FRUSTRATION. Disappointment. Disbelief.
These were the prevalent emotions among Mayo management, players and supporters as they trooped out of McHale Park last Saturday night and the appalling vista of relegation from the top flight became even more of a realistic prospect.
Another patchy performance, more mixed messages to try and comprehend, and another narrow defeat that leaves all inside the Team Mayo camp scratching their heads in search of answers.
Kildare’s victory was their first over their hosts since 1998 and meant that this was Mayo’s first time to lose four league games in-a-row since 1994.
By the time the final whistle sounded, confirming this latest agonising loss, the memories of Mayo’s first quarter blitzkrieg had long since faded.
They played with pace and purpose in those first twenty minutes, prising the Kildare defence open time and again, and clocking up points from all sorts of angles and distances.
A six-point lead was no more than they deserved as Evan Regan, Jason Doherty, Kevin McLoughlin (free), Cathal Carolan (2) and Colm Boyle all posted stylish scores.
It looked like it was going to be one of those nights for Kildare but, crucially, Mayo failed to take two good goal opportunities during this purple patch, opting not to go ‘for the kill’ on both occasions.
Those decisions, allied to wayward shooting, meant that Mayo paid a heavy price for racking up fourteen wides, dropping five shots short of the target, and missing a string of scoreable frees.
The excellent Niall Kelly opened the Lilywhites’ account in the 20th minute and points from Seanie Johnston and Johnny Doyle (free) edged them closer before the only goal of the night arrived. It was to be the game’s decisive moment.
A contentious free to Kildare in their own half, after Jason Doherty appeared to have been fouled in front of the stand, started the move which ended with wing-back Eoin Doyle palming the ball past Mayo ‘keeper David Clarke seconds later.
The tide was beginning to turn at this stage and the lively Seánie Johnston tagged on a couple of scores to send Kildare in ahead by 1-5 to 0-7 at the break.
For some reason Mayo had started to fall back into the bad habit of bringing the ball into the tackle, and generally lose their way as Kildare took control of the midfield battleground.
Kieran McGeeney’s decision to switch Mick Foley and Peter Kelly in order to curb the influence of Aidan O’Shea and Peter Kelly also altered the pattern of the match, while Daniel Flynn’s relocation to midfield did Mayo no favours either.
As a consequence Kildare tacked on four points after the restart from Flynn, Johnston (free), Paddy Brophy and Niall Kelly and, despite a couple of well-struck frees from Evan Regan, Mayo were behind by 0-9 to 1-9 at the end of the third quarter.
The last twenty minutes was nothing if not frenetic as Mayo gave chase in typically, swashbuckling fashion but a lack of composure in attack spoiled much of their decent approach work.
Normally reliable free-takers like Jason Doherty and Kevin McLoughlin were out of sync’ too so it was no major surprise to see Cillian O’Connor eventually take on the place-kicking duties after his arrival off the bench.
Mayo managed just one point from play in the entire second half (from the boot of centre-back Tom Cunniffe on 58 minutes) but it was enough to reduce the gap to the minimum swinging for home.
Remarkably, Mayo were unable to draw level though as Kildare kept them at arm’s length.
First, Fionn Dowling cancelled out Cunniffe’s effort before another Kildare substitute, Eoghan O’Flaherty, responded to a converted free from Cillian O’Connor.
The mood among the large partisan home crowd in the attendance of 6,572 was palpable for long stretches of the second half, in particular, as they watched their team press and probe in vain for the game-changing scores.
It was a case of so near and yet so far, once again.
The All-Ireland champions are up next for Mayo on Sunday, with time running out for James Horan’s team to save their top-flight status.
Two games and counting. . .
M Donnellan; O Lyons, M Foley, H McGrillen; E Bolton, P Kelly, E Doyle (1-0); H Lynch, P O’Neill; D Flynn (0-1), N Kelly (0-2), M O’Flaherty; S Johnston (0-4, 1f), P Brophy (0-1), J Doyle (0-1, 1f).
Subs used: F Dowling (0-1) for Doyle (52); D Hyland for Bolton (55); T O’Connor for Johnston (69); E O’Flaherty (0-1) for M O’Flaherty (61).
D Clarke; C Barrett, G Cafferkey, K Higgins; L Keegan, T Cunniffe (0-1), C Boyle (0-2); B Moran, S O’Shea; K McLoughlin (0-1, 1f), A O’Shea, C Carolan (0-2); E Regan (0-3, 2fs), J Doherty (0-2, 1f), M Conroy.
Subs used: C O’Connor (0-2, 2fs) for Regan (54); R Feeney for Carolan (57); E Varley for Conroy (60); J Gibbons for A O’Shea (64).
Referee: M Higgins (Fermanagh)