Up until today we’d never won a qualifier match played on the opposition’s home patch. It was, then, wholly appropriate that a venue close to so many Mayo supporters’ hearts should be the location where we broke that particular duck.
Cusack Park, Ennis, looked resplendent in the bright warm sunshine today. The pitch was a green, sun-kissed carpet and, packed to the rafters, the atmosphere inside the ground was one to be savoured. I know the back door wasn’t our favoured route this year but it would have been hard to beat today’s location for an all-or-nothing championship fixture.
We made our customary few switches to the named side ahead of throw-in. Tom Parsons didn’t start – due to a stomach bug, it was later confirmed – with Keith Higgins lining out instead. Neither did Fergal Boland, the Aghamore tyro replaced by the evergreen Andy Moran.
We were forced into an early substitution too. After we’d opened the scoring, a point from Andy at the end of a slick move that started with the throw-in, Donal Vaughan hauled down the in-rushing Gary Brennan and the Ballinrobe was gone on a black card with just two minutes played. Stephen Coen was roused from the bench to replace him.
I’m not sure if it was the card or whatever but within minutes it was obvious that we were looking distinctly out of sorts. Clare ran the ball repeatedly at speed, attack after attack yielding scores for them. By the end of the first quarter we were six points to one in arrears and labouring hugely.
It wasn’t as if we were being overrun, as we’d seen plenty of ball in that period ourselves. In contrast to the Banner lads,though, our play into the forward line was unsure and forever that bit off the mark. Time and again, a Clare hand got to the ball first and we seemed determined to eschew the easy option, going instead for more ambitious passes that were never really on.
So, we were in a bit of a hole. It would have been a bigger one, had David Clarke – making his 100th appearance for the county today – not pulled off his umpteenth goal-preventing save of the year after our backline had been scythed through. The enormous Mayo crowd – who comfortably outnumbered the home support at Cusack Park – began to get a tad restless.
But then we stirred ourselves. Points from Kevin McLoughlin, Diarmuid O’Connor –a goal attempt that the Clare ‘keeper deflected over – and Lee Keegan cut the gap to two. Clare stretched the lead back out to four but we came strongly again before the break, two points for Andy Moran – one that could really have been a goal attempt – leaving us two adrift at the half-way mark.
Conflicting thoughts swirled around my head at that stage. We’d played muck for most of the first half but were only two points down. Would we – could we? – up it in the second half? Had Clare used up too much gas in that heat over the opening 35 minutes? Plenty of questions but the strong way we’d finished that opening period hinted that we were coming to grips with this lively and hard-running Clare side.
From the restart, though, the cadence of this contest altered enormously. As we’d done in the first half, we scored a point – this one fired over by Kevin McLoughlin – right from the throw-in but that was the sole piece of commonality between the two halves from our point of view.
In short, we blew them out of the water. Kevin McLoughlin – who was little short of sensational after the break – was central to our second half surge and so too was Aidan O’Shea, as we secured aerial superiority around the middle and drove at them with serious intent.
The two goals were the main reason why we put this match to bed in short order in the second half. The first came less than ten minutes after the resumption when Conor Loftus – reprising what he’d done in the U21 All-Ireland final last year – intercepted Clare’s kick-out and quickly fed Cillian O’Connor who blasted to the net.
Soon after, a move prompted by Chris Barrett – who was also excellent today – and also involving Kevin Mc saw quick hands by Cillian O’Connor releasing kid brother Diarmuid who smashed home our second major of the afternoon.
That, in truth, was that. From there to the finish we controlled the game’s tempo completely, adding further points and only conceding the odd stray score at the other end.
The major talking point from there on was the penalty that wasn’t given to Clare. I’d need to see it again but I certainly thought it was a spot-kick and a penalty goal then would certainly have made for a more interesting final quarter.
As it was, the contest petered out tamely enough, a wholly unnecessary schemozzle somewhat spoiling the bonhomie late on. The set-to looked very much six of one and half of the other but Seán Hurson decided to go rogue in the black card department, issued a few black ones for what patently weren’t offences on the specified list. Brendan Harrison was among those who walked, reducing us to fourteen for the final few minutes.
We won with a fair bit to spare at the finish, marking the game down as a veritable match of two halves from our point of view. Maybe in retrospect how the game played out shouldn’t have been a huge surprise. Clare started all their matches this summer very well but finished all of them poorly. Today was no exception in this respect.
That closing spell in the first half was, for sure, the key turning point today. We reeled the home side in over the course of that second quarter – outscoring them by five points to two – thus giving us the perfect platform to go for the jugular after the break.
Central to our eventual victory today were the strong shifts put in by Kevin McLoughlin (my Man of the Match), Aidan O’Shea, Chris Barrett, David Clarke, Keith Higgins, Brendan Harrison and Andy Moran. It was, though, a real team effort today. When push came to shove, this team showed they had the will and the guile to forge what was in the end a decisive enough victory.
So on we go. Onto Round 4A, where we’ll play either Cork – for sure if Galway lose tomorrow – or Roscommon (if they go down tomorrow) in two weeks time.
In the world of the qualifiers, we now have the luxury of a two-week gap before we go into battle again – though, from my perspective, this’ll be one I’ll be following from afar – this coming hurdle the final one before a potential All-Ireland quarter-final tie. We’re not back at the business end of the championship just yet but after today’s win, built on that strong second half surge, Croke Park is once again starting to swing into view for us.
Mayo: David Clarke; Brendan Harrison, Ger Cafferkey, Chris Barrett; Lee Keegan (0-1), Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan; Seamus O’Shea, Keith Higgins (0-1); Andy Moran (0-3), Aidan O’Shea (0-1), Diarmuid O’Connor (1-1); Kevin McLoughlin (0-2), Cillian O’Connor (1-5, five frees), Conor Loftus. Subs: Stephen Coen for Vaughan (black card), Evan Regan for Loftus, Jason Doherty for Moran, Tom Parsons for Seamus O’Shea, Fergal Boland for Diarmuid O’Connor, Alan Dillon for Aidan O’Shea.
Man of the Match poll:
Who was our MOTM against Clare?
- Aidan O'Shea (45%, 386 Votes)
- Kevin McLoughlin (35%, 302 Votes)
- Andy Moran (4%, 36 Votes)
- David Clarke (3%, 28 Votes)
- Brendan Harrison (3%, 28 Votes)
- Chris Barrett (3%, 24 Votes)
- Conor Loftus (1%, 10 Votes)
- Keith Higgins (1%, 9 Votes)
- Cillian O'Connor (1%, 8 Votes)
- Alan Dillon (1%, 7 Votes)
- Diarmuid O'Connor (1%, 7 Votes)
- Stephen Coen (1%, 6 Votes)
- Donal Vaughan (1%, 5 Votes)
- Seamus O'Shea (0%, 3 Votes)
- Lee Keegan (0%, 2 Votes)
- Evan Regan (0%, 2 Votes)
- Colm Boyle (0%, 2 Votes)
- Jason Doherty (0%, 1 Votes)
- Tom Parsons (0%, 0 Votes)
- Fergal Boland (0%, 0 Votes)
- Ger Cafferkey (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 866