Mitchels on the edge of glory
THEY represent all of Mayo, and since in particular it is with a Dublin side they lock horns, all of Mayo, indeed all of Connacht, will be rooting for Castlebar Mitchels.
Victory over St Vincent’s will not dissolve Mayo’s pain of countless losses to Dublin, but it would lift us beyond ourselves, beyond that woebegone feeling that gnaws at the pit of our stomach each time we file out of Croke Park.
To have scrambled back to the summit in Mayo for the first time in 20 years was the limit of our expectations for the Mitchels. We would have been content with that achievement alone, just to note the return of the old lustre, the re-invention of the old swaggering Mitchels.
Nothing further lay on our horizon.
But here they are in the All-Ireland final, scrapping for the honour to bedeck a glorious tradition, a feat that was not on our agenda, but which reflects a seismic shift in the fortunes of football in Castlebar.
They are where Corofin, champions St Brigid’s and Dr Crokes of Munster imagined themselves to be. Against each, and against all the odds, the Mitchels triumphed, not by accident or good fortune, but with unswerving confidence, and an irrepressible urge to go all the way.
Each game on their way to the final threw up different challenges, and each was characterised by that growing sense of self-assurance in thinking their way out of trouble and seeing no obstacle as insurmountable.
St Vincent’s, to be sure, is a different kettle of fish. They are Dublin, the very essence of Dublin football… their confidence bordering on arrogance. Founded in 1931, they boast of spawning past immortals Kevin Heffernan, Des Foley, Snitchy Ferguson, Ollie Freaney, Jimmy Keaveney and Brian Mullins.
They have won 25 county senior titles, three Leinster championships and two All-Ireland titles… in 1976 and 2008. They are the cream of Dublin clubs and they play as if they believe they are the best. Castlebar hold no fears for them.
Tomás Quinn is their most prolific forward. Diarmuid Connolly supplies him liberally and we in Mayo are well acquainted with his destructive power. Eamonn Fennell and Daithí Murphy are big strong midfielders, and Ger Brennan, a defender of stern quality. If they get behind the defence Shane McCarthy and Ciaran Dorney will do damage.
Kerry’s mastermind Mick O’Dwyer once said that a team had to be positive about their own strength. “If you are thinking about the other team and trying to counteract them, you are not going to win,” he said.
Pat Holmes has accentuated the positives of the Mitchels since he took over. There are occasions though when a horses-for-courses decision becomes a vital piece of your strategy in order to combat opposing strengths.
Playing Barry Moran at full forward in the semi-final was a bold move that could have undermined midfield. It didn’t, because in Moran’s absence Ger McDonagh, Danny Kirby and Aidan Walsh policed the area intelligently, and Moran himself caused jitters up front.
A new manoeuvre may have to be devised this time to deal with Fennell and Murphy with Connolly lurking for the breaks. Moran might prove to be a greater asset on his more familiar patch of ground.
Tom Cunniffe will surely be asked to assume again centre back duties, this time to shadow Connolly. Someone will also be deployed to lessen Quinn’s influence. Pat Holmes will be confident that any one of Patrick Durcan, Eoghan O’Reilly, Donal Newcombe, Ray O’Malley or Alan Feeney has that ability.
Having put so many favourites to the sword, the Mitchels themselves will not want for confidence. They are well structured. They have found a winning rhythm, a chemistry all their own. They will not flinch in the tackle, nor shrink in the face of potent opposition. They are on the brink of realising their dreams. And we wait in confidence of celebrating with them.
Mayo slump can’t be dismissed despite result
THIS was no boost to our optimism. The balm of recovery in the second half cannot disguise the pain of 25 disastrous minutes when, having led by nine points after nine minutes, Mayo trailed by one at the break.
In that infuriating period, Mayo slid from brilliance to mediocrity and no amount of good work in the second half can conceal the traces of insecurity they left behind.
Leadership in restoring authority eventually welled up from the customary sources, from Aidan O’Shea in the middle of the field, from scintillating wing-back play by Colm Boyle and Lee Keegan, and from the vision of Cillian O’Connor, introduced in the second half, his first appearance since the All-Ireland final.
O’Shea and the two wing backs were instrumental in creating the initial vortex which almost engulfed Westmeath. Their goal in the third minute sprang from the vigilance of Mikie Sweeney from a free in picking out Keegan lurking behind the defence. It was a solar-plexus punch that stunned Westmeath.
Sweeney himself showed considerable composure and no little skill in grabbing Mayo’s second goal in the ninth minute from an acute angle. Those lightning strikes had left the home side awe-stricken. Nine points down, they were staring into the abyss.
And then, suddenly, everything changed. It came from a soft goal conceded by Mayo. Although the defence was lax in allowing Kieran Martin create the opportunity, Robbie Hennelly, although excellent in dealing with low shots, has been dodgy under the high ball of late, and should have saved this one.
The effect of it on Westmeath was immediate. They attacked aggressively, their adrenaline began to flow. They charged at Mayo in short spurts, upsetting their initial rhythm. Paul Sharry, Ger Egan and John Heslin drove their attacks, and in the remaining minutes of the half, they outscored Mayo by 2-7 to 0-3.
Their second goal came three minutes before the end of the half. It was engineered out on the right wing and finished by James Dolan. Hennelly hadn’t a chance. The shock of Mayo’s failure to stem the Westmeath tide reverberated around Cusack Park. And when John Heslin put them two ahead two minutes after the restart, a shock result seemed possible.
But then Aidan O’Shea, who had faded after a brilliant start, re-ignited Mayo in the middle of the field. Attracting opponents like flies to honey, his dominance opened gaps in the Westmeath defence, and Alan Freeman, Kevin McLoughlin, Jason Doherty, substitute Brian Gallagher and Keith Higgins began to prosper.
Higgins has not yet fully adapted to his attacking role. You can see his skill screaming to be let loose, and you wonder can he ever free himself from his defensive instincts. David Drake replaced Kevin Keane at half time and looked sharp, while Brendan Harrison and Ger Cafferkey acquitted themselves well faced as they were with some tricky situations.
It will be said that in winning Mayo achieved their aim. But you can’t dismiss those barren 25 minutes when they slumped close to their lowest point. Cork will be watching and they will exploit any such recurrence next Sunday.
Just a thought …
NOT a black card in sight at Cusack Park on Sunday. On several occasions black cards seemed warranted. But none was issued. Defences are wary. Even legitimate tackles are now being resisted.