Mayo hold their nerve
FOR this group of Mayo footballers, at this stage of their development cycle, it’s all about the destination as opposed to the journey.
An All-Ireland title is what they want, crave, and have put their lives on hold to try and capture.
Last Sunday was another staging post for this team; it was one of those days when they reminded us how far this group of players has come since the Longford humiliation in 2010, and how they have been true to their word about being ‘consistently competitive’ over the last four seasons.
In three weeks’ time Mayo will play in their fourth successive All-Ireland semi-final, a feat that has not been achieved since the halcyon days of 1951.
The fact that they had to dig deep into all their reserves of stamina, courage, experience and guile to hold off Cork, and stay on track for their date with destiny, makes the achievement all the more noteworthy.
This was a day when the project was brought back from the brink by men who have learned some hard lessons over the last few seasons. They knew how to win when the chips were down.
And they left plenty of room for improvement ahead of a semi-final date with Kerry later this month.
By the time you read this the memories of this nerve-wracking, heart-stopping, rollercoaster ride will still be vivid for anybody who was there to see the drama unfold.
This was as tight, tense and hard-fought as any championship game Mayo have played during James Horan’s reign.
The confidence gained from coming out on the right side of the result cannot be underestimated; this was one that could easily have got away but Mayo’s leaders refused to let it happen.
It was a collective effort that eventually wore Cork down and saw Mayo home but the likes of Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, the O’Shea brothers and the evergreen Alan Dillon are worthy of special mention.
This quintet left everything on the field and Dillon managed to roll back the years with a vintage display that reminded all of us just what a superb asset he is to this forwardline.
The O’Sheas? Immense is the word that springs to mind.
The game itself was an arm-wrestle masquerading as a football match for long periods, and the final scoreline reflects just how little there was between the sides.
In the end it took late points from Donie Vaughan (lining out at midfield for the first in his championship career) and Lee Keegan (tied up with marking duties on Paul Kerrigan for most of the day) to keep Mayo out of harm’s way.
Cork did rally and pulled back a couple of frees from Donnacha O’Connor and Colm O’Neill, but they were unable to penetrate Mayo’s rearguard a third time and came up just short.
It was obvious from the early stages that Cork were set up to disrupt, frustrate and annoy Mayo at every opportunity.
So a war of attrition wasn’t long in breaking out.
The sides were level six times during the opening half and deadlock also prevailed at the interval: 0-8 apiece.
By that stage Cork’s centre-back, Thomas Clancy, had been black-carded for deliberately pulling down the marauding Aidan O’Shea. However, that was only one instance of the plethora of fouls and niggly incidents that had unfolded.
The third quarter was where Mayo did their best work, shooting 0-8 in the space of fifteen minutes to surge into a 0-16 to 0-9 lead.
The Connacht champions were at their hard-running, powerful best during that spell with Jason Doherty, Donie Vaughan, Andy Moran (2), Kevin McLoughlin and Alan Dillon (2) all picking off cracking scores.
Cork were in no mood to roll over though and they dispensed with the two-sweeper system to try and engineer a way back from the brink.
Substitute Donnacha O’Connor was the catalyst for their revival, gunning three points and smacking in a brilliant goal after Mayo’s defence was sliced open.
That green flag levelled the game for the seventh time on 62 minutes but not long after Alan Freeman and Donie Vaughan combined to send Aidan O’Shea through on goal.
The big centre-forward showed great feet to round the ‘keeper and a defender before passing the ball to the Cork net.
We wondered would that break the Munster finalists but instead they broke back; Brian Hurley wriggling through to smash a shot past the helpless Robbie Hennelly.
There were 66 minutes on the clock and it was all to play for.
Crucially, Mayo were still a point ahead and they held their nerve and their composure to tag on a couple of scores from Vaughan and Keegan to stay out of reach.
Cork never looked like wilting though and a brace of frees by O’Connor and O’Neill pared the deficit to the bare minimum with injury-time all played out.
Not for the first time in recent years, Mayo had held their nerve in August and lived to fight a bigger day.
They will return to try and go one step further on August 24.
The dream is still alive.
R Hennelly; C Barrett, G Cafferkey; T Cunniffe, L Keegan (0-1), C Boyle, K Higgins; S O’Shea (0-2), D Vaughan (0-2); K McLoughlin (0-1), A O’Shea (1-0), J Doherty (0-2); C O’Connor (0-5, 3fs), A Moran (0-2), A Dillon (0-4).
Subs used: E Varley for Moran (46); B Harrison for Barrett (56); A Freeman for O’Connor (64); J Gibbons for A O”Shea (69).
K O’Halloran; N Galvin, E Cadogan, M Shields; B O’Driscoll, T Clancy, J Loughrey; I Maguire, A Walsh (0-1, 1f); M Collins, F Goold, P Kerrigan; C O’Driscoll, B Hurley (1-4, 1f), C O’Neill (0-5, 3fs); F Goold (0-2).
Subs used: D Cahalane for Clancy (black card, 19); P Kelly for C O’Driscoll (50); D O’Connor (1-3, 2fs) for Collins (50); J O’Rourke for B O’Driscoll (56): D Goulding for Maguire (61); J Hayes for Walsh (70).
Referee: C Reilly (Meath)