HIS was astonishing. Beaten beyond recall at half time, Mayo embarked on a recovery more dramatic than anything they have achieved since the return of John O’Mahony to the helm. Unexpected victories sometimes spring from fortuitous incidents – a lucky strike, a hop of the ball, or at the other end, the intervention of a crossbar or an upright.
None of those elements of chance could be attributed to Mayo’s one-point win over Cork on Saturday night, however. Their revival in the second half was wrought from character, the absence of which has so wretchedly denied them the ultimate prize on so many occasions.
It was a remarkable upset of the half-time odds. Trailing by six points, you would have taken them for dead … beyond recall. They had lost Alan Dillon and Aidan Campbell through injury. Cork had been rampant, determined to claw their way back into contention to retain their Division One status. For Mayo, it seemed a case of damage limitation.
But five minutes into the second half, the home side had been flung into disarray. Mayo had roared back into contention, having floored Cork with a goal that matches the best ever scored. Conor Mortimer finished it with his right foot ... as good and dramatic a score as he has ever achieved with his left.
The lead up to it was breathtakingly inventive. David Heaney was involved, along with Kevin O’Neill and Peadar Gardiner, who delivered the final pass. Cork could scarcely believe their eyes that a Mayo, so listless in the first half, could have come charging at them so unwaveringly after the break. Right through the centre they rushed as the opposing defence melted before them, Mortimer delivering the reeling blow.
The recovery came early enough in the game for Cork to re-establish their first-half superiority. They re-took the lead, and roamed about the field in search of the type of goals they got in the first half and which, it was feared, had buried Mayo’s hopes.
Similar opportunities became scarcer, however, as Mayo regrouped and tightened up. Once, it looked as if the visitors’ recovery was about to be undone when Kevin McMahon broke through from the right wing, a third goal at his mercy. But to their rescue came goalkeeper Kenneth O’Malley with a magnificent save.
There was nothing the Ballinrobe man could have done to stop the two that beat him. The first had come from the brilliantly guided fist of full-forward Michel Cussen, a giant of a full-forward with whom James Kilcullen was faced. The big Cork man did cause damage on the edge of the square. But to blame the Mayo fullback for all the problems would be wrong.
Kilcullen managed to break the ball in most of his duels with Cussen. There was nothing more he could do to foil the towering full forward. If his corner backs were more alert to those breaks, less damage might have been done. In fact, Kevin O’Sullivan and James Masters created far more problems for the Mayo defence than their full-forward.
Cork had planned to bomb the Mayo goalmouth in anticipation of more of the same from their full-forward line. But those attacks became fewer because David Heaney and Pat Harte grabbed a greater share of the midfield exchanges. Wing backs Peadar Gardiner, and Enda Devenney, who were under pressure in the first half, reverted to their more successful method of defence – which is attack.
Heaney’s dominance of midfield in the second half was crucial to Mayo’s recovery. His strength on the ball and his determined running attracted the opposition to him in numbers, and opened opportunities for the likes of Kevin O’Neill, Andy Moran, Aidan Kilcoyne and substitute Marty McNicholas to grab scores which the close-marking Corkmen had denied them earlier. Full marks to Kilcoyne for taking on the responsibility of grabbing the winning score.
It was a win more significant than their first over Kerry in the opening round of the league. Cork looked to this game as a turning point, the beginning of their haul back to safety. They had their best 15 back in action, determined to make up for the misery of their crushing defeat to Dublin. This would be their redemption.
But Mayo spoiled their plan with a display of grit and perseverance that stomached the Leesiders, and would now seem to have sent them crashing to relegation. The win has come, albeit at some cost, providing management with a few headaches for their tussle with a resurgent Dublin at MacHale Park on Sunday.
Doubt surrounds the fitness of Alan Dillon and Aidan Campbell. Both had to be replaced against Cork, Dillon in the opening minutes with a suspected hamstring problem, and Campbell with what looked like a ‘dead leg’, injuries that could keep them out of Sunday’s clash.
Those problems are compounded by the news that the luckless Marty McNicholas – returning to top form after injury – damaged a foot while playing for Breaffy in their league defeat of Ballina on Sunday, and it may also keep him out of the weekend joust.
Dublin come to Castlebar deadly serious about reversing the outcome of their last clash with Mayo, that amazing All-Ireland semi-final last autumn. This is the match to which the Dubs have been looking forward ever since, the chance to wreak vengeance, to compensate for that startling reversal of their All-Ireland hopes.
After a dismal opening to their league campaign, they have been building steadily towards Sunday’s showdown, having thrashed Cork and Fermanagh in their most recent games. Victory on Sunday will restore their pride and conviction.
To have survived four of their five games without many of their first choice players has been a big achievement for Mayo. In all of their matches all of the players have given their best. Their performances have not been without flaws, but they have managed to overcome those setbacks with single-minded zeal.
It is a big game for them on Sunday, and of immense importance for the injured players’ replacements. Nothing short of their best will be sufficient to confirm Mayo’s superiority over the Dubs.
St Nathy's to celebrate All-Ireland success
FIFTY years ago St Nathy’s of Ballaghaderreen won the All-Ireland Colleges football championship, the only national title ever won by the college. They beat the favourites, St Colman’s of Newry, by 1-7 to 0-4 on April 14, 1957, at Croke Park in a curtain raiser to the National Football League semi-final between Galway and Tyrone.
Eight members of the winning side came from Mayo, the rest from Sligo. The Mayo members were John T Cribben (Kilmovee), Mick Hanrahan (Ballaghaderreen), Michael Joyce (Foxford), Con Maguire (Aughleam), Tom Maguire (Aughleam),Mick Ruane (Ballaghaderreen), Seamus McMahon (Ballaghaderreen), and Jack Madden (Ballaghaderreen).
The All-Ireland competition was revived in 1957 following a lapse of eight years. St Nathy’s defeated St Mary’s, Galway, St Muredach’s Ballina, Summerhill College, Sligo, and, in the Connacht final, St Jarlath’s College, Tuam.
In the All-Ireland semi-final, the Ballaghaderreen college accounted for Colaiste Iosagain, Ballyvourney, and the winning captain, Eamonn O’Hara, recalled in the publication ‘Fifty Years of the Hogan Cup’ that one of his fondest memories was the great support the college received from the mentors and the players of St Jarlath’s College who made the long trip south to support their fellow Connacht men.
The town of Ballaghaderreen was captivated by the exploits of their local college, according to Eamonn O’Hara, and one local man, Johnny McGoldrick, was particularly keen to help out. As part of his contribution to the team he supplied them with eggs. Eamonn did not fancy the thought of eating raw eggs, however good they were for the system. “I had to show the example as captain, even if it killed me.”
The final against the Newry College did not reach the expected standard, according to reports. Newry missed a lot of good chances while Nathy’s were more economical. O’Hara, together with Mick Ruane, dominated midfield, and Jack Madden, their vice-captain, was the star of the forward line, scoring 1-3.
Mick Ruane, who later played for Castlebar Mitchels, and Jack Madden were the only players to progress to county senior football for Mayo. Two members of the Newry college team also went on to win All-Ireland senior medals with Down: Leo Murphy and Patsy O’Hagan.
Eamonn O’Hara was ordained a priest in 1963, and three years ago celebrated the 40th anniversary of his ordination together with his Hogan Cup colleagues, Fr Jack Madden and Fr John T Cribben, and other members of the victorious team.
St Nathy’s appeared in one further All-Ireland final: 1959, when they were beaten by St Joseph’s of Fairview by 3-9 to 2-8. Con Maguire of the All-Ireland winning side also lined out on that team.
A function to celebrate the golden jubilee of that famous victory will be held later this year.