Figure that one out if you can! After a hapless, hopeless first half performance in this afternoon’s NFL Division 1 clash with Donegal that saw us go into the break at Letterkenny all of nine points adrift and facing down the barrel of a total hammering, the lads produced the best thirty five minutes seen by a Mayo team in quite a while to snatch the unlikeliest of draws. It was impossible to take any positives from that dreadful first half showing and at that juncture I was thankful that I hadn’t undertaken the long drive from Dublin to see it for myself. By full-time, however, I was kicking myself for having missed Mayo’s finest comeback since the one that saw us stun the Dubs in 2006. That’s football for you.
I followed the game on Madwest over the internet from here in Dublin and the Mike and Billy Show was as good as you could get short of being at the match itself. (In the process, I also discovered something interesting about the streaming version of Madwest which I’ll return to anon). It also gave me the opportunity to provide regular updates via Twitter which, in the language of the civil service, will now serve me as an aide memoire in doing up this match report.
Oh yes, the match. It was certainly the proverbial game of two halves, wasn’t it? The first period was unexpurgated car crash stuff from our perspective, with the team showing the same lifeless approach that caused the raising of so many eyebrows down in Ballina the Sunday before last. The Donegal lads obviously got a sniff of this and, with 1-1 on the board inside 90 seconds, they were already on their way before most of our lads had even seen the ball.
We battled back from this early thunderbolt, though, with Conor registering our first point from a free after Andy Moran had been fouled. Although he missed a second free from out on the left after Andy had been illegally stopped for a second time and then Peadar Gardiner registered a wide – from an effort that Mike Finnerty described as “neither a shot nor a pass” – Mort soon after pointed a second free, following a foul on himself.
Our next attack yielded our first score from play, a move initiated by Donal Vaughan – who’d switched places with Pat Kelly before the throw-in – and he lofted the ball into Barry Moran. The big Mitchels man fed Mort who popped it over for his third of the day.
Things were looking okay at this point: we’d recovered well from that early goal and seemed to be taking the battle to the Herrin Gutters. But then we got carved open again at the back with Michael Murphy leaving the hapless Liam O’Malley for dead for a second time to register his second green flag of the afternoon. Ciaran Bonner then got Donegal’s first point from play to send the home side five points clear after 16 minutes.
But again we battled back, with Alan Dillon pointing a free after he’d been fouled and then Peadar Gardiner burst forward for a point, though the lads in the commentary box wondered if perhaps the Cross man might have gone on for the goal. Still, the gap was back to three after about twenty minutes, which wasn’t disastrous given we’d already shipped two goals at that early stage in the proceedings.
But the remaining fifteen minutes of the first half were little short of disastrous for us. We did, to be fair, have a goal chance from Donal Vaughan whose his effort was pushed out by the Donegal keeper but it was at the other end where most of the action was happening during this period. David Walsh pointed from play for them and Stephen Griffin added another from a free as the home side pulled five clear.
Alan Dillon then pulled up with an injury and had to be replaced by Barry Kelly. Ronan and Trevor were both lucky not to accompany the Ballintubber man into the dugout when both committed offences which sounded like yellow card jobs but John Bannon – an unpredictable individual at the best of times – decided that black bookings were enough for both infractions.
Charity was in short supply, however, from Donegal, with Eamon McGee and Ciaran Doherty pointing from play and Stephen Griffin adding another from a free as the O’Donnell County started to cut loose. And we started to lose the head, with Ronan and Trevor again courting yellow but, once again, Bannon decided to look the other way. Our first-half misery was completed when Ciaran Bonner took a pop from forty yards out and over it went to give Donegal a nine-point lead, 2-8 to 0-5, at the break.
It was obvious we needed to make changes at half-time but the first change we did make wasn’t all that obvious, with Pat Kelly coming off, Donal Vaughan dropping back into the corner (even though he’d impressed at half-back in the first half), Andy Moran moving to the half-backs (for the first time in over two years) and Mikey Sweeney coming on at top-of-the-left. I was delighted to hear that the young Kiltane man was being given his head again and, over the course of the next 35 minutes, he did an awful lot to stake a serious claim to the no.15 jersey from here on.
We needed to start the half well and we did this with BJP knocking over a point from play within a minute of the throw-in, the assist coming from Mikey Sweeney. Almost immediately, however, Donegal had the chance to kill the game as a contest as they once again carved open our backline and had Neil Gallagher opted to take his goal chance himself when in a one-on-one with David Clarke, it would surely have been curtains for us. However, the big midfielder opted to play in Michael Murphy and although the latter put the ball in the net, the goal was ruled out for a square ball infringement. It was the luckiest of let-offs for us.
Pat Harte then replaced BJ and the Belmullet man was apparently none too pleased at being taken off. He was right to be annoyed too, as he’d scored for us just before that but BJ has been continually fucked around with over the course of his inter-county career, all the time being shifted around and hauled off when he should just be left to do his stuff at half-forward. It was correct, to be sure, to bring on Pat Harte – he put in what Madwest adjudged to be a MOTM display in the half-hour he was on – but Trevor or Ronan could and perhaps should have gone instead, not least because both were already in the book by then.
Ten minutes into the second half, we fell nine points down again with Stephen Griffin pointing another free for Donegal. This prompted our third change of the day, with Tom Parsons – who, once again, had been under-par for us at midfield– coming off, Pat Harte switching to midfield and Mark Ronaldson coming in at wing-forward. The new man was immediately in the thick of it, feeding the ball into Barry Moran who set up Conor for a goal chance that was blocked by a thicket of defenders. Mort was soon away again and this time he got pulled down close in, making the resultant pointed free a formality.
There was now a flicker of hope that we might emerge from this contest with at least some of our pride intact but these modest hopes soon gave way to more expansive dreams about how the match might end up as we finally broke through for a deserved goal. And it sounded like a good one too, with the move started by centre-back Tom Cunniffe, whose high ball found Barry Moran and the big man’s knock-down went to Vaughan who fed Ronaldson who, in turn, played it back to Moran for the goal. Mikey Sweeney then added the sweetest of points just after, cutting inside his man and letting fly from distance. Suddenly, with all of 20 minutes left to play, we were only four adrift.
The momentum was clearly now with us and we should have had a second goal a few minutes after the first one. Ronan fielded the ball and then released Trevor whose thunderous shot hit the crossbar and flew over. Now the gap was down to three but Stephen Griffin’s fifth pointed free at the other end stretched it to four once more. Our hopes of taking something from the game were further undermined just after when Ronan – who would have walked in the first half had Bannon interpreted the new rules correctly – finally saw yellow but, as we shall see, his replacement, Ciaran Conroy, ended up having the final say as to the game’s outcome.
Donegal were back on the attack again but, following a schemozzle of some sorts in the square, were, according to Mike and Billy, denied a cast-iron penalty. A third goal for them would clearly have ended our fightback but instead we were still in the hunt with ten minutes to go. Five minutes later, however, we were still four points down and it looked as if the fightback was going to be a case of too little, too late. But Barry Moran then plucked yet another ball from the sky and drove this one over. Conor added another from a free and so, with time running out, we were just two points adrift.
Donegal then shot two wides but, with the clock running down, these efforts looked to be as good as points for them. However, as the match went into added time our lads poured forward in a final push for some tangible reward in return for our stirring second half performance. With 30 seconds of the additional time left, Conor swung over his sixth point of the day, this one from play but we still needed another for a share of the spoils. Cometh the hour, cometh the unlikely hero in the shape of Shrule-Glencorrib’s Ciaran Conroy, who snatched the equalising point with virtually the last kick of the game.
And this was where I discovered that odd thing about Madwest’s streamed coverage: it runs about two or three minutes behind real life. I realised this when I got a flood of texts about the match ending in a draw when, according to what I was hearing over the internet, we were still two points down. Needless to say, this made me enjoy those last two scores for us all the more.
It was, by any standards, an astonishing comeback by the lads today. While there will be – and rightly so – plenty of focus in the week ahead on how we got into the mess in the first place, it was truly heartening to see (well, in my case, to hear about) the lads getting stuck in and playing with some conviction, something we haven’t seen them do for far too long. It is only the league so it goes without saying that the quality of that second half performance is what was important about today, not the result of the game.
It’s instructive, I think, that it was a starting fifteen which many of us would have regarded as our strongest team that failed utterly to get motoring today, while it was those players who were thrown into the fray, as well as old reliables like Mort, that eventually pulled the result from the wreckage. This means – at least I think this is what it means – that we (and by ‘we’ I’m including the lads on the sideline too) don’t have the first idea what our best team is right now. If this is the case – and I think it is – then it’s probably no bad thing because it offers us the hope that we can now (unlike the last two years) start to build the team around those players who are showing good form and not around those whose reputations seems always to ensure them a starting place.
In this regard, I think it’s possibly significant that Alan Dillon wasn’t missed, that our comeback didn’t falter when Ronan made one bone-headed challenge too many and that our full-forward line looked better with Andy Moran out of it. Pat Harte will definitely start the next day (work permitting, though, I suppose), as will Mikey Sweeney and Mark Ronaldson. Ciaran Conroy will be pushing for a place too and should probably be given his chance in midfield, given his ultimately telling contribution today.
The backline clearly needs some adjustment, with both corner-back positions still a major problem. After a few bright performances, Liam O’Malley had another poor showing today and, if he’s fit the next day, it’s got to be time for Kevin McLoughlin to be given a run in this position, probably with Donal Vaughan in the other corner.
I think we learned quite a lot from today’s game but this will only prove of use to us if what’s we’ve learned from the game is put to good use in terms of future team selections. Next up is a home match against Westmeath, a match we’d ordinarily be confident of winning and which today’s second half team should be able to handle without too much bother. After today’s performance, Johnno has to perform surgery on his starting fifteen and if he does this carefully, we may at last see him edging towards having a Mayo team that will be capable of holding its own when it really matters. To have such hopes on a day that saw us almost beaten out the gate by half-time is certainly strange but, in the final analysis, it seems to have been a strange kind of day up in Letterkenny today.
MAYO: David Clarke; Liam O’Malley, Ger Cafferkey, Donal Vaughan; Peadar Gardiner (0-1), Tom Cunniffe, Pat Kelly; Tom Parsons, Ronan McGarritty; Billy Joe Padden (0-1), Trevor Mortimer (0-1), Alan Dillon (0-1, free); Conor Mortimer (0-6, four frees), Barry Moran (1-1), Andy Moran. Subs: Barry Kelly for Dillon, Mikey Sweeney (0-1) for Kelly, Pat Harte for Padden, Mark Ronaldson for Parsons, Ciaran Conroy (0-1) for McGarritty (yellow card).