SORROW once again was the overriding emotion. Once more we were witnesses to the end of an era, the concluding stages of careers that have kept the fires of hope burning in our hearts.
Down the years we have lamented the unfulfilled ambitions of men like Willie Joe Padden, TJ Kilgallon and Liam McHale. Now James Nallen and David Brady have joined the constellation of former stars whose distinguished service to Mayo lies undeservedly unbedecked by All-Ireland honours.
David Heaney and Ciaran McDonald may have also joined that ever lengthening file of old soldiers in whose skills we prided so often in Croke Park. Nallen, and Brady have had at least the satisfaction of National League success with their county and All-Ireland medals with their clubs. Heaney, a great Mayo servant, has no such memento . . . not even a county senior medal in his possession.
None is likely to announce his retirement publicly, for old warriors like to fade out quietly. But in building a new team John O’Mahony needs the influence of experience, and may yet call on Heaney, and maybe even McDonald to set the example for young, raw talent.
The reconstruction is already well under way with the likes of Trevor Howley, Barry Moran, Tom Cunniffe and teenager Pierce Hanley being imbedded. But Mayo will not see Croke Park again, without profound changes in the direction of Mayo football.
Too long we have lauded stylists at the expense of heart and grit. Heart is paramount; skill is the embellisher. Heart is intrinsic; skill is learnt. Height and mobility for the vital positions are also important, and in the coming months these are the values that ought to be invoked in building teams of the future. As a football power we have now slipped a long way back the line.
Mayo clearly lacked the physical attributes of Derry on Saturday. On a sodden ground the big men had a huge advantage, and that ten-point win they enjoyed in the end, was predictable in the early minutes. In the vital areas Derry had all the answers.
Four points up in fourteen minutes without a reply left Mayo grappling for help from any source. It came off the chest of Derry goalkeeper Barry Gillis . . . and from the deft flick of Barry Moran’s right foot. It was a gift. The ball, a big blob of soap, was sent in by David Heaney, and when the keeper failed to hold it, Moran, prowling intuitively, was there to side-foot it to the net.
That 15th minute goal helped to raise Mayo’s game and, stunned by the simplicity of the score, Derry’s hurt was reflected in their play. They had been toying with Mayo, and it seemed only a matter of time before Enda Muldoon, Paddy Bradley and Colly Devlin penetrated the creaking backline.
But that lucky strike injected some life to Mayo, and a searing run by Alan Dillon yielded a foul on the Ballintubber man, and an equalising point by Conor Mortimer from the free.
Mortimer was a marked man from the beginning. Not an inch was he allowed by the Derry defence. In the other corner Andy Moran was similarly trapped in that defensive vise. Barry Moran was the only forward they feared, and Mayo could have made better use of the Castlebar Mitchels’ man. In addition to the goal, he also bagged two points, the other four of Mayo’s total coming from Conor Mortimer, Pierce Hanley, substitute Aidan Kilcoyne and Andy Moran.
Hanley, having only his second competitive game at county senior level, made an impact, but an uncompromising Derry defence left little room for the lesser physically endowed Mayo men to operate. And the man who personified that bastion of muscular might was the home team’s veteran defender Sean Marty Lockhart. No Mayo man in any part of the field came close in dogged determination.
HE forwards might have achieved more if Mayo’s midfield won a reasonable amount of possession. But neither David Brady nor Pat Harte presented any real opposition to Fergal Doherty and James Conway. It was no contest and in the absence of a serious midfield contribution the forwards were depending on what their halfback line had to offer.
David Heaney achieved more than most in helping to reel in Derry after their early surge to the front, and Enda Muldoon was kept relatively quiet for most of the seventy minutes. On the left flank Trevor Mortimer played with customary vigour, but whether his talents are put to better use in defence is an argument not yet proven.
Corner backs Trevor Howley and Tom Cunniffe, until he retired with an injury, did reasonably well, but Liam O’Malley was saddled once again with the central position to which he is not suited.
O’Malley is a brave young man who applies himself fully, and flinches from no tackle. But there is only so much he can do when confronted by a bigger, stronger opponent. He is a good wing or corner-back, and hopefully will find himself back in that role in future teams.
Derry introduced big Mark Lynch, who had been left out of the original selection, halfway through the first half, and he wielded huge influence on the game. His intimidating stature was ideal for the heavy conditions and he took full advantage of Mayo’s weaknesses in defence.
That Mayo goal rocked Derry, and although they were by far the better side they held only a two-point advantage at the interval. When Aidan Kilcoyne, who replaced Alan Dillon at the break, snapped up a point two minutes into the second half, you felt a little less hopeless for Mayo’s chances.
For ten minutes or so they were more than a match for the home side. A little luck shone on them when Mark Lynch blazed the ball across the face of the goal, having been placed by Paddy Bradley. But a fine interception by David Heaney set Pierce Hanley on a penetrating run that yielded an equalising point. And it looked as if it was a fight to the end.
But when Devlin crashed home Derry’s goal in the 13th minute of the second half, the life drained out of Mayo’s resistance. There was little or no fight left. There was no one to assume leadership, no one to take on responsibility.
Derry had their tails up, and no amount of changes by management, no switches, no encouragement of any sort would get in their way.
Muldoon’s chipping of David Clarke for their second goal was an indication of Derry’s restored confidence. After that, they toyed with Mayo, brushed them aside, and exposed their shortcomings, as they have not been seen for some time.
In a way it was appropriate that Mayo met the toughest of Saturday’s Qualifiers, in the toughest of conditions away from home. Had it been played at McHale Park on a dry day, as Saturday was in Castlebar, they might have won . . . only to have the team’s deep-rooted flaws exposed in soul destroying circumstances once more at the latter stages of the championship.
In fairness, the championship has not been a true reflection of Mayo’s league performances. Theirs has been an alarming decline since reaching the final stages of the league in the spring . . . an alarming decline since they beat Laois and Dublin last year to reach the All-Ireland final.
So now it is stocktaking time. Time to get to the root of the problems, and articulating those problems does not solve them. Work has to be done, talent found and tested, and the long haul back to an All-Ireland challenging position begun . . . again.