Lack of conviction costs U-21s
THEY left Longford crestfallen, but you couldn’t fault their effort. The bright promise of Connacht had been left behind in Charlestown and Sligo.
In Pearse Park on Saturday they dug for the same conviction and vibrancy, but it wasn’t there. From the opening minute they were pushing the rock uphill.
But they hung in there with more heart perhaps than self-assurance. Twice they came back from the dead to prime the hopes of their supporters sweltering in the sunshine on the terraces. Nothing they did could generate the killer quality, however. No amount of hard work could reproduce the patterns that succeeded so well against Galway and Roscommon.
So for the second year in a row the Connacht under 21 champions were forced to give way to All-Ireland semi-final opposition by two points. And while they may rue their inability to match the accuracy of their opponents, I think they will be the first to admit that in the overall scheme of things, Down shaded it slightly.
As we’ve said, Mayo did not lack heart, but for once in this campaign they showed less conviction . . . especially in front of goal. And the break-up of promising attacks through shoddy passing attempts also presented Down with advantages which they did not waste.
From the beginning the Ulster champs swung midfield. Peter Fitzpatrick was especially effective and, for a big man, nimble. But they were given invaluable assistance by roving corner forward Conor Poland who was equally adept at fielding.
All that pressure, together with a sprightly half-forward line, weighed heavily on the Mayo defence and the freedom that Donal Vaughan and Kevin McLoughlin enjoyed in Connacht was severely curbed, their ability to initiate telling attacks drastically limited.
Eventually Mayo did lift the siege long enough to uncover some soft spots in the Down defence, but never long enough to fully exploit those weaknesses.
Punished constantly by the pin-pointed accuracy of Jamie O’Reilly and Paul Devlin, Mayo were always struggling to keep up, battling intensely with their own limitations.
In fairness, Aidan O’Shea and Tom Parsons did eventually make their mark at midfield and at least managed to break Down’s stranglehold in that sector — although Parson’s passing was suspect. Shortly after Jason Doherty missed what he would normally have scored blindfolded, O’Shea lifted the mood with a superb point from the left wing.
Mayo had been trailing by five points before O’Shea hit back. Three unblemished scores from O’Reilly’s left foot from the left wing had left them groping for some sort of fillip. O’Shea provided it.
And while full-forward Paul McComiskey responded positively from an easy free, the effect of O’Shea’s score had not worn away when Neil Douglas rattled the Northern champs with the first goal of the game.
It came just on the half hour after a concerted build-up begun by Cathal Carolan and Jason Doherty led to a shot by substitute Sean Prendergast rebounding off the crossbar. Douglas was alert to the opportunity and he finished it confidently and at the right moment, psychologically.
Mayo needed that score to keep their hopes buoyed up for the second half, but at the break supporters had placed their hopes of victory more on the quality of their Connacht campaign rather than anything produced in the first half.
In truth, however, they never reached that level of performance. Seven minutes into the second half they suffered another setback when Timmy Hanna and substitute Eamon Toner linked up to create an opening for Paul Devlin to grab Down’s goal. It put five points between them again.
You could not have asked more from Mayo than the swiftness and authority they brought to their response. Niall Prenty had barely replaced Brian Gallagher on the wing when he lobbed a suitable cross for a hungry forward. Neil Douglas rose to it and the ball broke ideally for the inrushing Michael Sweeney to force to the net.
It was a serious blow to Down, but worse was to follow when their centre-half back John Fitzpatrick was given his marching orders for double yellow card offences. The big man had been central to Down’s defence, and Mayo ought to have benefited from that boost.
But they didn’t. Down redoubled their efforts and showed more composure dealing with their setback than Mayo did in their search for winning scores.
One little ruse highlights that difference when Conor Maginn was allowed to walk in front of the ball while Robert Hennelly was taking a ‘45. The Breaffy man could have called the referee’s attention to the disruptive tactic, but didn’t . . . and kicked the ball wide.
MICKEY MULLINS GIVES US A TIMELY REMINDER
QUESTIONS will be asked in Claremorris this week about the absence of Mickey Mullins from John O¹Mahony’s panel of thirty players for the season announced at the weekend.
Mullins was the star of his side’s comprehensive victory over Castlebar Mitchels in the league on Sunday, and on this form would have been anyone’s bet for a recall to the Mayo manager’s selection.
Unfortunately the panel was chosen before Mullins grabbed the spotlight on Sunday. A series of injuries had presented the Claremorris man with few opportunities to work his way back into the confidence of the selectors.
The wing forward never did make as big an impression for the county as for his club, but if he continues to sparkle with the intensity of Sunday’s performance management is unlikely to shut him out of contention.
His total of 2-5 shocked Castlebar into submission after a first half that was hotly contested. Mullins, however, went on the rampage in the second half, crashing home the first of their goals in the 39th minute, and another eight minutes later.
It was not quite a one-man show, for all round Claremorris looked strong and fit, and challenged every ball with grit and determination. But Mullins was the class act, his lightening thrusts leaving the defence flat-footed.
Castlebar will point to their shortage of a number of regulars including Richard Feeney and Barry Moran. It may, however, take them some time to recover their confidence after this defeat and Peter Ford and his selectors might use the opportunity to blood some of the younger members of the panel in the games ahead.
VETERANS MAKE THE CHAMPIONSHIP PANEL
TWO long-serving, loyal Mayo footballers have been recalled to the panel announced at the weekend. It is unlikely that James Nallen or David Heaney will be the first choice of John O’Mahony and his selectors when they sit down to choose their championship side, but their very presence on the panel ought to be a boost to the young men in their company.
No longer in the first flush of youth Nallen and Heaney are still competitive enough to challenge their younger colleagues for places, but their greatest contribution now may be in the experience they have gathered throughout their careers and how others might benefit from it.
Colm Boyle, Pat Kelly and James Gill have all missed out, but the selectors are unlikely to confine the thirty players to everyone listed on the panel. Injury, for instance, may rule out some thus making way for the likes of Mickey Mullins to grab his chance.