EYES ON THE PRIZE Mayo’s Keith Higgins gets ahead of Tyrone’s Sean Paul McKernan during the Nicky Rackard Cup Final at Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile
MAYO hurlers delivered one of their most complete performances ever in championship hurling when eclipsing Tyrone in the Nickey Rackard Cup Final at Croke Park on Sunday.
So sublime was their touches and so resolute was their focus that the bonfires could have been lit in Tooreen and Ballyhaunis at half-time when the game was well and truly in the bag.
Seldom have Mayo supporters felt so assured of victory at such an early stage of a national final. There was a beauty and majesty to every move that hinted at a team so assured in their ability and revelling in the wide open spaces of Croke Park that one knew that Tyrone were on the ropes and there was no way back.
In the space of six days, two of Mayo’s football legends of the last decade and further back raised cups aloft on the Hogan Stand. Six days earlier, Aidan O’Shea captained the Mayo footballers to a historic Connacht Final victory over Galway. His colleague on so many amazing days in Croke Park, Keith Higgins, Mayo’s finest ever dual player, had the honour of captaining the hurling team to glory.
This was truly a week of wine and roses for the red and green of Mayo.
It was a day when Mayo delivered on the promise that looked set to bloom last year but fell short in the closing minutes against Donegal as the Ulster side rallied in style to pip Mayo on the final straight.
Mayo staked their claim in the opening minutes with Shane Boland posting two points from frees. Keith Higgins, casting aside a dip in form in the first half of the semi-final against Armagh in Carrick-on-Shannon a week earlier, revelled in the ‘Big Country’ of Croke Park which was the scene of so many of his majestic football displays in the previous decade, and floated over a point from under the Hogan Stand that players of the calibre of Joe Canning and TJ Reid would have tipped their hats to in salute to the Ballyhaunis genius.
Five minutes in, Seán Regan fired home a brilliant goal for Mayo after Tyrone goalkeeper Conor McElhatton, who fielded a long delivery from Seán Kenny, misplaced a short clearance and the Ballina man put Mayo on the road to victory.
Damian Casey, one of Tyrone’s foremost players, converted two frees and fired over a fine point from play as the Ulster side tried hard to get back into the game.
Shane Boland, whose return was a huge boost to Mayo, was on target from play while Chris Kearns landed a long range point for Tyrone to close the gap to three points after eleven minutes. That was as good as it got for Tyrone.
Adrian Phillips could have adopted the mantle of a young gunslinger in the days of the Old West such was the exuberance he brought to Croke Park on Saturday. Conor Henry, the bearer of a name that carried the crest of royalty in Mayo hurling circles, did the ground work and Adrian shot straight and true with a gem of strike that raised another Mayo white flag. Keith Higgins converted a ’65 and then landed a mammoth free from close from 90 yards to leave Mayo ahead by 1-7 to 0-4 at the end of the first quarter.
Seán Regan whipped over another point for Mayo before Tyrone were awarded a penalty after Mayo full-back Michael Morley was adjudged to have taken down CJ McGourty. Morley was sent to the sideline for ten minutes, but Bobby Douglas pulled off a brilliant save from Damian Casey’s penalty strike and, in essence, the game ended as a contest as Mayo reeled off seven points between there and halftime.
Mayo were majestic in this period with all their scores coming from play.
Cathal Freeman fired over two points from out in the country, Seán Regan, Keith Higgins and Cormac Phillips doing likewise, and Adrian Phillips adding two more, one of them the essence of brilliance following a long free by Bobby Douglas and an instinctive back flick by Keith Higgins to set Adrian up beautifully for a class score.
Ahead by 1-15 to 0-5 at the interval, there was no way back for Tyrone. A fabulous point from play by Keith Higgins on the restart had all the hallmarks of a classic Kilkenny score from over the years.
Tyrone got a small reprise when Conor Grugan raced through to fire home a brilliant goal seven minutes into the second half but it proved to be little more that a tiny windshield against the raging storm of an unstoppable Mayo.
Keith Higgins weaved his magic with another class point while Cathal Freeman sprinted through the Tyrone defence to slam the ball to the net. Higgins floated over two more majestic points and Mayo could afford the luxury of a narrowly missed penalty strike by Cathal Freeman following a foul on Jason Coyne to lead by 2-19 to 1-9 at the three quarter way stage.
Mayo had the luxury of running in a few fine substitutions in the closing quarter with Pearse McCrann, Jason Coyne, Brian Hunt, Brian Morley and Oisín Greally bringing further energy and enthusiasm to this magical Mayo display.
Mayo rounded off the game when cruising home in style with a succession of splendid points from Cathal Freeman, Seán Regan, Jason Coyne, Brian Morley and Oisín Greally to run out the easiest of winners.
This was, above all else, a superb team performance.
Bobby Douglas will have nothing but good memories of his debut in Croke Park. The full-backline of Stephen Coyne, Michael Morley and Conor Daly was simply outstanding and brilliant in snuffing out whatever challenge the Tyrone full forward line posed throughout the game.
Gary Nolan, David Kenny and Conor Henry were so at home in Croke Park that they revelled in the freedom it presented to them with all three delivering top displays, helped out in no small way by Cathal Freeman dropping back to deliver assistance in a powerhouse display by the Tooreen man.
The Tooreen duo of Seán Kenny and John Cassidy were always comfortable at midfield while Shane Boland and Cormac Phillips caused huge problems for the Tyrone defence.
The full-forward line of Keith Higgins, Adrian Phillips and Seán Regan delivered in style, sealing a totally deserved Mayo victory with strong inputs also from all five subs.
Tyrone top performers on a day when they played second fiddle from the outset were Damian Casey, Lorcan Devlin, Chris Kearns and CJ McGourty.
GAA President, Larry McCarthy, New York and Cork, presided at the presentation of the Nicky Rackard Cup to a delighted Keith Higgins.
It completed a very special week for Mayo at Croke Park.
B Douglas; S Coyne, M Morley, C Daly; G Nolan, D Kenny, C Henry; J Cassidy, S Kenny (0-1, 1f); C Phillips (0-1), C Freeman (1-4), S Boland (0-3, 2fs); K Higgins (0-7, 1f, 1 ’65), A Phillips (0-3), S Regan (1-3).
Subs used: J Coyne (0-2) for C Phillips, P McCrann for J Cassidy, B Morley (0-2) for A Phillips, Brian Hunt for M Morley, O Greally (0-1) for S Boland.
C McElhatton; SP McKernan, D Rafferty, C McNally; J Kerr, C Kearns (0-3), L Devlin; C Lagan, M Little; C Grugan (1-0), CJ McGourty, D Casey (0-9, 6fs); R Weir, C Ferguson, B McGurk (0-1).
Subs used: T Morgan (0-1) for Ferguson, D Begley for McNally, P McHugh for McKernan, S Óg Grogan for Weir, S Donaghy for Little.
Referee: R Fitzsimons (Offaly)