Photo: Mayo Mick
Unexpect the expected, eh? I doubt of any of the 7,124 souls who were at a wet and miserable McHale Park this afternoon would have thought in advance that they’d see Mayo hold Kerry scoreless for the entirety of the second half (and the rest: Kerry failed to score for a full 42 minutes today according to the Irish Examiner’s John Fogarty) but that’s what happened in today’s clash between the counties in the opening round of this year’s NFL Division One. After an evenly-fought and very competitive first half – which ended all-square – the visitors effectively failed to show up for the second period as our lads eased home to the handiest win we’ve had over the Kingdom for many a year.
Before we start getting carried away with ourselves – and I don’t, in truth, think there’s any danger of that happening – it’s important to note that this was a very callow Kerry team we faced today, shorn of nearly all their household names. While they managed to put it up to us pretty well in the opening half when they had the wind with them, they failed to make any headway at all after the break and once they were reduced to fourteen men midway through the second period – when Anthony Maher, already on yellow, stupidly got embroiled in a bout of handbags and picked up a second yellow in the process – there was never any way they were going to get anything from today’s encounter.
I watched this one on TG4 – this bloody chest infection still hasn’t lifted and I’ve a hairy enough working week ahead as well so I felt it made sense to take the easy option today. With the rain spilling down at McHale Park for much of the afternoon and knowing how difficult it would have been to keep dry under that cavernous stand when the rain is falling and the wind is blowing, the couch seemed even cosier but, needless to say, I felt a bit cheapened at the end to have missed seeing us send the Yerras packing in the fashion we ultimately did this afternoon.
There was one change to our starting team, with Colm Boyle – a man who must surely relish playing the Kingdom by now – lining out instead of Donal Vaughan, the Ballinrobe man having cried off before the throw-in with reported hamstring trouble. Colm lined out at six but with Richie Feeney frequently roaming back behind his midfield we had plenty of cover in that area for much of the afternoon.
We played into the wind facing the Albany end for the first half and it was Jason Doherty – who emerged as our top scorer today, with six points (five from frees) – who got us going with an excellent point from play. After Michael O’Donoghue replied in kind for the visitors, Jason then landed three frees for us, the third a super, long-range one, to push us clear for the first time.
Photo: Mayo Mick
We looked very comfortable at that stage, winning plenty of ball around the middle, quick to capitalise on the breaks and moving forward with purpose. But the course of the match changed quickly as Kerry started to threaten our goal, with David Clarke out quickly to save smartly from James O’Donoghue. They pointed the resultant ’45 – a real boomer from Johnny Buckley – and then soon after O’Donoghue had the ball in the net, smashing it into the corner after he was played in by Darran O’Sullivan.
The goal stung us back into life and a swarming downfield move ended with Richie Feeney thumping over a lovely score (a bit like this celebrated one he’d got against the same opposition last year) to level proceedings.
Photo: Mayo Mick
The points started to come thick and fast then, with Michael O’Donoghue and O’Sullivan scoring smartly for them before two real peaches from Michael Conroy brought us back on terms. Then Anthony Maher blasted over a long range one for them and David Clarke gifted them another when his kickout went astray and Conor Cox returned it over the bar with glee. That was, however, to be the end of the glee for the Kerrymen because, with just half an hour played, they already had finished their scoring for the day.
Two down at the break wouldn’t have been a disaster for us but it was good to see the lads fight back to secure parity ahead of the short whistle. Jason popped over another free and then Kevin McLoughlin – who looked a bit lost placed so far forward early on but who became more and more influential as the afternoon wore on – steered over the equaliser.
It had been a tough enough half for us, with our early dominance having given way to a more pressurised period as Kerry had had a good hard look at our goals. From my vantage point on the couch, the Kerry lads seemed to be working very hard, continually applying pressure when our lads were in possession, often deep in our half, which meant we struggled to get the ball forward into their danger zone.
Alan Freeman replaced his Aghamore namesake Cathal – whose debut didn’t really get going at all today – at the start of the second half and with the wind now behind us, it was obvious that we were in for a different kind of half compared to the first. Not as different as the Kerrymen might have imagined, though.
Kevin McLoughlin pointed a free from over near the stand to get us off the mark in the second half and to edge our noses back in front. Jason landed his fifth free, and sixth point of the day, soon after to double our lead and then a long scoreless period ensued, as the conditions and the heavy going underfoot – what a contrast to the billiard table surface on show at Croke Park last night – took its toll on both set of players.
Tempers were starting to fray too, with a schemozzle breaking out on the far side of the pitch involving several hard chaws from both sides. When things calmed down, ref Padraig Hughes pulled Aidan O’Shea and Anthony Maher aside and while the resultant yellow meant little to our man, Maher’s was his second of the day – the initial one given for persistent fouling in the first half – and so the visitors were down to fourteen men.
Photo: Mayo Mick
Last year, it took us three matches before we figured out the best tactic when playing against a team with a man down but we had no such trouble today. Kerry rarely troubled us going forward after that – with Ger Cafferkey getting better and more authoritative at the back – and while we took longer than we should have done to turn the screw on them, once we did it was obvious we were going to win and win well.
Another cracking point from Mickey C and a second free from Kevin McLoughlin pushed us four clear. Barry Moran replaced Seamus O’Shea to provide fresh legs in the middle and Enda Varley – always a great option, it must be said, off the bench in the spring – came on for Richie Feeney, who had a marvellous game but had been floored by a massive, wholly legitimate, hit just before he was subbed and who I’d say was well ready for a rest after that. Enda justified his appearance by landing the final two points of the afternoon, both of them screamers from out on the right wing as we closed out a very comfortable six-point win.
We had several strong performers today. Ger Cafferkey was named TG4 Man of the Match and he was immense today but so too, just behind him, was captain David Clarke. Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle and the bearded Chris Barrett were all prominent as too was Aidan O’Shea who gave a gutsy, battling performance in midfield. Richie Feeney seemed as happy as a pig in shit in the conditions today and he covered acres of the McHale Park pitch, putting in a very strong shift across the middle third. When Kevin McLoughlin started to roam he did so with increasing effect too and when scores were needed Jason Doherty, Michael Conroy and sub Enda Varley were ready and willing to supply them.
James Horan sounded pleased enough in the TV and radio interviews he did immediately after the final whistle had sounded. And well he might have done too: his charges are off to a flyer in this league campaign where, in such a tight division, every result gained will be vital. Next up it’s the visit of in-form Tyrone who will, no doubt, provide a sterner test than that offered by what was, in truth, a very mediocre Kerry outfit today.
Mayo: David Clarke; Shane McHale, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Tom Cunniffe, Colm Boyle, Chris Barrett; Aidan O’Shea, Seamus O’Shea; Lee Keegan, Richie Feeney (0-1), Cathal Freeman; Kevin McLoughlin (0-3, two frees), Jason Doherty (0-6, five frees), Michael Conroy (0-3). Subs: Alan Freeman for Cathal Freeman, Barry Moran for Seamus O’Shea, Jason Gibbons for Aidan O’Shea (blood sub), Enda Varley (0-2) for Feeney.