It was a perfect border raid by the Sheepstealers. They turned up early, grabbed all the best parking spaces, bought up all of the programmes on offer and then made the little stand at the Ballyhaunis GAA ground their own (a bit like Ballaghaderreen in reverse, I suppose they could argue). Then they proceeded to dominate the opening half of this FBD League clash utterly and would have had it won by half-time had not a clear-cut second goal chance come crashing back off the Mayo crossbar in the final move of the opening half. Pushed back on the defensive with the wind and sleet driving into their faces in the second half, they lost most of that seven-point half-time lead but then, with ten minutes or so to go, they upped the pace again and did just enough to prevail by the minimum margin.
Driving down from Dublin beforehand, I began to question my sanity as I approached the M4 toll plaza, with the low sky having turned a very threatening shade of grey from which rain and sleet were spilling in abundance. The fields on both sides of the motorway were spotted in snow and the motorway itself was edged with a sleety, icy sludge. The sensible thing to do would undoubtedly have been to turn tail and head back to Dublin. But then I thought about having to tune in to Madwest and the prospect of listening to match reports interspersed with music from the likes of Dr Hook and Hot Chocolate. That did it: I kept the car pointed west and put the foot a bit further down.
Although I made good time on the way down, the ball had already been thrown in by the time PJ and myself made it into the well-appointed pitch at Ballyhaunis. It’s years since I was last at a match there and I was well impressed with the look of the place, as they’ve obviously spent a bucket on it, what with their shiny new clubhouse, the enclosure around the pitch and the stand. It was just a pity that the Rossies had claimed it as their own by then.
In all fairness (as the Kerrymen are wont to say), there was no rain to shelter from in the opening half. Instead, what we had to cope with was witnessing one-way traffic in our direction for most of the initial half-hour. The Sheepstealers – who went into the game with a greater incentive to win, given that a win would earn them an FBD League final place whereas the match was a dead rubber for us – were already a point up by the time we had paid in at the gate and they quickly added two more, one a free and the other from play.
Worse was to follow soon after when Roscommon were awarded a free forty or so yards out and the ball was lashed in Route One style to Senan Kilbride who easily outfielded full-back Liam O’Malley before thumping the ball into the net. David Clarke, who had earlier made a super one-on-one save, hadn’t a hope in hell of stopping that one and so we found ourselves six points adrift on the kind of a day where it was clear that a two-goal deficit would be difficult to claw back.
Not that we were getting too many chances to claw anything back. Roscommon owned the middle third and, with BJ and Barry Kelly labouring badly at midfield, we were failing to motor at all. Karol Mannion made it look easy by booming over a monster point for the Rossies and in their next attack just after, the visitors carved open our backline to notch another point from play and stretch their lead to eight points. Little wonder Johnno and Kieran Gallagher were looking so pensive on the sideline across from us.
All of 27 minutes had passed before we finally opened our account, with Trevor Mortimer (who lined out instead of Austie but operated in a more withdrawn role, i.e. even further out than Austie tends to wander) swinging over this nice score from play, following some good work by Pat Kelly. Roscommon had a let-off just after this score when Mikey Sweeney (at least I think it was him) blasted wide but we had two let-offs of our own in those dying minutes of the first half. As already mentioned, Roscommon rattled our crossbar right at the death when it looked easier to score what would have been a killer goal but before then both Colm Cafferkey, who played okay in that torrid opening period, and Aidan Kilcoyne were both black booked for fouls that another ref might have deemed worthy of a yellow card. The ref (dunno who he was – I couldn’t get a programme) showed some common sense, I thought, in how he applied the rules, though having said that he did repeatedly stop the play for minor technical infractions that had more to do with the weather than anything else.
As it turned out, a yellow card for Killer wouldn’t have made much difference as the Knockmore man didn’t reappear after the break and he was replaced by Jason Doherty, with Colm Boyle giving way to David Caffrey at the same time. The Sheepstealers must have been all snug and cosy in the dressing room because it took a few sharp blasts of the ref’s whistle to get them to come out for the second half, while our lads stood around getting their nuts frozen off. Don’t you just hate that kind of psychological stuff?
We needed a few quick scores to make a game of it and this early free from Alan Dillon was just what the doctor ordered. A neat, quick move soon after put Mikey Sweeney through for a point from play and then Alan Dillon played in sub Jason Doherty for a fine goal to leave just two points between the teams. Game on again.
By now, a mixture of rain and sleet had begun to fall in earnest, with the wind – which was right at our lads’ backs – picking up too and it was no surprise that the match began to degenerate into a messy error-ridden affair. We made a few attempts to make the wind do the work for us but an effort at a point from well out by Mikey Sweeney sailed wide. The Sheepstealers – who, like us in the first half, were finding it difficult to make any headway going forward – then lifted the siege but Clarkie made two fine saves in quick succession to keep them out.
Barry Regan then broke through for this point from play to leave just a point between the sides with around ten minutes to go. With the conditions in our favour and the momentum behind us, we looked likelier to prevail at this stage but the Rossies soon showed that they had other plans. Their number seven, Purcell from Boyle I was told he’s called, drove forward and landed a hard-won point from play to give the visitors a bit of breathing space. Jason Doherty then popped over a nice one from play for us and just after that the Roscommon full-back, who’d earlier been black booked, was yellow carded for what was clearly a foul of the highly disruptive variety.
From the resultant free, however, we contrived to lose the game. Instead of lofting it into the wind, Dillon went short, the ball got turned over and Roscommon drove upfield to score their final point of the day to edge them two in front once more. Dillon did make amends soon after with this free but we were still one behind as the game went into injury time. Our lads made one final attempt to force an equaliser but instead this happened and so the Rossies held out to secure what we were surmising afterwards was their first competitive win over us since the 2001 Connacht final (unless, of course, they beat us since then in the FBD – I don’t think they did but I could be wrong).
Despite the result, I was glad I’d made the trip today. The thermals worked a treat and the new camera kept me amused too, even if I thought I was going to get frostbite in my fingers during the second half. And I didn’t have to listen to Dr Hook or Hot Chocolate either. Given that (a) it’s still only January, (b) the weather was atrocious, (c) we had little to play for and (d) the team was, to some degree, thrown together, I wouldn’t be too harsh about our performance today. Of the lads that’d be classified as fringe players, I thought that Stephen Drake, Colm Cafferkey and second half sub Jason Doherty (who bagged 1-1 from play) did best but, on today’s evidence at least, I’d say we’re likely to see plenty of familiar faces when the team trots out in Ballina to face Derry in our opening NFL encounter in a fortnight’s time.
MAYO: David Clarke; Stephen Drake, Liam O’Malley, Colm Cafferkey; Sean Prendergast, Pat Kelly, Colm Boyle; BJ Padden, Barry Kelly; Aidan Kilcoyne, Brian Gallagher, Alan Dillon (0-2, frees); Mikey Sweeney (0-1), Barry Regan (0-1), Trevor Mortimer (0-1). Subs: Jason Doherty (1-1) for Kilcoyne, David Caffrey for Boyle (both half-time).