The carousel comes to a stop
IN the noisy, expectant atmosphere of Croke Park, the romance died. There was no shame in defeat.
For months we journeyed with them on the carousel of victory – victory piled upon glorious victory in their unexpected surge to the final. It was a good to be around ... to watch their transformation from the ordinariness of county champions, to serious All-Ireland contenders.
We thrilled to their victories over Corofin, St Brigid’s and hotshots Dr Crokes, all of them having dismissed the Mitchels’ challenge as just another Mayo pipedream.
Nothing had been soft, nothing won easily. In every case their challenge was a creation of hard, honest preparation ... and won with inherent dignity. It was not complacency that raised our expectations of a culminating flourish. That was based on the brilliance of the victories that got them there.
Yesterday (Monday) we got everything but the creme-de-la-crème. The music finally ceased when Diarmuid Connolly crashed the ball to the Mitchels net in the 49th minute, his second inside eight minutes. It was the final straw. It put St Vincent’s eight points ahead and for the first time Mitchels’ heads visibly fell.
They were brave to the last. They did not lack for effort, just that little extra bit of skill and experience in the vital areas. And maybe the rub of the green without which no team can be successful.
Richie Feeney fell foul of the referee’s whistle no later than the fourth minute, banished by a harsh wave of a black card. His loss was sorely felt. More severe infringements were dealt with less severely.
In the final analysis, however, what the Mitchels lacked was someone with the brilliance of Connolly. Throughout the hour he strode Croke Park like a colossus, his passes, his reading of the game, his incisive raids more that any one or any amount of Mitchels backs could contain. His goals were killer blows.
In many areas the Mitchels more that mastered the opposition and when Barry Moran moved to midfield from full-forward he ignited their mental strength. But lack of goals denied them the break they needed. Hopes billowed in the 42nd minute when one finally came ... from the boot of Danny Kirby.
It put them ahead by a point. But the joy was short-lived. Within a minute, Connolly had swept the ball into the net at the other end. And before Kirby snatched the Mitchels’ second five minutes from the end, it was too late to restore the conviction the Mitchels had shown in earlier phases.
Ciaran Naughton was the hero of the first half. His fourth-minute save from Connolly helped the Mitchels to settle into an unaccustomed environment. On two further occasions he brought us to our feet with breath-taking stops from Ciaran Dorney and Ruairí Traynor.
They were inspiring interceptions. And there was a maturity to the Mitchels play when they attacked that exposed flaws in the Dublin defence. But they were not sufficiently punished. Better delivery to Barry Moran on the edge of the square might have yielded better results.
Still, there was confidence in their movements, in their passing and technique that spawned hope for better things after the break. Niall Lydon was in devastating form. Aidan Walsh and Ger McDonagh were punching above their weight in the middle of the field. Tom Cunniffe was a tower of strength in defence, Alan Feeney, Donal Newcombe and the marvellous Patrick Durcan bubbled with fervour.
But everyone tried his best. Let that not be the end of it.
Late scare for polished Mayo
I THOUGHT for a terrifying moment that the ghosts of Kildare’s defeat to Tyrone were about to visit MacHale Park. A little over ten minutes remained and Mayo, having built up a lead of ten points, were toying with the opposition.
It was a polished performance, way beyond our expectations. As the last team standing, table-toppers Cork had come with an unblemished record. But by the time Cillian O’Connor fired home Mayo’s fourth goal ten minutes or so from the end, they looked tired and bedraggled.
With the game in the bag, James Horan commenced to empty his bench. The team relaxed a bit, lost their shape and the Munster men began to stir. The midfield balance swung immediately to Cork once the manager withdrew his two midfielders Aidan O’Shea and Jason Gibbons. And for the first time since the 12th minute, the visitors began to claw their way back into the game.
In those remaining minutes they heaped on a total of 1-4 without reply. A few more minutes, and the remaining four-point deficit might have been wiped out. Kildare, leading by five points, made a similar mistake against Tyrone and are paying a heavy price for their folly.
It could be costly for Mayo yet in the matter of scoring difference.
Withdrawing the two midfielders created the chink that Cork exploited. But the absence of Gibbons and O’Shea served to emphasise the absolute control they enjoyed at midfield. Both flourished in sustained brilliance and Gibbons’ goal some 15 minutes into the second half bore all the conviction of a man freed at last from the chains of doubt that had kept him too long on the sideline.
In their absence Aidan Walsh began to prosper, and only for some Herculean defending by Mayo, we might have rued those final ragged minutes.
There was no doubt, however, about their authority after the opening 12 minutes when they trailed by five points. Cork with a strong wind behind them had opened up the defence and were moving with purpose.
That lead might not have materialised if Alan Freeman availed of a peach of a pass by Mikey Sweeney in the second minute. Freeman was a little tardy in getting himself in line for a shot at goalkeeper Ken O’Halloran and corner back Michael Shields denied him the golden chance.
Cillian O’Connor also had a chance to pierce the defence but Shields and keeper O’Halloran also smothered his angled shot.
Both made up for those lost opportunities, the Aghamore man scoring with a trademark shot 13 minutes into the second half, availing of a perfect pass by O’Connor, who was himself the recipient of a selfless piece of play by Kevin McLoughlin for the fourth.
Once Jason Gibbons found a crack to fire over Mayo’s opener, the Cork defence opened up. The Mayo forwards interchanged swiftly and deceptively. Liberally supplied by midfield and the industrious half-back line of Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle, the front line took command.
Sweeney, tricky and irrepressible, dragged the defence out of position. Kevin McLoughlin, Jason Doherty, Cillian O’Connor and Keith Higgins – who was a bit unlucky not to find the net – drove at them, tackled and harried them, and all of a sudden Cork were defending desperately.
Jason Doherty, having one of his best games for the county at centre forward, made the vital breakthrough on the stroke of half-time, the opportunity provided by Shane McHale and Freeman.
But the end was disappointing and the next match is against the Dubs.