OVER 14 minutes had passed, and Mayo were drifting aimlessly. Tyrone had threatened to demolish them just as Cork and Dublin had done. They were four points in front, and Mayo had still to seriously threaten the Tyrone goal, much less score. It could have been worse. Owen Mulligan had smashed the ball off the crossbar a few minutes into the game.
Tyrone were fighting for survival in Omagh, and you felt in those opening minutes that Mayo, already through to the semi-finals, were less apprehensive about the outcome; apathetic almost. Tyrone had been winning midfield. Their backs, Davy Harte and Dermot Carlin in particular, were charging out of defence, and it looked only a matter of time before the Mayo rearguard would be overwhelmed.
And then, inside a minute, the whole scene was transformed. Mayo, out of the picture for so long, living on scraps foraged by Alan Dillon and Conor Mortimer, were on level terms. After 15 minutes Aidan Kilcoyne was fouled, and Dillon scored their opening point from the free. Barely a minute on, Billy Joe Padden lobbed the ball into the square. Mortimer took possession of it from Ger Brady, was fouled in the square, and slotted the ball home from the penalty spot. From crumbs their forwards had begun to prosper.
They were still struggling at midfield, and the back line was being stretched by Tyrone’s hungry attack. They lived dangerously, but the full-back line of Aidan Higgins, Liam O’Malley and Keith Higgins were enormously resourceful, never panicking, even when the occasional pass went astray ... even when full-forward Colm Cavanagh had only the goalkeeper to beat, but was denied by the ubiquitous left corner back.
Then the selectors introduced James Kilcullen to midfield. We thought he was being rested from the full-back position he has filled almost since the league commenced – and perhaps he was. But midfield was in need of greater physical power than Pat Harte and James Nallen were able to provide. Young Kilcullen, who replaced Aidan Kilcoyne, filled that role, and balance was brought to the midfield exchanges. The half-forward line was also strengthened by Pat Harte’s inclusion.
Tyrone still led by a couple of points before Dillon, who had been superb in the first half, grabbed Mayo’s second point after 29 minutes. And just after the denial of Cavanagh by Higgins, Conor Mortimer, as if displaying how it should be done, swept the ball into the net at the other end.
Thus, against the run of play, Mayo led at the interval by a point, 2-2 to 0-7. And after the break it became fiercely competitive. Brave and solid defending foiled Tyrone’s search for goals time and again. Intelligent use of the ball, good midfield work by Nallen and Kilcullen, each providing significant cover for defenders, and a further shake-up in the forward line left no one in doubt about Mayo’s real purpose – nothing short of victory.
Before that was eked out, they fell behind to a goal by Cavanagh, and the home side fluffed a further goal chance before Mulligan was sent off for an attempted dangerous tackle on Ger Brady, who was moved to full-forward. Trevor Howley, who had come in for Enda Devenney, strengthened the forward line, and after linking up with Dillon and Brady, scored a magnificent goal. Brady was a notable success at full-forward, and provided the chance for Mortimer to claim his hat-trick. Apart from his scoring feat, the Shrule man also worked assiduously, throughout the 70 minutes.
Tyrone will have been disappointed with their overall performance, but they were spared the embarrassment of relegation by Kerry’s defeat of Dublin. For Mayo, the spoils of battle are a semi-final scrap with Galway next Sunday at Croke Park. It is an opposition both teams could have done without so close to their crunch championship encounter at the end of May.
Just now it is difficult to envisage what 15 John O’Mahony and his team will put into battle for this his first confrontation with Galway since he stepped down from his successful reign there. Despite injuries, he has a good many contenders for vital positions, and those selected will know they are under pressure to hold on. That, hopefully, will be the spur for Mayo to reverse the outcome of a similar tie 12 months ago.
THE NOT SO DIFFICULT SECOND ALBUM FOR U21S
THE U21s have set the pace again. But their 21st Connacht title will be remembered only for the ease with which they won it. It is not what Pat Holmes or Noel Connelly or Micheál Collins would have in mind as useful preparation for an All-Ireland semi-final, but it was the best on offer, and how good they really are will only be known against opposition that will not melt like Roscommon did at MacHale Park.
For a while in the first half it looked as if Roscommon had stumbled on a way to tame the unbridled Connacht champions, and it raised hopes among their loyal and expectant supporters.
They had been subjected to a stormy opening 20 minutes or so, their defence bewildered by the fleet-footed Mayo forwards. It had been all too easy for the champions. Barry Moran and Tom Parsons at midfield were the chief providers for the attack, but half-backs Chris Barrett, Tom Cunniffe and Colm Boyle were also significant contributors.
Roscommon were slow, dithery, overawed, unable to find a way to lift the siege. Mayo were 12 points ahead and cruising, Tom Parson having delivered the coup de grâce with the only goal of the game, a solo effort through the heart of the defence, and a shot to be remembered.
A couple of switches later, and Roscommon had come to life. Their best forward, Cathal Cregg, moved from the wing to the centre in a swop with David O’Gara. David Keenan provided more assistance for their beleaguered midfield. A chink or two suddenly appeared in what had been a cast-iron Mayo defence. In no time at all Cregg had the ball in the net, the signal for a further reduction in the lead to four points.
Roscommon had found some belief, at last, and their supporters their voices. Maybe this was the turning point, the catalyst for a sustained Roscommon recovery. The five points that separated them at the break was not unbridgeable. A flicker of light had at last lightened the visitors’ foreboding.
But although David Hoey cut the lead to four immediately after the restart, Mayo re-asserted control and the gulf in class became wider as the champions drummed over point after tantalising point, from all angles, and all ranges. The inspiration created by Cregg’s goal was a deception. Mayo were every bit as good as they looked.
If Roscommon had a competitive midfield the Mayo backs might not have enjoyed almost total supremacy. A few of their forwards were handy enough with what limited ball they received. Mayo’s two centre backs, Tom Cunniffe and Ger Cafferkey, had the play much to themselves. Cunniffe’s support was unending, his runs spirited. Cafferkey found Enda Kenny a handful, and was successful because of the support he got.
Kenny, however, should have had a goal in the second half, his poor finish denying him. Substitute Aidan Dooney should also have scored. A goal from either would have made little difference to the outcome, but might have exposed the defence as less secure than it looked.
Alan Joyce, Colm Boyle and Chris Barrett were able and tight in their marking. David Kilcullen was excellent when he moved to the half-back line in the second half, and the standard set by the injured Kenneth O’Malley in goal was pretty much attained by Michael McNulty.
Barry Moran was excellent at midfield, coming good after a series of injuries, and challenged hotly for man of the match. Tom Parsons, still only 19, holds promise of a flourishing future. It was hard to separate the forwards for special mention. Pierce Hanley, Aidan Campbell, Mark Ronaldson were clever, inventive and powerful, the ground prepared well for them by Brian Benson, Andy Hanley and Adrian McManamon.
The task was made difficult for Roscommon by the fact that seven of last year’s All-Ireland winning side were included in the Mayo team, and a couple more among the subs. Self-motivation of All-Ireland winning underage players is not easy the second year round. Nothing of that nature was evident on Sunday in the home team. But the real test is yet to come.