THERE’LL be no backslapping, said Ray Dempsey, in the aftermath of the accomplished performance of his minors at Croke Park. The Mayo manager, anxious to keep heads focused for the replay next Saturday at Longford, resisted the temptation to overstate the importance of their draw with Tyrone.
While containing his delight at the overall competence of this minor side, Dempsey is experienced enough to know that all that was achieved at Croke Park will have been lost if Tyrone win the replay. Good losers do not get recorded in the history books.
The danger to which he is perhaps alluding is that his players might feel that the form they produced in holding Tyrone to a draw, exciting as it was, may be enough to take them to victory in Longford. It will not. Others will see that result as a victory Mayo left behind.
In the blurring heat of the final exchanges, mistakes are inevitable. Passes will go astray and kicks go off course in the tempestuous moments of a see-saw battle. Yet, the fact is that Mayo’s young men had the chances to cause the first upset of All-Ireland day. And many will wonder will they regret them in Longford.
Tyrone were happy to get a second chance. And on Saturday, buoyed by the huge attendance of supporters still celebrating the victory of their senior side over Kerry and expecting the second leg of a glorious double, they will have a daunting advantage. Bet your life, too, that Mickey Harte will ensure that his victorious side make the journey to Longford as a further stimulus to procuring the notable double.
That’s the task confronting Mayo, and while they cannot call on similar motivational distinction, the least followers can do is to turn out in big numbers to support their gallant effort to bridge the 23-year-long gulf that has denied Mayo a minor victory.
Mayo did not appear disadvantaged by the huge Tyrone support in Croke Park, or by the pageantry of the occasion on All-Ireland final day. In that whirl of dreams and hope and expectation, nervousness was unavoidable. But the manner in which Mayo began betrayed no sense of apprehension.
Despite the comprehensive victory of each in their semi-finals, Tyrone were clear favourites because of the manner in which they ousted Meath, and because they had in Kyle Coney a player of exceptional talent destined for the Sydney Swans AFL side.
But against Mayo, Coney did not reach the standard he set in the semi-final. Instead, all eyes were pinned on Mayo’s centre half-forward Aidan O’Shea. The Breaffy man has been Mayo’s linchpin throughout the campaign. On Sunday, however, he exceeded his own fine limits.
Maybe that’s why Mayo settled so quickly. Like Brian Dooher on the Tyrone senior side, O’Shea was almost always at the heart of their action. He augmented midfield, compensating in some ways for the performances of James Cafferty and Ger McDonagh, which were not quite as prominent as in previous games.
O’Shea started the move that led to Raymond Geraghty’s opening score and maintained a level of productivity that Tyrone were not able to counter. No doubt the northern mentors will devise a plot to negate the effectiveness of the Mayo centre half-forward in Longford. Hopefully, their concentration on O’Shea will be such that the Tyrone attention on other Mayo areas will be less focused.
It was in the early moments of the match, too, that the defence managed to disrupt Tyrone’s vaunted forward line. After a few threatening charges, Coney grew less dangerous as the game progressed. David Dolan did his job well. But one poor game does not make Coney a bad player, and no less vigilance will be asked of the Garrymore defender in Longford.
The real danger from Tyrone sprang from full-forward Paddy McNeice, who scored freely, and while he never got past Kevin Keane, he got sufficiently free to score six points.
John Broderick, Shane McHale, Eoin Reilly and Shane Nally – unaffected by the injury that restricted his preparation – dovetailed impressively, but it took a couple of wonder saves by Robert Hennelly to plug their susceptibility to raids from midfielders Niall McKenna and in particular Martin Rogers.
Sensing a shock defeat after Mayo went four points ahead, Tyrone brought big dollops of energy to the game in the final minutes of the first half. And in those minutes Mayo lost their shape a little.
Vulnerable to the deep running of Rogers and Ciarán Gervin, Mayo conceded five points in a row and went to the dressing room at the interval a point in arrears. At last it seemed, Tyrone had managed to get a handle on the game, and Mayo’s challenge had begun to wane.
But, though they must have given considerable thought to ways of lessening the impact O’Shea was creating, no visible signs of constraint interfered with the performance of the centre half-forward. And after Nally grabbed the equaliser immediately after the resumption, the exchanges intensified.
Points flowed freely. No effort by either side was spared. Nor did either resort to fouling. The fluidity of the play is reflected in the fact that of the 28 points scored only six came from frees – three to each side.
Referee Rory Hickey must also share in the praise for sparing the whistle and avoiding any semblance of controversy in the cauldron of the final minutes which might have changed the direction of the game.
Mayo plugged the gap through the centre in the second half. And the decision to confer on Aidan Walsh more of a roving role brought more balance back to the exchanges. The young man did miss a crucial free from a rather awkward angle for a right-foot player four minutes after the restart. But he showed nerves of steel in converting a difficult free in the 60th minute into a glorious point.
Cathal Freeman, who scored four points, and Alex Corduff trolled effectively in the forward line and Raymond Geraghty, Kieran Charlton and subs Dean Gavin and Daniel O’Hara contributed to a worthy draw. To win the replay, however, much more will be demanded of each. The magnitude of the task has not been diminished by the draw, although there will be more respect for Mayo’s challenge.
Where stand Mayo now?
WHERE now does Mayo stand on football graph? Tyrone’s superb victory over Kerry in the All-Ireland final will provide some boost to Mayo’s stature ... but perhaps not a lot.
It’s all speculation now, but if Mayo had beaten Tyrone in that crucial play-off, how would they have fared afterwards? Could anyone visualise victory over Dublin or Wexford or Kerry?
Tyrone’s improvement has been spectacular since they scraped a win in that play-off. The form of Brian Dooher, Seán Cavanagh, Ryan McMenamin, Enda McGinley, etc, and the strategy and astuteness exercised by Mickey Harte in adapting to the demands of every opposition, singles him out as a manager of unequalled ability.
Unlike Mayo they did not fear Kerry. They met that challenge with envious grit, demonstrating once again that Kerry’s football empire is not invincible.
It was a magnificent win and gives hope to other counties.