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Nothing lost and little learned

Sean Rice
Nothing lost and little learned

Sean RiceSean Rice

THE headline says it all and Mayo-Galway matches are rarely any different. Occasionally they produce a classic. More than likely, they are tight and uninspiring as this league semi-final.
Why an alarmingly low figure of 24,000 supporters were forced to travel to headquarters for the two semi-finals when a neutral venue like Hyde Park would surely have attracted a capacity crowd, is baffling. For all its grandeur, Croke Park, less than half empty as it was on Sunday, added nothing to the atmosphere or the occasion.
Mayo’s one-point win was shaped much as their last few victories . . . in the final quarter when their more finely honed fitness edged them in front. Only in the 54th minute did they hit the front for the first time, and while they remained ahead to the end, they lived perilously. Padraig Joyce, so often their inspiration, had a couple of chances to wipe out that lead, but for once the Galway captain’s accuracy had deserted him.
Apart from those final minutes, it was poor stuff. It was clean and sporting, and the way in which the players exchanged handshakes at the end was an indication of their respect for one another.
For long periods Mayo appeared to have ‘passed’ the result to Galway. No amount of heart – and they were not short in that department – could compensate for their numerous errors in distribution. Their inability to find a colleague at short distance proved far trickier than the long delivery to the wings. Even over frees Mayo lingered too long, waiting for backs to get into position, and colleagues to be covered, before kicking.
Yet, as they have done in many of their games leading up to the semi-final, they showed character in overcoming the set-backs rooted in their own slackness, and just when it seemed Galway were about to repeat the result of last year’s semi-final tussle, Mayo’s strength of mind triumphed.
But let’s be honest, a performance of this scale will in no way be good enough to bring Mayo their twelfth National League title next Sunday. Of the four teams in action in Croke Park, Donegal were by far the most impressive, and nothing Mayo did against Galway will sidetrack the ambitions of the Northern representatives from winning their first league trophy.
The first half of Sunday’s joust was more or less a copy of Mayo’s start against Tyrone. Galway looked the form side, winning the breaks, finding their men, and benefiting from uncharacteristic blunders by their opponents. Their goal in the seventh minute had its roots in the mistiming of a pass by Billy Joe Padden. Galway capitalised on the interception and Padraig Joyce, heading for goal, delivered the perfect pass for Cormac Bane to rifle the net.
Padden, to be fair, did not allow the setback to undermine his game, and while he was troubled at times by the wiliness of the experienced Jarlath Fallon, his interventions in the final ten minutes were significant.
Mayo’s first goal was etched in a defensive howler by Galway when the high ball skidded off the fists of Finian Hanley over the head of his colleagues and across the face of the goal to where Ger Brady was lurking. The Ballina man, who has been growing in confidence in recent games, delivered a dummy before crashing the ball to the net.

That goal, in the 15th minute, was their second score, and it brought Mayo to within a point of Galway, although the Tribesmen were still outweighing Mayo’s share of the play. Through Joe Bergin and Diarmuid Blake they were winning almost all of the primary possession in the middle of the field.
Midfield play is not of course all about high fielding, but clean catching is inspiring, and on a couple of occasions Joe Bergin was masterful in the air. Yet, the grafting of David Heaney and Pat Harte had real merit also. When leadership was most needed Heaney provided it, especially in the final quarter, and that quality distinguishes the Swinford man’s performance.
Mayo were back on equal terms at half-time, and their improvement could be attributed in part to the prodding down the right wing of Enda Devenney. The Ballina man was in top form and troubled the Galway defence with his penetrating runs. On occasions he might have been wiser to go for his own score, and in the second half, when he did break through, his blistering shot scorched the tip of the crossbar.
Before that, Galway had skipped into a lead of three points, Nicky Joyce bagging two from frees, the other coming from team captain Padraig. They were looking sharp and determined. But when Conor Mortimer was fouled in the square, and his penalty shot parried by Paul Doherty, Alan Dillon, ever alert, swept the rebound back into the net.
The two were key forwards. Mortimer will forever be a marked man, but no one will fully police the mercurial Shrule man. So, too, with Dillon.  Passes to him were not always to his liking, but his work rate was tremendous. Andy Moran, too, drove himself hard, and Ger Brady’s strength in the forward line is becoming an important feature of Mayo performances.
The introduction of Aidan Campbell and Michael Conroy came at crucial moments in the game. Both brought big improvements to the attack. Were it not for his U21 commitments Campbell would likely hold down a place on the first selection, and it’s a pity that Mayo’s U21 All-Ireland semi-final with Laois clashes on the same weekend as the league final.
There were times when it looked as if Padraig Joyce and Cormac Bane held too much fire for the Mayo defence. Indeed Joyce was a little unlucky not to have been awarded a penalty when his shirt was pulled in the square in the first half while Galway were on top.
But the defence held firm in the second half, denying the Joyces, Bane and Michael Meehan vital scores. The tackling and blocking of Liam O’Malley, James Kilcullen and Keith Higgins especially in the final minutes was brave and effective, and the vigilance of half-backs Devenney Padden and Peadar Gardiner essential to victory.

Room for improvement if title is to be Taken
OVERALL, a reproduction of Mayo’s performance last Sunday will not deny Donegal. Mayo’s only defeat of the campaign so far was to Donegal at Ballybofey in February. There were three points between them at the end, and while Mayo had chances to snatch a draw at least, Donegal, the bigger and stronger side, deserved their win in the heavy conditions.
They have been unbeaten throughout the league, and have grown stronger and more confident with every victory. Paddy Campbell, Barry Monaghan, Karl Lacey, and Barry Dunnion are the heart of their uncompromising defence.
On Sunday their performance against Kildare was strong and positive. Neil Gallagher and Kevin Cassidy were completely on top at midfield. Gallagher in particular was excellent - won a huge amount of possession and was all over the field defending and attacking. Their corner forward Michael Hegarty, playing around the centre, added to their ability to win around the middle. He also contributed three points from play.
Adrian Sweeney replaced Brian Roper at centre half forward early in the second half and a lot of play went through him, his distribution much more accurate into the forward line.
Donegal had only two players in the forward line all through the match. Colm McFadden was very strong. He was good in the air for the long balls in, and scored a couple of fine points. Brendan Devenney, who had a big game against Mayo, got injured early on, but Kevin McManamon was effective as his replacement. He is small but very fast, and he scored a good goal.
Mayo will have their work cut out for them at midfield next weekend, and the backs will have to contend with big strong Donegal forwards. However, it will be interesting to see how Donegal’s backs deal with the Mayo forwards running at them at pace.
To win Mayo will have to play for the entire seventy minutes for sure. They have had worryingly slow starts in many of their games, and have survived only because the opposition failed to take good chances of scores. Had they done so, the results could have been embarrassing. A brighter start on Sunday, and fewer sloppy passing errors might upset Donegal’s dream.
The U21s kick off another busy weekend for Mayo followers with their semi-final against Laois on Saturday. Hopefully, they will reproduce the form they have shown in retaining their Connacht crown, and reach for what could turn out to be another decider against Cork.

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