IF THE CAPS FIT Former Mayo footballer Maurice Sheridan (a selector with NUI, Galway) is pictured with Eoin O’Donnellan (manager) during last Sunday’s FBD League match in Ballinrobe. Pic: Michael Donnelly
Students ask plenty of questions
SIX months of abstinence revealed a notable fervour for new-season action. Mayo stuttered into their opening game of the year on Ballinrobe’s firm sod with understandable caution, testing the temperature as it were. But you wondered at times whether hope more than self-belief drove some of John O’Mahony’s selection.
You can’t base Mayo’s season on one giddy performance which served no other purpose than as a trial of budding talent. Inevitably, flaws surfaced, yet there was an unmistakable intensity in their efforts. Under the eye of a critical public, new players wearing a county senior jersey for the first time were distinctly nervous and over eager to impress. Some did.
All will be given further opportunities to convince the selectors, but without access to many of the county’s more experienced players for the Connacht League the make-up of the new Mayo will not take shape for some time.
Paradoxically, some of the Mayo men to impress in this first match of the year were on the opposite site. At a time when Mayo are searching desperately for the emergence of a full-back, a good old jostle for recognition has commenced between Billy Joe Padden and Stephen Drake.
Each manned that position on opposite sides on Sunday, two newcomers to the role. It must have been the only position Billy Joe had not experienced with the county, and it was not one we had expected to see him fill at Ballinrobe.
Nor had Stephen Drake ever figured in our dreams of a full-back . . . until he appeared with NUIG. Notable for his competence at right half-back, the performance of the Ballaghaderreen man as a pillar of the college defence was a talking point on Sunday.
Drake, however, shaded the full-back honours, mainly because in Austin O’Malley he was confronted by a much more competitive opponent than Jeff Farrell proved against Billy Joe.
In his new role the Belmullet man was assured without being spectacular. Only once did Jeff Farrell manage to steal inside him, and it led to a penalty from which NUIG scored their first goal. Otherwise, he left the impression, as Billy Joe has always done in new positions, that he must be given a fair chance to settle in.
Still, John O’Mahony and his selectors will be monitoring closely the development of his club man with NUIG. Drake was solid and uncompromising, and it wasn’t until he moved from the full-forward position that Austin O’Malley’s flair really flowered.
Eyes, too, will be on Padraig Healy and Chris Barrett, two other Mayo backs with NUIG who left an imprint on the game.
College dominated the opening half, and in contrast Mayo looked anaemic. Anxious to impress, they found themselves at the wrong end of some poor refereeing decisions, and by the 16th minute were trailing by 0-5 to 0-1, all but one of the students’ scores coming from frees.
Lack of penetration was Mayo’s biggest problem. Progressive involvement by James Gill in the middle of the field provided the forwards with a fair share of chances, but they had no real piercing power. Only once, near the end of the half did Mayo come close to a breakthrough, when Gill linked up with Keith Higgins, Brian Benson, John Prenty and O’Malley whose final shot grazed the outer side of the post.
They had begun to strike back at that stage, Gill’s donkey work beginning to take effect. His partner in the middle of the field, Peadar Gardiner, was not out of the picture either. Neither of the two had the aerial power of the College’s David Duffy, but each got through much more work.
The introduction of Breaffy’s Seamus O’Shea to midfield for the second half brought greater stability to that area, and more freedom to the half-back line of Colm Cafferkey, Liam O’Malley and Keith Higgins. All three performed creditably.
Higgins was unfortunate to have conceded the penalty that presented NUIG with their first goal in the 19th minute. He had legitimately smothered a shot by David Conway who had been given possession by Jeff Farrell. The referee judged it a breach of the rules and from the spot Sean Armstrong tucked the ball into the net.
The students were then six points ahead, all but one of their scores from frees. After John Prenty’s opening point in the fourth minute, Mayo failed to score again until O’Malley, following a few poor attempts, found his scoring touch in the 18th minute.
There was a much more competitive edge to Mayo’s performance after the break, a bit of badly needed aggression. The half-time threat of the axe from John O’Mahony may have been their inspiration. They strung together a lot of promising movements and there was much more fire in the approach of Mickey Mullins and Gill and Gardiner — who scored one magnificent point almost from the endline — and O’Malley and Alan Dillon after they switched places.
The whole thing came to life after three points in a row by O’Malley, and an equalising score from Gardiner with his left foot. And when Dillon shot them into the lead for the first time, Mayo, also for the first time, had the shape of winning side.
It took a Mayo man to deny them in the end. A high probing ball from Armstrong dipped deceptively, and caught goalkeeper Tom Higgins, who had capably guarded his line, by surprise. Higgins knocked the ball away but not far enough from Mark Ronaldson who had only to sweep it back into the net.
That came three minutes from the end and a few feverish minutes of play ensued. Brian Benson, who had an impressive game, was unlucky with the final shot which might have brought the equaliser. Victory, however, was not the key factor. How they shaped up will have been O’Mahony’s criterion. The opposition will also have provided a few important pointers.