HIGGINS SANDWICH Tyrone’s Seán Cavanagh is caught between Aidan (left) and Keith Higgins. Pic: Sportsfile
Simple things let Mayo down
IF the fundamentals are missing what hope is there?
If, unchallenged, you can’t pick a point from 30 yards; if, unchallenged, you pick a ball straight off the ground; if, unchallenged, your pass is intercepted, how in the name of goodness can you expect to win!
Thus it was at Croke Park, and thus another fickle performance brings Mayo’s championship hopes to an end for another year.
Afterwards it was hard to argue with the consensus that win or lose on Saturday, Mayo were going nowhere. You can argue until the cows come home about some harsh refereeing decisions and whether management got the selection right. But in the end, the stark truth is that Mayo left this one behind.
For 15 minutes after the restart they created enough opportunities to beat the referee and to tide them over any emergency, including a Tyrone resurgence. But once more they blew it and the price of their ineptitude could be costly.
Weakened by the loss of Trevor Mortimer and Ronan McGarrity, management was forced to draft in David Heaney to midfield. It was one of numerous changes, including five in personnel, from the side that started the Connacht final.
Although it surprised many, you could see the logic of having Tom Cunniffe at full-back. Chosen for his speed and agility to counter the danger which Seán Cavanagh posed at full-forward, Cunniffe lacked only the experience of full-back play on the big occasion. It showed at times. Yet Cavanagh’s biggest influence was at midfield when he moved out for the second half.
In the opening minutes the Mayo defence did creak, not so much from the threat of their opposite numbers, as from the danger created by encroaching Tyrone defenders moving down freely in support. And for ten minutes or so, after Alan Dillon fired the first point you wondered about the security of this re-jigged backline.
Their steadying influence was their most mature member, James Nallen at centre half-back. Evidently guided by the maxim that attack is often the best form of defence, Nallen used all of his vast experience and astuteness to relieve the pressure with thrusts up the left wing. His selection for the match with Sligo was widely criticised. He was over the hill, they said, too old for new Mayo. That blinkered vision was exposed by a performance on Saturday that not only eclipsed Tyrone star Brian McGuigan, but also dug Mayo out of a defence mentality and got them to drive forward.
It didn’t help much that some of Mayo’s passing was at times sloppy and disturbing, nor that a failure to have someone coming through the centre to support those thrusts up the left wing cost valuable scores.
Peadar Gardiner, back in a defensive role, was delegated to rein in Brian Dooher, and the Crossmolina man did all that could be expected of him. Nor was Trevor Howley much handicapped by his absence through injury, or Keith Higgins by his move to the right corner of defence.
But although Heaney and Tom Parsons were winning a fair share of the midfield exchanges, Mayo had to wait until the 16th minute for Alan Dillon to boot over their second point. Dillon, at full-forward, made some searing runs, but did not have the necessary support coming through from midfield to round off his work.
It was left to Billy Joe Padden, in the unusual role of wing forward, to grab Mayo’s only two points from play in the first half. The Belmullet man settled pretty well after a few dreadful delivery attempts, but his work rate as ever was impressive in the first half.
The sum total of all of this was that as a whole Mayo were still unimpressive, that Tyrone were forcing the game, and if Tommy McGuigan had not missed an open goal, and Seán Cavanagh had flicked the ball over the bar instead of illegally into the Mayo net, the match might have been over ten minutes or so before half time.
Whether it was the fear of another Croke Park disaster or an instinctive urge to exploit a momentary dip in Tyrone’s disappointment, Mayo suddenly crashed back into contention. Clever play by Parsons, Andy Moran and Pat Harte provided the opportunity for Conor Mortimer to elude the shackles of Conor Gormley and thump the ball into the net.
Leech-like they had stuck to Mortimer. But he is a slippery opponent and for all the inane criticism of him, the Shrule man is still Mayo’s most potent forward. He did not get many chances on Saturday, but it took more than one defender to stop him. If a little more fortune favoured the shot that screamed over the bar at the start of the second half, Mayo would probably have won.
It came at a time when they had gained control of the game, when Tyrone were bedraggled and lifeless. But Mayo failed to exploit their difficulties. They had every chance to put the game beyond recovery. Andy Moran could not have had a softer opportunity, but he fisted the ball wide. Tom Parsons boomed down the pitch, blissfully alone, and shot wide. Aidan Kilcoyne twice failed to direct the ball between the posts as the small Mayo contingent watched in disbelief. Yet amazingly, Mayo were three points ahead.
There were other lost opportunities. David Heaney, alone and unforced, picked the ball straight off the ground. Aidan Campbell, who had come in for Kilcoyne, did likewise while Trevor Mortimer, having replaced Pat Harte at half-time, was unfairly punished for a similar offence shortly after the restart.