The rapture flooding every Mayo face in Ballybofey confirmed the riveting escape they had just witnessed.
How Mayo wriggled off the hook will become the stuff of folklore. How Donegal failed to win is a lesson in the vagaries of the game and how sometimes more can be got from a team less well equipped than their opponents.
We had begun to feel the stitch of demotion as timed ticked towards the inevitable. Only seconds were left when the seventy minutes of repressed fear were suddenly released in a final flurry of brilliance. Thumping hearts eased, the flush of embarrassment stemmed, and fears that Mayo coffers would be depleted were dispelled.
We have never seen a league game fraught with such nervousness, such a fear of losing. It was as if the drop to the second division was worse than the loss of an All-Ireland. And Mayo more so than Donegal were staring into that black, steep ravine.
What toppled Mayo from the lofty heights of the All-Ireland final to scraping the bottom of the table for league survival? Having cleared the first hurdle in Clones, skimpy though it was, they had got an ideal launch to their campaign and needed only two further wins to ensure safety.
In that tough opener against Monaghan they won without eight of their All-Ireland side, a last minute thrilling point by Paddy Durcan securing victory. On the evidence of that win only the least optimistic follower would have argued against Mayo winning one or two of their home league games in the following weeks.
All three were lost, however, and it was difficult to reconcile the difference between the pragmatic performances produced against Monaghan and Kildare and the tangled, confused football into which Kerry and Tyrone hustled them. In their last home game the Red Hands inflicted their heaviest defeat of the league.
You looked for some shred of comfort in the inadequately filled void left by the injured stars, and prayed that their imminent return would stimulate resurgence. Instead, the situation worsened when Lee Keegan, Mayo’s totemic defender, was forced once again to retire, this time from a shoulder injury.
Just back from some winter repairs, the Westport man was in flying form when he took a heavy tackle navigating through the Tyrone defence with all of his old expertise. His loss for the start of the championship is incalculable.
Following that defeat there was criticism of management for not having nurtured new talent. Desperation measures were called for to halt Mayo’s slide towards the bottom of the table. Younger players ought to be let loose, it was said. Some were and didn’t come up to scratch.
More ambitious young talent would have been given a chance to prove their worthiness of selection if Mayo’s safety was assured by winning the first three games of the campaign. When that didn’t happen the manager had no option but to field his strongest teams.
Three young men on his list have availed of that opportunity and their performances against Donegal were central to the dramatic final stages of that game. Right through the seventy minutes Stephen Coen scrapped diligently and cleverly, his leadership credentials earned in captaining Mayo’s underage teams and UCD whom he led to Sigerson glory in recent weeks.
At corner back, filling in for the absent Keith Higgins, Eoin O’Donoghue shouldered immense responsibility in scoring the second last point. In all of his games he has competed with the self-assurance of a veteran.
It says much for his confidence that Conor Loftus has the capacity to put errors behind him and to compensate for faults with hard work, good scores and accurate off-loading.
Three determined starlets, still learning, and with boundless potential. But although they dug out a sweet victory in Ballybofey, the short championship road to MacHale Park is paved with hazards harbouring the possibility of a calamity if Mayo do not realise the size of the gap that still remains to be closed.
Rice College on the march
Rice College carry the good wishes of the whole county with them in their bid to win the coveted Hogan Cup for the first time. To have reached the final is a mammoth achievement for the Westport students and it is hoped that Mayo people will flock to Croke Park on Saturday to provide the moral support that is essential to success.
St Jarlath’s has been the pre-dominant college in Connacht football. Way back in 1947 10 players from Mayo helped the Tuam college to All-Ireland success.
They included Mick Flanagan and Peter Solan, who went on to win All-Ireland senior titles with Mayo, and Seán Purcell, who did likewise for Galway. Several titles followed in which Mayo players continued to contribute.
With the closure of boarding in the school their football stranglehold was broken, and St Colman’s, St Gerald’s, St Muredach’s and now Rice College compete with St Jarlath’s on a more even playing pitch.
The Hogan Cup was presented by the Central Colleges Council in memory of Brother Thomas Hogan, who fostered a zest for Gaelic football in the schools where he taught.
He was brother of Michael Hogan, shot dead on the pitch in Croke Park by British Auxiliaries in 1920 and after whom the Hogan Stand in Croke Park is named.
Rice College meet tough opposition in St Ronan’s of Lurgan, but the impetus provided by joint managers Shane Conway and Martin Connolly may be enough to inspire their young charges to clear the last hurdle on what has been a historic journey.
In this together
The competitiveness of the Allianz League continues to attract swelling numbers of supporters. Tens of thousands have been flocking to MacHale Park those last few years for Mayo’s home games, and nearly as many make the journey even to the most distant venues for the away action.
County coffers are in better shape from the increased interest in Gaelic games. It’s a far cry from a national league game back in 1982 between Leitrim and Limerick at Carrick-on-Shannon which attracted only 48 people.
Growing numbers of women are adding to increased support. Women whose knowledge of the game is deep and insightful.
Mick Byrne’s well-organised bus-runs are all the more appealing for the presence of those knowledgeable females for whom distance is no object.
And at a function marking the end of Mayo’s league campaign, Mick, gracious as ever, paid a special tribute to one lady with a generous heart who has been a member of his entourage on every occasion.
Accompanied by her daughters Lilly and Aoife, Bernie Begley is among the staunchest of Mayo’s travelling fans. Nor has a trip passed without her tasty sandwiches being enjoyed by fellow travellers with whom she has shared them . . . an after match treat on the journey home.
Bernie and her daughters adorn the Byrne’s Babes touring retinue. Long may they continue to journey.