There was a point midway through the second half of today’s National League opener with Kerry when it looked as if we were in a bit of bother. Our six-point half-time lead had been cut in half, substitute Tommy Walsh was winning everything at midfield and we were being pegged back into our own half. But then we finally got the ball into the danger zone at their end and within seconds a screaming shot from Kevin McLoughlin had the ball in the net and the match was won.
What was most satisfying about today’s seven-point win was how much we looked in control of proceedings once we’d hit the front through Alan Freeman’s excellent goal 25 minutes in. That ten-minute period of Kerry ascendancy in the second half aside, we had a comfortable and confident demeanour for long stretches and we never really looked liked losing.
It was also good to see the lads getting well stuck in and taking no crap from a side that crossed the line repeatedly between tackling and fouling today. Maurice Deegan is, as we all know, a useless ref and he did nothing to stop the home side’s rugby league approach to tackling. We stood up well to this, however, kept the ball moving and kept our heads too.
Watching a match on TV has several disadvantages but one of the plus points is that you get a good chance to get a proper view of noteworthy incidents. As soon as the replays showed the way that Evan Regan hit the ground neck first, after what should have been a harmless aerial collision with Johnny Buckley, it was obvious that he’d done damage.
It’s since been confirmed that the unfortunate Ballina man is being treated for a suspected broken collarbone as well as concussion. Hopefully this won’t keep him out of action for too long but the important thing now is that he recovers fully. Get well soon, Evan.
The injury, and the long break in play necessitated by it, maybe explains why this contest took so long to get going properly. We still had only one point on the board at the 20-minute mark – a nice one from play from the now departed Evan Regan – and when Kerry got their third score of the day the first hint of alarm started to sound from our ranks.
Those feelings were quelled in short order, though, when we finally began to motor as the second quarter progressed. A long-range Jason Doherty free started it and then Alan Freeman, showing superb aggression and a single-minded focus on goal, burst in from the end-line, made space for the shot and proceeded to rattle the net.
We didn’t sit back and admire the lead we now had either. A storming upfield burst from Keith Higgins created an opening for Michael Conroy – who’d replaced Evan Regan – to fire over from well out. Donal Vaughan then knocked a trademark boomer over to stretch the lead to five.
Keane got one back for them but we kept the pressure on from then till the break, with another Jason Doc free and two nice points from play by Mickey C giving us a six-point lead at the interval.
Kerry needed to do something in the second half and that something was to bring the returned Tommy Walsh into the side at midfield. He had an immediate impact, winning primary possession several times around the middle and feeding his frontline a healthy diet of ball.
We’d got the opening score after the break – a fine point on the run by Seamus O’Shea – but then they hit four without reply and our nice big comfortable lead no longer looked all that big or all that comfy either.
The arrival of Aidan O’Shea into the fray was, however, a major boost for us just when we needed it. He got well stuck in straight away – the Kerry lads swinging out of him with impunity as they’d done down in Limerick last August – and the home side’s hold on midfield was never the same once the Big Dawg was on the scene.
Shortly after Aidan’s introduction came the score that swung the contest sharply back in our favour. Aidan instigated the move, lofting a free into Mark Ronaldson who offloaded sharpish to the in-running Kevin McLoughlin who buried it.
From then on, we looked increasingly comfortable, especially at the back where we never looked remotely like conceding a goal. On the edge of the square Kevin Keane was putting in a performance which earned him the TG4 Man of the Match award, but the whole backline looked solid and uncompromising.
We kept the scores ticking over too, with Jason – a really strong performer for us today – knocking over another free and Mickey C – who put in a livewire showing, finishing the day on four points – adding points as the contest began to peter out. Our final score of the day was pretty special – Keith started it with a sudden dart upfield and sub Diarmuid O’Connor finished it, guiding over a sublime score with the outside of the boot.
I wasn’t at Fitzgerald Stadium today and so can’t really say too much about individual performances. Players who caught my eye on TV included Kevin Keane, Keith Higgins, Patrick Durcan (who had an excellent inter-county debut – this is a young man we’ll be seeing a lot more of), Seamus O’Shea, Kevin McLoughlin, Jason Doherty, Alan Freeman, Mickey Conroy and Aidan O’Shea.
It was, all told, a fine team performance and an encouraging start to the new Holmes/Connelly era. A loss wouldn’t have been a disaster but it’s definitely far nicer to finish the day at the top of Division One, with our first ever win over the Yerras in Killarney in the back pocket. And I think we’ll keep those nice new jerseys too.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Stephen Coen, Kevin Keane, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Chris Barrett, Patrick Durcan; Seamus O’Shea (0-1), Donal Vaughan (0-1); Kevin McLoughlin (1-0), Adam Gallagher, Jason Doherty (0-3, two frees); Evan Regan (0-1), Alan Freeman (1-0), Mark Ronaldson. Subs: Michael Conroy (0-4) for Regan (blood), Diarmuid O’Connor for Gallagher, Aidan O’Shea for Freeman, Mikey Sweeney for Conroy, Colm Boyle for Barrett, Enda Varley for Ronaldson, Barry Moran for Seamus O’Shea.