THE record books will show that Mayo won their 42nd Connacht senior football championship in the summer of 2011. But there was so much more to the 113th provincial final that unfolded at Dr Hyde Park last Sunday afternoon.
On a day when the rain cascaded down relentlessly, and a gale-force wind blew into the infamous ‘Graveyard End’, Mayo rolled up their sleeves and battled their way to a two point victory against the defending champions.
In the process, the team that James Horan is in the process of building overcame a half-time deficit of five points, and produced a formidable second half display to wear Roscommon down.
Late points from substitutes Peadar Gardiner and Enda Varley will go down as the scores that won the day, but a string of frees from the unflappable Cillian O’Connor kept Mayo in the hunt when wind-assisted Roscommon were threatening to pull away in the opening half.
He also held his nerve impressively during a frenetic second half, taming the wind, and guiding over a succession of pressure kicks.
The Ballintubber teenager ended the game with eight points to his credit; each and every one of them proving to be worth their weight in gold when the final whistle sounded.
Nobody will argue that this was a game for the ages but, ultimately, it was all about getting the right result for this group of Mayo players and management, most of whom are still in the early stages of their careers at this cutting edge.
“We’re delighted to get a Connacht title and we are looking forward,“ said a rain-soaked James Horan afterwards as he peered out from beneath his wooly ‘Mayo GAA’ hat.
“We train Tuesday night and we will take it from there. We will look to step up because we will need to if we want to be competitive.”
The decision to entrust Cillian O’Connor with the free-taking duties was a big call, but the Mayo manager knew his young protégé better than anybody.
Four frees into the wind, and an assist for Kevin McLoughlin’s score just before the break, were proof positive that the 19 years-old was coping just fine in his first Connacht senior final.
“We have had four or five guys working hard on frees and Cillian was kicking well and feeling comfortable so he took them,” explained Horan later. “He had a lot of people shouting at him for his first free down there at the Roscommon end but he is a class guy, very composed for his age and he was exceptional.”
After drawing on the support of the large partisan home crowd, and playing with the confidence that comes from being the holders, Roscommon eased ahead as the first half wore on.
Donie Shine smacked over some long-range frees, nailed a couple of inspirational points from play, and Donal Ward and Cathal Cregg also galloped upfield to pick off scores at their lesiure.
Senan Kilbride, who got very little change out of Tom Cunniffe, had opened the scoring impressively and it was no surprise that they led by 0-9 to 0-4 at the break.
However, winning possession around the middle hadn’t been Mayo’s problem against the elements. It was making it stick in their inside line and creating scoring opportunities that had proved beyond them for the most part.
The likes of Richie Feeney, Trevor Mortimer, Aidan O’Shea and, of course, Andy Moran and Alan Dillon continued to hoover up breaking ball after the restart.
The only difference was that Roscommon were starting to concede frees and O’Connor was making them all count.
The nerveless place-kicker edged Mayo ahead for the first time on 53 minutes, just moments after Donie Shine had blasted a goalbound shot over Robert Hennelly’s crossbar at the other end. It was to be a defining moment.
Hennelly and Shine crossed swords again in the dying moments as the Roscommon forward’s effort for an equalising point was plucked from above the crossbar by the confident Mayo goalkeeper.
By that stage the momentum was all with Mayo and the locals were palpably fretting over their failure to make their first half territorial dominance, not to mention monopoly on possession, count.
In the home stretch Mayo players did the right thing, more often than not, and both Peadar Gardiner and Enda Varley managed to hit the target from long-range to make the game safe.
The result made everything else pale into insignificance.
R Hennelly; K Higgins, A Feeney, T Cunniffe; R Feeney, D Vaughan, T Mortimer; A O’Shea, S O’Shea; K McLoughlin (0-1), A Dillon (0-1), A Moran (0-1); C O’Connor (0-8, frees), A Freeman, J Doherty.
Subs used: G Cafferkey for Feeney (53 mins), E Varley (0-1) for Doherty (59 mins), R McGarrity for S O’Shea (64 mins), P Gardiner (0-1) for McLoughlin (67 mins).
G Claffey; S McDermott, N Carty, S Purcell; D Keenan, P Domican, D Ward (0-1); M Finneran, K Mannion; S O’Grady, K Higgins, C Cregg (0-1); C Devaney, S Kilbride (0-1), D Shine (0-8, 0-3 frees, 0-1 45).
Subs used: C Dineen for Ward (37 mins), D McDermott for O’Grady (54 mins), S Ormsby for Dineen (61 mins), E Kenny for Kilbride (62 mins), G Heneghan for Devaney (66 mins).
Referee: M Collins (Cork).