If the third year of Johnno’s Second Coming is to prove any more successful than the two underwhelming ones we’ve just had, his charges are going to have to improve a fair bit on how they played today in the county’s opening NFL Division 1 clash at Ballina. Facing an understrength Derry at a venue where opponents have traditionally found it difficult to get results, our lads showed brief, frustrating flickers of promise but ultimately they lost their way in what was always an eminently winnable match and the league champions, who themselves were finding it difficult to locate the posts, eventually did enough to secure the points on a bitterly cold afternoon.
That Derry managed to do so in a match where they lost four players to yellow cards – all deserved, under the new rules, it must be said – whereas we suffered no such disadvantage, says something about the Oak Leafers’ strength in depth or, perhaps, it could suggest something about our deficiencies in this same regard. The contrast between the teams in their basic will to win was also, I thought, notable: God knows, we owed them one at this stage but there didn’t seem to be any real fire in our bellies to correct the record of the past two years. Instead, when the match was in the melting pot, it was the visitors who showed they had the keener desire to take the two league points on offer. And take them they duly did.
It was a long drive down from Dublin to Ballina for the game but the day was clear and the view of the cold, winter light on the Ox Mountains as they gently tapered out just the other side of Foxford was one that made the journey worthwhile. We took a chance coming right in past the ground to see if we could find a handy parking space – PJ’s antennae are very good in this regard – and our luck was in. We dumped the car and dashed towards the Showgrounds but the ball was being thrown in as we were negotiating our way through the gate – where my Club Mayo Dublin card got the respect it deserved – and Andy Moran had our first point on the board before we had got our first view of the pitch.
No sooner had we settled on a vantage point on a little hillock the far side of the dressing rooms than Tom Parsons broke clean through the middle and smacked over our second point from play with less than five minutes on the clock. It was a good, bright opening and a super catch from Barry Moran gave us cause to hope that we might have seen the last of the high ball into the small man inside for a while. Sadly, Barry wasn’t able to do much with the ball once he’d got it and this wasn’t to be the only time that happened over the course of the afternoon.
The visitors soon started to rouse themselves, though, and Ger Cafferkey got skinned by his man, conceding the free from which the Oak Leafers opened their account. Two more points from play followed quickly as the Nordies edged in front but they then suffered a blow when Barry McGuigan was sent to the line on a yellow card. Alan Dillon pointed the resultant free but Andy Moran then hit a bad wide for us before another free at the other end restored Derry’s one point advantage on 17 minutes. Soon after, it was Patsy Bradley’s turn to head for the dug-out on a yellow and, once more, Alan Dillon added insult to injury by pointing the free arising from the incident.
Mikey Sweeney, who started out looking lively and threatening, then hit a wide but soon after Andy Moran stunned us all by nonchalently lofting over a ‘45’ to put us a point up. (He tried this again a bit later in the half but, this time, his effort sailed wide). They got another from play but another Dillon free restored our slender advantage once more. The same player then hit a poor wide when electing to shoot from well beyond his range.
Derry’s problems deepened as the first half was coming to a close, with corner-back Brian McAlary picking up his second black booking. In this brave new disciplinary world, two blacks equal yellow and so the Derry debutant had to leave the stage. We could have done with turning the screw on them at this point but instead Tom Parsons hacked another bad wide for us, our fifth in all in that opening period. We went in a point to the good but we’d had the wind behind us and we knew we should have made it count to greater effect.
Alan Dillon switched with Trevor (who had had a poor first half) at the start of the second period and, after an early Derry wide, Peadar Gardiner waltzed through the middle for the easiest of points. A bit too easy, in fact, as the defence was opening up for him and the Crossmolina man should have probably kept going for the goal.
Derry soon had us pinned back but tigerish defending in our full-back line (all three of whom did well all day) forced the Nordies into sub-optimal shot selection, yielding two wides. It was no surprise, then, to see our old nemesis Paddy Bradley jogging on to replace his namesake Seamus in the Derry full-forward line.
A point from play for them from way out finally gave the visitors some reward and soon after that, they broke through for the game’s only goal. For my money – and I was (a) a biased observer and (b) on the terrace behind the opposite goal – it shouldn’t have stood. Paddy Bradley clearly nudged his man (I’m not 100% sure who this was – I think maybe Liam O’Malley) out of his way before palming the ball into the path of corner-forward James Kielty, who slotted it under David Clarke. The ref – Maurice Deegan from Laois – was poor enough, I thought, but until then was only so in a part-dopey, part-fussy kind of way. This was the one big call he got wrong and it probably cost us the game.
We still, however, had loads of time to rescue the match and the crowd began to rouse themselves a bit after the Derry goal, urging the lads on, but, out on the field, we seemed to be losing our shape and squandering possession in the middle third. Another wide from Dillon kept us on the back foot and then the changes started, with Conor coming on for BJP and, oddly, Pat Harte replacing Tom Parsons. A few minutes later, Trevor Mort gave way to Aidan O’Shea.
Conor’s impact was immediate – the first time he got on the ball, he was pulled down, his opponent got black-booked (this should have been another yellow but the ref was obviously tiring of sending off Derrymen at this stage) and the Shrule-Glencorrib man fired over the free himself. With fifteen minutes to go, Ronan McGarritty knocked over a fine point from play to haul us level and when we kept them out at the other end with some real committed and disciplined defending, it began to look like we would prevail.
But, time and again, we coughed up cheap ball around the middle and they continued to hold and move the ball with far greater confidence than we did, creating chance after chance. They squandered two good scoring chances before getting a point from play to go one up with ten minutes left to play. We then broke downfield in a move that ended in another foul on Mort and Derry’s fourth yellow card of the day. However, Mort screwed his free badly wide and two minutes later Derry pumped over another from play from well out to stretch their lead to two. A minute further on and the gap was extended to three with another fine effort from play.
They even had time for another wide – their seventh of the half – before we launched a last-ditch effort to save the match. Time was up when Alan Dillon put this free wide and it was even more up when Mort put this free over. We never looked like getting the goal we needed to pull the fat from the fire at the end and, truth be told, we wouldn’t have deserved to either.
Overall, it was a poor enough performance. Although we could and should have gone in more than a point in front at the end of the first half, were it not for Derry’s inability to convert their many chances in that depressing second half, we would have lost by a far bigger margin. Sure, the decision on the goal was annoying but we can’t really blame the ref for this loss (although I think I already have earlier in this report). In the cold light of day (and the light was cold, bloody cold in fact, today) we came up two points short in a match where seasoned performers like Mort and Dillon both missed frees from within 25 yards of the posts when the pressure was on to produce the goods.
We hadn’t too many stars out there on the field today but the full-back line – a constant problem for us over the past two years – did okay and that has to provide some encouragement for the future. We weren’t as sound in the half-backs – both Kelly and Gardiner on the wings were poor, I thought – and while Ronan McGarritty and Tom Parsons did okay in spots, it was in the middle sector where we continually fumbled the ball and allowed Derry to hoover up every loose ball going.
The forwards were, I felt, almost uniformly poor. BJ was operating around the middle to little real effect, while Trevor uncharacteristically failed to get stuck in at all. It was no surprise to see both of them taken off before the end. Alan Dillon did okay from frees but his shot selection from play was poor and he showed little in the way of attacking menace. Andy Moran and Mikey Sweeney both faded after bright openings and Barry Moran failed to use his height to cause the kind of problems he really should have been able to. It was only when Conor came on that we looked to have any bite to our attack but even he has had far better days. I would have like to have seen Barry Regan pitched in at some point but, according to the programme, he wasn’t even on the bench.
Over the past two years, we’ve developed the very unhappy knack of blowing winnable matches and today’s loss is another one to add to the list. While it would be unfair to be overly pessimistic about our chances for this year based on this one showing, it is reasonable for us to expect to see considerable more urgency and will to win from the lads wearing the green and red. It is equally reasonable, I reckon, that we should start seeing evidence of this hunger soon. Next up in the NFL is Donegal, another Ulster county with whom we have a score to settle, so this would be the perfect place to start.
MAYO: David Clarke; Liam O’Malley, Ger Cafferkey, Donal Vaughan; Peadar Gardiner (0-1), Tom Cunniffe, Pat Kelly; Tom Parsons (0-1), Ronan McGarritty (0-1); Billy Joe Padden, Trevor Mortimer, Alan Dillon (0-3, frees); Andy Moran (0-2, one ‘45’), Barry Moran, Mikey Sweeney. Subs: Conor Mortimer (0-2, frees) for Padden, Pat Harte for Parsons, Aidan O’Shea for Trevor Mortimer, Mark Ronaldson for Sweeney.
PS: There’s some kind of problem with YouTube tonight – it seems to be moving at an even slower pace than these so-called “National Recovery Talks” – and so some video clips referred to in the text above haven’t yet made it to upload land (a case of the pen being mightier than the video clip). With the time rapidly approaching midnight, I think it’s safe to conclude that it’ll be tomorrow before the clips get to where they need to go.