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Mind games matter

Sean Rice
Galway’s Damien Burke is all over Mayo’s Conor Mortimer
ALL WRAPPED UP Galway’s Damien Burke is all over Mayo’s Conor Mortimer during Sunday’s Connacht Senior FC Final at McHale Park, Castlebar. Pic: Sportsfile

Mind games matter to Mayo

Sean RiceSean Rice
A SECOND half of unflinching Mayo courage may have redeemed it as a final worthy of great duels of the past between these goliaths, but it scarcely compensates for seven minutes of Mayo woolliness during which Galway scored the two goals that left them struggling to catch up.
The fact that they did put behind them the mistakes of that woeful period is a credit to their resilience, but Mayo will look back on the first half with incredulity at the manner in which they appeared to freeze in the face of Galway’s spirited attacks.
Long before Padraig Joyce planted the ball in the net in the 21st minute, the Mayo defence was reeling under a blitz of Galway pressure, and were it not for a brilliant save by David Clarke their first goal would have come a lot sooner.
Nicky Joyce had stolen in behind the defence for what seemed an inevitable finish to a determined sweeping attack, but Clarke with characteristic courage smothered the shot, and Mayo’s agony was delayed by twenty minutes.
Mayo had the benefit of the strong wind in that first half. But attempts to exploit the elements with direct football failed to work for several reasons, but mainly because the front line of Conor Mortimer, Austin O’Malley and Andy Moran could never fully break free from the leetch-like covering of Garreth Bradshaw, Finian Hanley and Damien Burke.
That may have been partly due to an undersupply from midfield and from their own half-back line. The edge generally expected at midfield never quite materialised. Ronan McGarrity did outfield Barry Cullinane on a few occasions, but more often the big Claregalway man used his height to break the ball.
Galway benefited to a great degree from the breaks, and were able to set up a stream of attacking play which forced the Mayo half-back line to concentrate more on defensive measures and less on delivering accurate ball to their forwards.
Thus Alan Dillon, Pat Harte and Trevor Mortimer were compelled to forage deeper than they would have expected, and with less potency. But once again Trevor Mortimer was the victim of a hamstring injury that forced him to retire before he could pose the danger to Galway that we had expected.
He teamed up with Andy Moran to score a splendid point in the 16th minute, but gnawing injury has continued to restrict his contributions to Mayo football, and he has rarely completed a full seventy minutes. Undoubtedly he was a big loss to the Mayo attack.
Adding to Mayo’s woes was the fact that Pat Harte’s occasional bursts were not enough to progress beyond the reach of the iron man of the Galway defence, Diarmuid Blake, who was quite invincible especially after a short respite on the sideline in the second half with a blood injury.
The saving of Mayo was thus left to the one forward who traversed the pitch majestically in a bid to motivate his colleagues.  Alan Dillon was Mayo’s best player, and was in such inspirational form that maybe Conor Mortimer should have allowed the Ballintubber man take the final free that was Mayo’s last chance of equalising the match.
Fair enough, the free was not suitable to a right-footed kicker, but because Dillon was on song, and Mortimer was not, the wing forward was perhaps more mentally ready for a kick of that nature.
From the beginning the Mayo defence inspired no confidence. Keith Higgins was delegated to the full-back role to challenge the authority of Michael Meehan, and he did so with some conviction. But the defence as a unit lost its cohesiveness when Galway started to run at them.
Padraig Joyce orchestrated most of those attacks. Although he played reasonably well, David Heaney has had better days on Joyce. But the Galway captain was in devastating form, and when all around him were beginning to question their ability to hold out in the face of a storming Mayo resurgence, Joyce it was who restored calm with that accurate left foot.
There were many who questioned the selection of James Nallen, and for a brief while in the first half he was troubled by the darting thrusts of Matthew Clancy.  Nallen, however, benefited greatly from a defensive reshuffle and at corner back was one of the stars of the defence.
In fact there was a general improvement in the defence with the introduction of Aidan Higgins and Peadar Gardiner in place of Kieran Conroy and Colm Boyle after the shock of Galway’s two goals.
The goals forced the changes. There was no alternative for the selectors. The threats on the Mayo goal were too numerous and too dangerous. The manner in which Joyce knifed through for his goal, and in which the front of the goal was left unguarded for Fiachra Breathnach to roll the ball to the net had done irreparable psychological damage.
The return of Gardiner and Higgins had immediate effect. Gardiner, back in his old base, used his speed to great effect and his interventions cut off several incipient Galway attacks. Higgins, too, brought solidarity, and as a unit there was much more conviction in their work.
There was little hope, however, for Mayo at the interval trailing as they were by four points and facing a strong wind in the second half. And although they restarted brightly those four points remained between them for the first ten minutes of the half.
Another change to have a big effect was the introduction of Billy Joe Padden in place of Austin O’Malley. The Belmullet man was scarcely on the field when he bagged a point. Alan Dillon followed up with another and, in the 50th minute, Tom Parsons knocked Dillon’s free kick back in front of the goal where Aidan Kilcoyne was lurking and with his left foot sank the ball in the net.
From that moment on the game was ablaze with incredible fury and excitement. It was head to head, shoulder to shoulder, eyeball to eyeball. It was full of the qualities that have distinguished  most of their meetings throughout the decades.
But while Mayo were party to a fine spectacle, once again they were on the wrong side of the result. And in the final analysis it has a lot to do with their state of mind. They have got to play for seventy minutes.

MINOR SUCCESS IS SOME CONSOLATION
THERE was some compensation for Mayo’s defeat in the victory of the minors over Roscommon. For a long time it seemed that here, too, Mayo were destined for defeat, and were it not for an impressive save by goalkeeper Robert Hennelly from a penalty eighteen minutes into the second half they might have had to wait another year for the elusive Connacht title.
Playing with the wind in the first half, Roscommon dominated the proceedings, but faulty shooting cost them a host of scores. Consequently they led only by a single point at the interval.
Good performances by Kevin Keane, Cathal Freeman, Eoin O’Reilly, Shane Nally, James Cafferty, Aidan O’Shea, Aidan Walsh and Ray Geraghty, helped to swing the game slightly towards Mayo in the final quarter.
But like Roscommon in the first half, Mayo’s wastage piled up after the break, and they were still on level terms halfway through the second half.
Hennelly’s save inspired them, and commanding performances by Aidan O’Shea around the middle of the field and Ray Geraghty in the forward line, guided them, however, shakily to a welcome first title in seven years.