FOR one dreadful moment the mind wriggled in turmoil. A great equalising goal by Michael Meehan hurtled Mayo into a stew of their own making. We winced at their crassness in playing ‘keep ball’ in defence of a three-point lead as the final minute of injury time ticked out.
And when Diarmuid Blake intercepted a pass and set in motion the move that led to Meehan crashing the ball into the net, the grief we had feared was starkly realised. As the tension built to a climax, red-faced Mayo were seconds away from a veritable disaster.
But cometh the hour, cometh the man! And to Andy Moran all Mayo will be eternally grateful. In those tense final seconds the Ballaghaderreen man won possession from Kenneth O’Malley’s prodigious kick-out. He was fouled and took on the responsibility for the free, his mind in tune with Peadar Gardiner skipping down the right wing. With ice cool nerves Gardiner took the pass and nailed the final winning point.
Thus were Mayo blushes spared and the thousands of Mayo fans who flooded the pitch at the final whistle were celebrating the relief that final point brought as much as the 42-years-old gap it closed at Pearse Stadium.
Lack of leadership in Mayo teams is a weakness we have bemoaned for years. In seizing the moment, and guiding Mayo through nerve-wrecking final seconds Moran’s experience and Gardiner’s composure are traits of maturity that ought to boost Mayo’s confidence in the quarter-final.
Apart from their impertinence in playing with fire in that final minute, they had dominated the second half against a stiff whimsical wind. They handled themselves well in the no-nonsense exchanges, and displayed an edge in toughness that seemed to surprise Galway.
But while they led by five points at the interval you would not have put your life savings on them.
Against the wind Galway shaped like a side that could snatch their third title in a row. Joe Bergin had won midfield, and they also had won most of the breaks. Finian Hanley was their exemplar in defence, and Nicky Joyce was startlingly efficient in their attack. Their greater sharpness was the difference their game with Sligo had honed in them.
Mayo, on the other hand, were not making best use of the wind that blew into the Salthill end. As they fiddled about with the ball you could almost hear Mayo fans screaming for the long ball into Barry Moran and the ever hard-working Aidan O’Shea. Some did get through and the two front men looked dangerous. The strength and diligence of O’Shea, in particular, was highly influential in denting Galway’s confidence in defence.
Mayo’s second point by Aidan Kilcoyne came from Moran’s knock-down. And it was from a centre by Ronan McGarrity that the Castlebar man nudged the ball into the net. Kilcoyne had a better chance earlier to snatch a goal, but was wide from close in while O’Shea opened a path for a blistering point by Pat Harte off the crossbar.
But Nicky Joyce was given a great opportunity when picked out by cousin Padraic inside the defence. He stumbled and Keith Higgins was just in time to clear.
The occasional brilliance of Padraic Joyce left you fully conscious of the danger he posed, but in general Trevor Howley handled him well, and with the exception of his last-minute goal, Ger Cafferkey at full-back neutralised the thrusts of Michael Meehan.
BUT Nicky Joyce was the menace that threatened to undo Mayo’s hopes. And the Mayo selectors effectively dealt with that problem when they replaced Liam O’Malley — clearly not fully recovered from injury — with Donal Vaughan at the interval. The Ballinrobe man coped admirably with Sean Armstrong while Keith Higgins who moved to the right corner tamed Nicky Joyce. Behind them Kenneth O’Malley was excellent in goal.
Conor Mortimer was also in for Kilcoyne and the second half was barely four minutes old when the Shrule man made his mark with a trademark point. Galway had got a few chances to clip back the lead, but the suffocating tackles of the Mayo defence allowed them fewer options and by the 56th minute three points still separated them.
Mayo were now playing with more assurance. Ronan McGarrity took charge in the centre, outfielding everyone in sight. His partner David Heaney had been more solid than spectacular, especially in the first half, and there was a warm round of appreciation for the Swinford veteran when John O’Mahony decided to rest him near the end.
Alan Dillon turned in another fine performance, and while Pat Harte did a lot of useful work on the other wing you were left with the feeling that the Ballina man is capable of giving much more.
Tireless Trevor Mortimer, too far out of position at times in the first half, scooped up ball after ball around the centre, and then capped another enterprising performance with a timely nudge on Diarmuid Blake. With a captain’s confidence he then drove for goal and presented Conor with the perfect pass to slap into the net.
That was the cushion against Galway’s bounce back. And as it turned out it was no more than they needed. A palpable urgency gripped the Tribesmen. Nothing was spared. In a bid to defend that lead the Mayo selectors replaced a redundant Barry Moran with Mark Ronaldson given specific orders to help out in defence.
That strategy did not quite work. The old maxim that the best means of defence is attack was never more apparent. A man short up front left Mayo with few options when they did go on the offensive. For his mercurial skills, Ronaldson might have been more beneficially employed in a roving role in attack, thus relieving the pressure on the defence in those final agonising minutes.
Slowly, methodically, Galway began to eat into that lead, but with three between them as they entered injury time, Mayo were still in control and defended herculeanly until they embarked on that crazy idea to play around with the ball. Galway were incensed and Mayo almost paid the price for their effrontery.
Still, to have overcome the odds especially their lack of a serious challenge before the final is a notable achievement. And the well of support that greeted their win leaves one with the impression that, now that Galway have been trumped, the mental pressure will have eased and a more confident approach adopted for their next outing.
The minors did not quite meet with the same success. But they can count themselves fortunate to have another chance to prove they are a better side that they looked against Roscommon.
A point from a free by Aidan Walsh in the final minutes took them of the hook and on Sunday evening next they have a chance to redeem themselves at Hyde Park. But the challenge from Roscommon was so convincing that it will take something greater than Mayo produced in Pearse Stadium to hold onto heir title.