One that got away
EVERYONE of a Mayo hue agreed on one thing leaving Croke Park on Saturday night. ‘At least we didn’t lose it’ was the catchcry among supporters and, presumably, on the team bus too as players and management reflected on the latest episode of the county’s simmering rivalry with the All-Ireland champions.
Having played with an extra man for 45 minutes, and leading by six points with less than 20 minutes remaining, it would have been a huge body-blow to the Mayo group had Jack McCaffrey’s last-gasp effort for a winning point hit the target in front of Hill 16.
Even as it was, sharing the spoils with Dublin for the first time since 2009, after enjoying midfield dominance for the majority of the night, and having the luxury of a free man for three-quarters of the game, will have left some scars.
Time will tell whether it has any long-lasting ramifications.
Yet again on this unpredictable National League journey that Mayo are experiencing, we were treated to a smorgasbord of their good and bad habits here.
When they played the game with pace and at a high tempo, got the basics right and moved the ball quickly, Mayo were a joy to watch and Dublin struggled to keep up.
However, a red card for influential goalkeeper, Stephen Cluxton, in the 29th minute (after he kicked out at Kevin McLoughlin) possibly did more harm than good to Mayo in the long run.
As the second half wore on, they seemed to let their intensity and attention levels drop, just a little, and failed to put Dublin to the sword as a consequence.
They almost paid a heavy price.
McLoughlin’s third career goal in the 25th minute meant that Mayo led at half-time by 1-9 to 0-8 and when Mikie Sweeney drilled in his second goal of the campaign on 64 minutes, it looked like the hard work had been done.
Sweeney’s clinical finish, after the excellent McLoughlin had intercepted a terrible kick-out from Dublin’s deputy netminder Seán Currie, left Mayo up by 2-15 to 1-13.
That position was no more than they deserved, especially after the midfield masterclass given by the newly-minted partnership of Aidan O’Shea and Jason Gibbons.
Both were untouchable in the air and powerful on the ground, while neither flinched when it came to close combat.
However, O’Shea’s departure ahead of the last quarter coincided with Dublin’s late blitzkrieg and finding a way to keep him on the field for 70 minutes remains a priority.
Mayo goalkeeper Rob Hennelly has been far too busy for his liking recently and Saturday night was no exception.
He had made two fine saves (one in each half) before he was beaten by a sublime Kevin McManamon lob in the 56th minute that hauled Dublin back into contention.
However, an inspirational point from Jason Gibbons, allied to Sweeney’s goal, meant that Mayo were sitting on a five-point cushion on 65 minutes. The game was there’s to lose.
Ironically, they almost did.
Some flat-footed defending, with some ball-watching thrown in, allowed Jack McCaffrey and Kevin Nolan combine to set impact sub’ Eoghan O’Gara up for Dublin’s second goal.
Mayo responded impressively with Cillian O’Connor gunning a fine score from play and tacking on a free to nudge them three points clear again.
At that stage there was only a minute of normal time left and Mayo’s big game know-how and experience seemed set to help them negotiate the closing stages.
Instead, they inexplicably tried to retain possession around the halfway line with some lateral handpasses against a team renowned for their ‘turn-over’ ability.
Sure enough, Mayo substitute Seamus O’Shea was dispossessed by Diarmuid Connolly after bringing the ball into a tackle and his quick delivery saw Alan Brogan pick out O’Gara who cracked an unstoppable shot into Hennelly’s net.
It was yet another harsh Croke Park lesson for all inside the Mayo circle.
Of course, there were positives to be taken from the experience too: a semi-final place can still be booked if Mayo beat Derry next Sunday and some of the high-tempo approach play during their purple patches was top-class.
However, the failure to get the best out of Alan Freeman at full-forward, the high wide count, and three more goals conceded will all feature prominently in team talks this week.
Luckily, for all concerned, at least a point was salvaged.
C O’Connor 0-8 (5fs), K McLoughlin 1-3, M Sweeney 1-1, D Vaughan 0-2, A Moran, K Higgins, J Gibbons 0-1 each.
E O’Gara 2-0, K McManamon 1-2, C Costello 0-4 (1f), A Brogan, D Connolly (1f) 0-2 each, P Flynn, P Andrews, S Cluxton (‘45’), J Whelan 0-1 each.
One that got away