the brilliant Alan Dillon.
Back in defence Mayo appeared cool and competent in breaking up attacks and clearing intelligently.  In over a quarter hour’s play, Meath had yet to score. It looked good.
But even in those moments of ascendancy it became plain that Tom Parsons was not being the success at full-forward all Mayo had hoped. In filling in for the injured Barry Moran, too much was asked of a budding midfielder to whom full-forward play is foreign.
In neither fielding — his most notable characteristic — nor the other special skills required of a full-forward, was the young Charlestown man capable of competing with Anthony Moyles. Eventually he changed places with Pat Harte, but by then the damage to his confidence had set in.
It was an ominous development.
It took Meath seventeen minutes to score from play, a point by David Bray, shortly after Cian Ward had their opening point from a ‘45. But the manner in which Aidan O’Shea responded to a beautifully threaded pass from Dillon bore no indication of any Meath upsurge.
Yet a minute later they were back on level terms with their first goal. It had its origins in a midfield tussle during which Peadar Gardiner conceded possession while grounded. The ball found its way to Bray who wrong-footed Keith Higgins and Kenneth O’Malley, who had a fine game, was left helpless in the yawning goalmouth.
In that score Meath learned a lot about the chinks in Mayo’s armour. On the damp surface many Mayo players were finding it hard to hold their feet, much harder than the Meath men. At midfield the breaking ball was the frequent outcome. In the central positions Mayo were struggling.
Ger Cafferkey, clearly under instructions, picked up Cian Ward, the burly Meath forward. It seemed a horses-for-courses decision by the selectors, and I don’t think it worked.
Man of the match Joe Sheridan, was too strong for Trevor Howley and the leadership the Meath man showed in drilling home his scores was inspirational. No one did it better, and no Mayo back could stop him.
Sheridan got the support he needed from Seamus Kenny, who had moved from defence to take the place of their suspended captain Stephen Bray. In that role Kenny was more than adequate and Peadar Gardiner never quite came to terms with Kenny’s attacking instinct.
Keith Higgins was Mayo’s best defender, and was unfortunate to slip in his attempt to prevent Bray’s goal. And while Andy Moran did little wrong the manner in which he was beaten by James Queeney for Meath’s last point personified the quitting state of Mayo’s minds.
Mayo were, of course, unfortunate to lose Aidan Kilcoyne with a broken collar-bone four minutes into the second half. He might not have reached the high standard of Mayo’s best forward by a mile, Alan Dillon, but he was an efficient supplement to Dillon’s work and with his departure went a lot of the fire of the Mayo front line.
Nor was Aidan O’Shea found wanting. Meath had targeted O’Shea as the danger man and for long periods kept him under rein. But his perseverance and patience won him a fine goal in the 50th minute, a fisted effort from a cross by Trevor Mortimer from the right wing.
He, too, was forced by injury to retire and with Kilcoyne also having to go off, the full forward line had lost most of its real power.
With a four-point lead, following O’Shea’s goal, it looked as if Mayo might have at last landed a killer punch in the pit of Meath’s confidence. But almost immediately it was their own self-belief that lay in tatters. Cian Ward casually tucked a disputed penalty kick into the top corner of Kenneth O’Malley’s net, and from that moment on Mayo visually wilted in the face of Meath’s spirited resistance.
It was then leadership was needed. But on this occasion there was no one to take on Meath, no one to help out Dillon, no one to force the Royals into mistakes.
Some ten minutes before O’Shea’s goal, Dillon had carved out a golden opportunity for Conor Mortimer to hit the headlines. Clean through from Dillon’s laser-like foot pass. Mortimer, for all his skill, did not have the coolness to dummy the keeper and put the ball in the net. Instead he blazed it over the bar. A missed opportunity.
For all of Mayo’s obvious deficiencies in defence and attack, the fundamental shortcoming was at midfield. It brings us no joy to repeat once more that the primary quality of midfielders nowadays is the ability to support defence and attack. The running game which Sean Cavanagh so completely embodies.
On one occasion in the second half, Mayo’s two midfielders stood almost side by side in the semi-circle of their own defence while the Mayo forwards struggled in vain to carve out a vital score. Midfielders have got to be sufficiently fit and mobile to move with the play.
It called for speedier remedial action by the selectors. But no repairs worked. Even the introduction of veteran James Nallen ten minutes from the end might have provided the leadership that was in such short supply in the middle of the field.
Seamus O’Shea, had he not been injured, would have been an option. Maybe they ought to concentrate on developing the natural midfield qualities of Tom Parsons. A bit of guidance and a bit more work on his part might be the answer.
So another year ends — with dignity upheld if not the high hopes followers held of reaching the semi-final. The Connacht championship has been secured. That’s progress. But there is much to be done before Mayo reach the summit of all our dreams.