ONCE more we had succumbed to the inevitable. The first half had run its predictable course. There was nothing for it, but to concede that a chasm was opening up between these two great rivals, that Galway were climbing back up the ladder and Mayo about to slip into the abyss.
Trailing by six points at the interval, Mayo’s football had been as anaemic as any produced so far in the league . . . leaderless, shapeless, purposeless.
It could have been worse than six points. For once that lethal left foot of Michael Meehan failed to convert a penalty in injury time, and the final dispatch of their great rivals had to await the second half.
What happened after the break had its origins in that penalty incident. David Clarke was the outstanding Mayo figure in the first half. In his mastery of the square he was unrivalled, managing even to divert what looked liked a certain point out to the wing. His greatest test was still to come when a trademark Padraic Joyce pass found Paul Conroy blissfully alone behind the defence.
Risking serious injury, Clarke sprang from his line to foil Conroy before the ball had left his boot . . . fouling the Galway man in the process. Meehan does not normally miss such chances, but that shot whizzed by the outside of the right-hand upright.
In Clarke’s brave save and a couple of shrewd switches at the interval lay the inspiration for the drama that was to follow. Conor Mortimer, inexplicably dropped from the team, was back at corner forward in place of Michael Sweeney.
U-21 star Kevin McLoughlin replaced a rather luckless Kieran Conroy in defence. Conroy, who had a chance to grab an unlikely goal in the first half, had done little wrong, but McLoughlin’s influence on the game was immediate and significant.
Four minutes into the second half and before Galway got a chance to resume where they had left off, McLoughlin, a corner back, had slammed the ball over the bar.
A minute later, 18-years-old Aidan O’Shea, who made a big impression at full forward, was on the spot to finish off a chance created by the endless delving of Trevor Mortimer and Mark Ronaldson. Suddenly, only two points separated them, an incredible transformation was in progress, and once again we were sent searching for answers to Mayo’s soul-destroying inconsistency.
In their rekindling of old fire, curious performances began to unfold. Having got the run-around from Michael Meehan in the early stages of the game, Ger Cafferkey steadily got a rein on the great Galway man, and won their duel after the break.
In front of him Tom Cunniffe, without engaging in any spectacular breaks, handled the wiles of Padraic Joyce commendably. Outplayed in the first half at midfield, Ronan McGarrity ruled the air after the break, his best game all season. And Tom Parsons, who had replaced the yellow-carded Pat Harte, helped the Ballina man secure midfield.
Trevor Mortimer’s inherent work-rate, even against the flow in the first half, paid rich dividends and, leading the attack, Aiden O’Shea showed courage and wisdom beyond his years.
What’s new about all of those performances is that they came from central positions, and are the makings of a reliable backbone which Mayo has not managed to assemble for some time. The foundation is there now for management to encourage and develop in the weeks leading up to the championship.
Their domination of the first half was such that you could not blame Galway for believing they had it all wrapped up at the break. Finian Hanley, Damien Burke, David Reilly, Joe Bergin Barry Cullinane and Michael Meehan were strong and compelling. It was hard to argue with the general belief that Mayo’s football had deteriorated, that they lacked heart and direction.
By taking their foot off the pedal Galway allowed Mayo back into the game and hurt pride sparked the recovery. The game could have gone any way in the end, but Mayo held out stubbornly.
All of them were proof of what can be achieved when lethargy is rooted out and the momentum to drive on takes hold. No task was too great to tackle, and Galway were closed out.
Liam O’Malley, Peadar Gardiner, Andy Moran, Mark Ronaldson, Alan Dillon, Austin O’Malley and Conor Mortimer were all essential to the recovery.
It was no game for man of the match awards. As in the U-21 semi-final, to choose one above the other is an invidious task. It acts against teamwork. Sometimes one individual may be the catalyst in a team’s winning direction. In this case a combination of forces helped turn it around.
The difficulty is that Mayo’s win on Sunday is no guarantee that they are on the road to recovery. Against Tyrone on Easter Sunday a return to the old ways cannot be discounted. And of course the unpredictable returns from last Sunday’s series suggests that Mayo’s continued tenancy of Division 1 is still uncertain.
At half-time a draw could not be envisaged, let alone victory. To have lost would consign Mayo to certain relegation. Thanks to that bright second half the trap door is still bolted.
U-21S MUST approach SLIGO WITH CAution
THE shock will resonate around the province if Mayo lose to Sligo on Saturday. That hour in Markievicz Park stands between them and their fourth Connacht U-21 title in a row. With herculean effort they cleared the Galway and Roscommon hurdles and are now clear favourites to retain their crown. But let them be warned. Sligo lurk in the long grass.
Nobody more than those who guide the team are aware of the weight of expectation Mayo¹s victories over Galway and Roscommon have wrought. In their preparation and leadership from the sideline the collective managerial skills of Pat Holmes, Noel Connelly and Michael Collins has generated most of those high hopes.
But that’s the last thing they will want to hear before a crucial match. They have never sought the limelight. If they could, more than likely they would steal down to Sligo without anyone knowing, get on with the game, and steal back home. Plaudits rest uneasily on their shoulders.
They know the pitfalls of complacency. They are not patronising when they tell their young charges that Sligo will be a difficult side to beat. But to get that message across to a team so convincing in their two previous outings, and to those who watched them, can be difficult.
Unfortunately Sligo do not rank in general estimation among the other hotshots of Connacht. They don¹t hold as much fear for Mayo as Galway and Roscommon had done. But Sligo are capable of bringing Mayo crashing back to earth. They are big and strong, and teams of that nature from the Yeats County have surprised Mayo in the past.
Fortunately, key players Tom Parsons, Aidan O’Shea, Mikey Sweeney and Kevin McLoughlin emerged injury free from their victory over Galway last Sunday. Holmes and company must have breathed sighs of relief when the final whistle blew. Without them, Mayo might not have succeeded, and they are also key to their hopes of winning their fourth Connacht title in a row on Saturday.