SIN-BINNED Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea leaves the pitch after he was shown a black card during Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final at Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile
IT was no worse than we expected. It would have been a more forgiving scoreline if opportunities were not so senselessly wasted. But at no point — save a few minutes after the break — was there an indication that the outcome would have been any different.
For a lot of the game Mayo seemed to play not so much for victory, more for redemption from their recent dismal performances, and especially that forgettable league final to which their form has been so inextricably linked.
There was a certain recovery of the old fighting spirit that raised a few wisps of hope. There were some good individual performances. There was an urgency to restore the pride that has buoyed them for more than a decade.
But they could not shake off the full effects of that shocking league pasting by Kerry which so savagely shifted their whole perspective.
A league so carefully managed up to that one match had suddenly and remarkably inverted their season.
For much of the game they kept pace with Kerry, and for a while in the early part of the second half built enough momentum to scare the would-be All-Ireland champions.
But like guys in Croke Park for the first time, some dreadful decision-making and reckless shooting ruined promising patches of play.
As the game wore on you could almost live in their minds as they searched for an Armagh finish but engaged in tactics far removed from those that bore fruit for Armagh’s flourish against Galway.
Twelve wides amounted to a wasteland of effort, hail-mary shooting under pressure with little hope of the ball finding its target. Intercepted passes and failure to find a colleague after well-worked moves left Kerry off the hook time and again.
Up to the 48th minute we were beginning to wonder if a mild surprise was in store for the doubters. They were just a point behind at that stage. It was their 12th point and it was scored by James Carr who had replaced the injured Jack Carney at the interval.
That same margin separated them at the break, even though Aidan O’Shea had spent ten minutes in the sin bin for a transgression no one only the referee seemed to have identified.
Now, thirteen minutes into the second half, Mayo’s work rate had significantly shifted. O’Shea was back on the field and Kerry were forced to defend vigorously to bat off their surging opponents. For those few minutes Mayo were in control.
But then things began to unreel.
The glut of injuries had begun to take its toll on their confidence. Overcooked passes, poor ball control and slipshod shooting piled up. Kerry slowly ground out control again.
And for the remainder of the match Mayo scored a single point to the kingdom’s eight.
It was much like the Kerry of old . . . and the Mayo that despairingly bowed to them so often before the arrival of James Horan.
Speculation filled the pre-match air that neither David Clifford nor Oisin Mullin would start. Like so much rumour it was idle gossip. Both did start and both faced each other in what was expected to be a momentous duel for both counties.
The big man had led Kerry spectacularly in the league final and plans of subduing him must have occupied much of the time of management during their preparations.
Assuringly, Mullin took him on, tangled with him, lost to him, beat him, and yet the young super star managed to crack the defence for the only goal of the game.
It started from an error in the Mayo attack which led to Stephen O’Brien charging through the defence and delivering sweetly to Clifford who for once had got inside the Mayo full-back.
The full forward injured a foot early on and seemed to be limping at times. He scored three points, one from play. But Kerry’s management persisted with him, realising the value of his presence in the attack.
Still Mullin emerged with credit and was himself able to embark on a few sorties into Kerry territory.
Earlier Paul Geaney had a chance of a goal when put through by Tom O’Sullivan but screwed the ball wide from close range.
Other than those breaches, the Mayo defence forced more than a dozen Kerry turnovers, Lee Keegan, Mullin and Enda Hession, mainly coming to the rescue. But for once their counter-attacks failed to create the scores that have tided Mayo over previous difficulties.
Only Rob Hennelly and centre-back Stephen Coen got on the list when Mayo were still in the game. The Mayo captain was unlucky on another occasion when a high ball off an upright rebounded the wrong way while he was inside the Kerry defence and unmarked.
There were a couple of other assaults on the Kerry goal from Eoghan McLaughlin whose exciting play is sometimes undone by hasty decision making, and Kevin McLoughlin who clipped the crossbar.
At midfield Mattie Ruane had one of his best games for a while against the vaunted David Moran and Diarmuid O’Connor. The Breaffy man gave a spirited performance but there was no ripple effect from his colleagues when he encroached on enemy ground.
Aidan O’Shea hit the heights sporadically. His magnificent point in the 8th minute gave Mayo the lead for the second and last time. His despatch to the sin bin eight minutes before half-time was not warranted. Nor was his late replacing by Padraig O’Hora productive.
Up front Jack Carney impressed once more at full-forward before being replaced at the interval. Most of his possession came from low ball. How much more effective he might have been if instead of probing for openings, the ball was delivered high into the goalmouth where the Kilmeena man had height advantage.
In the corner Cillian was not in his customary prolific form. With three points he was still Mayo’s leading scorer, two of them coming from frees, but he has not fully regained his old sharpness around the goal.
Diarmuid worked hard and Jordan Flynn reeled in a couple of good points, but he, too, was in the lock of Gavin White for most of the game. How Ryan O’Donoghue and Tommy Conroy were missed!
In general Mayo lacked the energy and the soul that have been so much part of their game for more than a decade.
It was the first quarter-final James Horan has lost since he first picked up the reins. Fate has not graced his endeavours these past couple of seasons. Injuries have spoiled his plans.
A cold lethargy has now swept through the squad.
The passion that was once an embodiment of their performances has deserted them. Our summers, filled with hope and expectation over the past few years, will be the poorer for Mayo’s decline.
We’ll miss the arguments, the commentaries, the appraisals, their resurrections, their idiosyncrasies . . . and the hope they never failed to generate.