Nobody convinced after close call
WE came prepared . . . and still it was a bit of a jolt to the soul. The sight of a Mayo team struggling to hold on, tossed like pieces of driftwood on the heaving sea of a Leitrim resurgence, left you breathless. You watched and wondered, and returned from Carrick-on-Shannon unconvinced.
We had expected a grim struggle. In the confined space of their home ground, Leitrim have never been easy. They play with the heart of the underdog. They are nobody’s hope, and almost everyone’s favourite. On Sunday they came within a few seconds of humbling mighty Mayo.
Mayo will take some comfort from the fact that for almost half an hour they were reduced to fourteen players, having lost Pat Harte seven minutes into the second half. They will point to the loss of Alan Dillon, who was forced to cry off at the interval through injury, and to the withdrawal of David Heaney ten minutes or so from the end of the game.
All were key players, and the absence of each a severe loss. Dillon had been hugely influential throughout the first half, perhaps Mayo’s best forward. Harte at midfield was a revelation, and Heaney strong and dependable at right halfback.
As a force, Mayo were diminished considerably by the loss of the three . . . and in particular by the dismissal of Harte. The Ballina man’s performance had been crucial. His midfield nous, his fielding, interceptions and the intelligence of his deliveries were notable contributions to Mayo’s growing grip on the game.
Ronan McGarrity was also in form, but not engaged to the same extent as Harte. For once McGarrity had been outshone by his colleague, and Harte’s dismissal, for double yellow card offences, was a tonic for Leitrim. Lack of discipline cost him dearly, but must not take from an otherwise praiseworthy performance.
Dillon, too, was instrumental in edging Mayo ahead. They had soaked up a lot of Leitrim’s early physical challenge and had begun to stretch the home defence with deliveries to the wings. Ciaran McDonald and Conor Mortimer won a lot of possession, but each found himself the focus of unrelenting attention. McDonald sometimes overused the ball and became too predictable. In that tightly gripped situation, Dillon thrived. He, too, had absorbed a lot of punishment, but his performance never suffered.
You always got the impression that Mayo were the better side, but you were also conscious that Leitrim were capable of pulling some boosting stroke . . . even when all seemed lost. We had to wait until Pat Harte had left the scene for that resurgence. Up to that moment the visitors looked like powering their way to victory.
Mayo were more stylish and more economical than Leitrim. Their first wide came in the 33rd minute; Leitrim had three in the first five or six minutes. Both sides were on level terms at three points each near the end of the first quarter. For the remainder of the half Leitrim were confined to one further point, by Darren Duignan; Mayo scored 1-4.
It was their most productive period. Conor Mortimer had two points, one from play, Ciaran McDonald and Pat Hart one each from play, and in between Ger Brady scrambled their goal. James Nallen started the move that led to that goal. In his customary effective defensive role the Crossmolina man grabbed a broken ball around the middle of the field and delivered neatly to the ever accommodating Alan Dillon. Ger Brady was on hand to take the pass and having cut a path through the defence let fly, and the ball was deflected to the net by corner back Michael McGuinness.
Almost instantly Leitrim heads fell. And when Aiden Kilcoyne and McDonald powered them to an 8-point lead a few minutes after the resumption all hope of a recovery seemed to have vanished. It was then we witnessed the dark side of Mayo’s performance.
Leitrim left nothing in the dressing-room
HARTE brought down Ciaran Duignan, his second yellow card offence and was sent off. The psychological fallout was gratefully acknowledged by Leitrim and their uplifting followers. Duignan scored from the free, and when Conor Mortimer replied positively from a free a couple of minutes later we thought Mayo would cope with the enforced handicap.
But midfielders Gary McCloskey and Christopher Carroll began to make an impression in the middle of the field. Barry McWeeney tackled everything on sight at centre half back and Michael Foley and Colin Regan found new sources of inspiration up front.
They were rejuvenated, the kind of spirit that motivated them at the beginning. Mayo had begun to defend desperately, wilting under fierce pressure. The loss of Dillon and Harte was beginning to shape an unexpected outcome. We were pinned to our seats.
All along the Mayo defence had coped well with Leitrim’s probings. Keith Higgins at left corner forward was excellent. Nothing passed Dermot Geraghty, and at full back Liam O’Malley was secure and unbending even if our misgivings about his height continue to be a concern. The Burrishoole man was fortunate to have avoided a tussle with Leitrim’s selected full-forward Declan Maxwell who failed to start because of injury.
When he was eventually sprung from the bench by Des Dolan, to provide a psychological boost to Leitrim the difference in height was stark. The big man did cause trouble and his absence was as fortuitous to Mayo as it was unfortunate for Leitrim. Nevertheless, O’Malley deserves praise for his courage and confidence.
James Nallen, as sweeper, controlled the halfback line in customary fashion. This most experienced of defenders has lost none of his speed or urgency or creativity, and on either side of him David Heaney and Peader Gardiner added strength and pace respectively to the defence.
They were truly tested after Harte’s dismissal. He had been a big help to them in the first half. McGarrity’s fulltime assistance was required in defence afterwards and as a result midfield never operated with the same fluency. In fact Mayo panicked at times . . . especially after midfielder Christopher Carroll cracked home Leitrim’s goal in the 51st minute. The ball fell into his hands off the upright from a free by Michael Foley and he smacked it into a corner of the net.
Mayo’s last score was Mortimer’s free six minutes earlier. Nothing came after that. In the final twenty three minutes or so Leitrim tacked on 1-4 without reply, every point nibbling into Mayo’s confidence. They were on the rack, stretched to breaking point. Leadership was called for . . . and it came from Ciaran McDonald.
If the Crossmolina man fiddled a bit too much in the first half, his influence and authority more than compensated in the final quarter. The supply to the forward line was virtually cut off and, never one to remain idle, McDonald moved outfield to lend a hand to his struggling colleagues. Without that help they would not have survived. Billy Joe Padden’s strength and energy were also vital, and Andy Moran worked hard all through. Conor Mortimer was scarcely given room to breathe let alone to move. In such a restricted arena there was no scope for invention.
Leitrim hit hard, and some erratic decisions by the referee left you wondering what constitutes a genuine tackle nowadays. Alan Dillon and David Heaney felt the full force of their aggressive tactics. On most occasions those tackles were boneshaking but fair. Clearly they had studied a video of Mayo’s National League semi-final with Galway, and the manner in which some Mayo forwards were buffeted in attempting to break through the defence was a reproduction of those defensive measures.
Thus Ger Brady, clean through on one occasion, was grounded with a genuine shoulder. On another occasion a fisted effort by Peadar Gardiner dipped into the net instead of over the bar under fierce pressure. Passes went astray as Mayo lost their composure. Attempts at goal in the final minutes were wild and a bit thoughtless, and had the game lasted a minute longer we might have welcomed a draw. Whether Mayo will have learned from it all will be revealed when they meet Galway in the final at MacHale Park on July 16.
THE were much more decisive in their win over Leitrim in the preceding game. There was never any doubt about their superiority although they took their foot off the pedal in the second half. They now meet Roscommon, who surprised Galway in the other semi-final, in the Connacht final curtain raiser on July 16.
The Mayo team who won the Connacht final in 1981, their first provincial title in twelve years, will be honoured at half-time during the final on July 16.