FOOTBALL CONNACHT SENIOR CHAMPIONSHIP
ONLY those of us who were at the Emerald Grounds in Ruislip on Sunday can really appreciate just how close Mayo came to being dumped out of the Connacht championship by London.
If it had come to pass, this Mayo team would have joined the Leitrim class of 1977 as being the only scalps that the Exiles have collected since they joined the provincial competition thirty-six years ago.
In the end, Mayo survived; but only after hitting two late points to salvage a draw and force the game into extra-time, before managing to keep their resilient hosts at bay during the frantic closing stages.
“We’re very relieved,” sighed Mayo manager James Horan afterwards. “We had a torrid day out there. We were very tentative, we didn’t really play well, and we nearly got caught out.
“London played some good stuff. They were well-organised and, in fairness to them, they did very well. They were two points up with a couple of minutes to go and could easily have won the game.
“We got stuck in and brought it to extra-time and a couple of guys really stood up. Andy Moran did well, Alan [Dillon] came back on, still injured, and we eventually saw the game out.”
The statistics of the game are worth considering before writing this Mayo performance off as ‘one of those things’.
They shot 18 wides, missed a penalty, and dropped a plethora of shots into Evan Byrne’s hands. Seven different free-takers tried their luck during the course of an afternoon to forget and Mayo were chasing the game from the second minute until extra-time started to take shape.
The breaking ball stats make unpleasant reading too, according to the Mayo manager, and the majority of his players will know that they have left plenty of room for improvement ahead of that June 26 engagement.
The warning signs were apparent from an early stage but the panic didn’t really start to set in until the outstanding Paul Geraghty (who alternated between full-forward and midfield) fired in the opening goal after Robert Hennelly had saved John Scanlon’s initial effort.
That 16th minute salvo left wind-assisted London ahead by 1-3 to 0-1 and Aidan Campbell’s missed penalty five minutes earlier seemed careless in the extreme.
The homeside were playing with confidence and style, epitomised by superb points from Sean McVeigh and Mark Gottsche, and underpinned by the fearlessness and authority of Michael Maloney and Tony Gaughan at the heart of their defence.
Chances were spurned at an alarming rate by Mayo in that first half and it was left to Alan Dillon to do most of the heavy-lifting; his three points from play proved crucial when all was said and done.
The subdued Jason Doherty also tacked on a point before half-time to leave London ahead, incredibly, by 1-4 to 0-4 at the short whistle. It was a scenario that would have been funny if it wasn’t so serious.
A match that was supposed to be an exhibition game, as much as anything, was in danger of ending in embarrassment for Mayo. Remarkably, things were about to get worse before they got better.
Surprisingly, James Horan decided against making changes at the interval but Kevin McLoughlin and Aidan O’Shea were pitched in soon after and, as expected, Mayo gave chase during the third quarter.
Three points from McLoughlin, Andy Moran (free) and Alan Dillon pared the gap back to the minimum with twenty minutes left, but London were about to get their second wind.
They conjured up the score of the day on 54 minutes when a move started by their goalkeeper travelled the length of the field, unopposed, and corner-back Barry Comer (who was tracking Mayo sweeper Trevor Howley) tossed over his second point of the day from an acute angle.
Roscommon native John Collins then broke through a static Mayo defence to leave London three clear again. The tension was palpable as the crowd got restless.
Perhaps sensing the uneasy mood, Mayo rallied at long last as the tireless Andy Moran (2) and James Kilcullen nailed classy points to level the match for the first time.
Surely, London would do the honourable thing and roll over?
Instead they came roaring back down the field, taking Mayo on from all angles, and engineering two magnificent points from Paul Geraghty and Killian Phair to lead by 1-9 to 0-10 on 67 minutes.
Mayo were on the rack.
Staring defeat in the face, somebody needed to take the initiative and Trevor Mortimer duly obliged. The substitute was only on the field a matter of minutes when he smacked over a point from 50 yards to get the comeback going and Kevin McLoughlin popped over the equaliser on 69 minutes to send a pulsating game to extra-time.
The bizarre nature of the day continued unabated as three points without reply from Andy Moran (who seemed intent on doing the work of both himself and his injured captain Alan Dillon), and another from Cillian O’Connor eased Mayo ahead by 0-16 to 1-9 as half-time approached.
London seemed to be running out of ideas, and steam, but just when Mayo fans were starting to relax, a long-range free from Sean Kelly was flicked past Robert Hennelly by London sub’ Cathal O’Sullivan after he beat James Kilcullen to the punch on the edge of the square.
Mayo were almost back to square one again but, fortunately, the likes of Alan Feeney, Dermot Geraghty, Donal Vaughan and Trevor Mortimer did some good things during the second period of extra-time to keep London’s persistent runners at bay.
The scores that closed the game out came from Alan Freeman (his only point of the day), Robert Hennelly (a ‘45) and Andy Moran with London’s sole response arriving via a Killian Phair free.
There were plenty of anxious moments though as the locals threw caution to the wind late on but Mayo’s blushes were spared when the final whistle finally blew.
“There were times in the first half, we were missing so many opportunities, you’d start to think ‘it’s going to one of those days’,” commented James Horan.
“We started to peg them back in the second half but when they came down and got two very good points, to go two up, it was obviously a huge concern for us.
“But Kevin McLoughlin came on and did well and Trevor Mortimer came on and did well..
“We lived to fight another day.”
Even so, this was much too close for comfort.
R Hennelly (0-1, 45); T Cunniffe, A Feeney, D Geraghty; R Feeney, D Vaughan, C Barrett; J Kilcullen (0-1), J Gibbons; A Campbell, A Moran (0-7, 2fs), A Dillon (0-4); T Howley, A Freeman (0-1), J Doherty (0-1).
Subs used: A O’Shea for Gibbons; K McLoughlin (0-2) for Campbell (both 43mins); C O’Connor (0-1) for Howley; P Gardiner for Dillon (both 60 mins); T Mortimer (0-1) for Barrett (67 mins); A Dillon for Doherty (83 mins).
E Byrne; B Comer (0-2), M Moloney, D McGreevy; S Doolan, T Gaughan, J Scanlon; D Hagan, S McVeigh (0-1); C McCallion, P Geraghty (1-1), M Gottsche (0-1); K O’Leary, P McGoldrick, E O’Neill (0-2, both frees).
Subs used: S Kelly for McCallion (31 mins); K Phair (0-2, one free) for McGoldrick (53 mins); J Collins (0-1) for O’Neill (55 mins); C O’Sullivan (1-0) for Hagan (59 mins); N Tuohy for Scanlon (60 mins); C Conneely for Comer (76 mins); M McCoy for Comer (80 mins); L Gavaghan for Kelly (83 mins).
Referee: M Collins (Cork)