Double scores it may have been in the end but today’s comfortable 1-13 to 0-8 win over Westmeath in Division 1 of the NFL won’t, I reckon, be one that’ll lead to too many hangovers down in the Yew County tomorrow morning. I couldn’t make it to Fr O’Hara Park in Charlestown this afternoon (here I am, furiously waving my sick-note as I write this) but I’ll wager a guess that there wasn’t any pitch invasion after today’s match. Apart from anything else, it would have been too bloody cold – The Brother spoke lyrically of the snow-capped Ox Mountains when we conferred on progress at half-time – but most of those in the 1,760 attendance today will have known that all we’d done was achieved a handy win in a match where defeat was almost unimaginable against very limited opposition.
But we did win and win well too, scoring 1-13 on a dirty, cold, showery and windy day and it is perhaps noteworthy that 1-10 of that total came from play. Although we were missing a number of regulars, we put in what sounded like our best performance to date in this year NFL, with the backs far, far tighter than they were against Ulster opposition in the first two games and where the forward division showed a sense of real purpose, despite missing the services of the likes of Barry Moran, Alan Dillon (who made the briefest of cameo appearances right at the end), Pat Harte or Billy Joe Padden.
It helped, of course, that Westmeath were as poor as they were. The visitors were missing a number of established regulars – including their star turn, Dessie Dolan – and the indigent nature of their challenge was evidenced by the fact that full-forward Denis Glennon was the only regular inter-county senior forward they had on the field today. It’ll be different the next day, when the lads travel south to take on Kerry.
Although we won pulling up in the end, it was far from one-way traffic in the opening quarter. The first fifteen minutes were scoreless but the Lake County lads had started brightly enough, probing for the kind of opening that others have found all too frequently in our backline. A reshuffled backline it was too, with Ger Cafferkey failing an eleventh-hour fitness test, thus handing a senior debut to Knockmore’s Kevin McLoughlin. He lined out at left corner, with Donal Vaughan switching across to the angst-laden full-back slot.
Westmeath’s early initiative was rewarded when half-back Michael Ennis drove over a belter from 40 yards out to break the deadlock after quarter of an hour but a minute later a foul on Austie presented Conor Mortimer with an easy free, which he duly converted. Shortly afterwards, a loose pass forward by Tom Parsons led to Westmeath’s second point, this one from Denis Glennon, as the visitors broke quickly on the turnover.
Any doubts in the minds of those in the small crowd (which, at one point, Mike Finnerty on Midwest said was 99.9% Mayo, leading me to wonder what on earth happened to those 1,000 tickets that were apparently allocated to the Lake County) about how things were going to pan out were soon assuaged, however, as we now moved to take a decisive grip on the game. Westmeath failed to trouble the umpires again before the half-time whistle but our lads, in contrast, cut loose to bag 1-5 without reply during this period.
The goal started off this scoring glut, with Trevor – who had been black-booked after just two minutes – finishing soccer-style, having first seen his more traditional effort come thundering back off the crossbar into Conor’s path. The younger Mort tried to palm the ball home but Westmeath’s All-Star keeper Gary Connaughton denied him only for the elder Mort to tuck away the second rebound.
The scores started to rain down after that (at half-time it would be the turn of the hailstones), with Mark Ronaldson, full of energetic running all day, pointing from play and Conor then making it three on the spin for the Shrule-Glencorrib boys by landing one from 30 yards out, following good work by Austie to set up the score. The four-in-a-row followed soon after when Conor pointed a close-in free but Mike and Billy were fuming that a foul in the small square seconds earlier on Mikey Sweeney hadn’t resulted in a penalty. While the ref, Clare’s Rory Hickey, did us no favours there, the foul by Barry Kelly a few minutes before then should – in The Brother’s view – have led to the Ballagh man’s dismissal on yellow.
Just before the break, a shot from Conor came back off the upright but Austie was well placed to gather it and stick it over and then, right on the short whistle, Ronaldson came barging upfield and fed Parsons who barged upfield some more and then, no doubt to some considerable personal glee, scored a point for his county on his own home ground for the first time at senior level.
With a 1-6 to 0-2 lead at half-time, the match was obviously as good as over at this stage. Westmeath had no trump cards on the bench and the way that our backs had so clearly tightened up since the Derry and Donegal games meant that the chances of the visitors breaking through for a soft goal were always going to be slim. This meant that the lads retook the field with the luxury of knowing that the points were almost certainly in the bag and that the main thing at issue was now going to be the margin of victory.
In such circumstances, refs can often lapse into a kind of ah-the-poor-feckers sympathy mode and start to give soft decisions to the lads facing the hammering or else come down a bit too hard on the team who are lording it. This could have been what led to Austie’s departure on yellow just two minutes after the restart when he tussled with his opposite number and ended up being ordered to the dugout. It could be that Austie pulled his man down – the lads on the radio weren’t 100% clear on the point – and, if so, under the new rules he was a goner. It was a pity, as he’d done okay in the first half but Austie’s problem was Aidan O’Shea’s opportunity, with the Breaffy youngster bounding from the dugout to take his place at full-forward.
The second half sounded fairly flat from what I heard on the radio: Mikey Sweeney got a point from play just after Austie went off, Westmeath then got their first score in about twenty minutes, then Peadar hared forward and exchanged passes with Parsons before firing over, then they got another one, then we got another one – Trevor ending a sweeping move to bag this point – and then they got two more, one from play by Michael Ennis and the second a free from Denis Glennon.
This meant that with a bit over ten minutes to play, they had outscored us by 0-4 to 0-3 in the second half and we didn’t seem all that bothered anymore. As well as this, Ronan had been black-booked for a careless foul of the kind that he appears to specialise in. While we weren’t in any danger of blowing the result, the gloss was certainly in danger of coming off the performance. A second point from play from Tom Parsons, however, restored our focus and we almost had a second goal soon after when Cunniffe put Ronaldson through but the Shrule-Glencorrib man scooped his shot over the bar.
With ten minutes to go, Johnno decided to empty the bench. First to appear was Aidan Kilcoyne, who replaced Mikey Sweeney, and the Knockmore man signalled his arrival by landing a pointed free within seconds of coming on. Next, Ronan was wisely withdrawn and Seamus O’Shea’s appearance had added significance as it meant that the two Breaffy brothers were lining out together for their county at senior level for the first time. It won’t be the last time this happens either, I’d say. Shortly before the final whistle, Alan Dillon got to see how his hamstring-cum-back problem was doing when he came on for Mark Ronaldson, with the latter going off to a loud round of applause following what Billy Fitz later stated was a Man of the Match performance. Then, right at the death, Andy Moran gave way to Colm Boyle.
Tom Cunniffe surged forward with five minutes to go and smacked over our thirteenth point of the day to send us ten clear. A grandstand finish would now mean that the margin of victory was as wide as when the sides last met in the league four years ago but, in the event, we didn’t score again while two late points for the visitors reduced the final winning margin to, from their perspective, a more palatable eight points.
Like the last day, I wasn’t at the game so it’s difficult to say who did well and not-so-well for us today. Having listened to the match commentary, however, and spoken afterwards with The Brother and PJ (both of whom were there), it sounds as if we can have some grounds for optimism arising from today’s performance. The backs enjoyed a rare good day and they snuffed out resolutely whatever threat that Westmeath’s attack posed. Kevin McLoughlin’s senior debut went well, Donal Vaughan fared okay in the troublesome full-back position and Liam O’Malley didn’t put a foot wrong in the other corner. The half-backs didn’t do half-bad either. Tom Cunniffe seems to be growing into the centre-back role and Andy Moran did okay again on the wing, as did Peadar Gardiner on the other flank.
The forwards played well too: they racked up a decent scoreline given the poor conditions and it’s noteworthy that most of those scores were from play. Five of the six forwards who started got on the scoresheet, Barry Kelly being the odd one out though he put in a lot of good work. Trevor, with 1-1, was the game’s top scorer (eclipsing the baby brother for a change) but it was his other Shrule-Glencorrib colleague, Mark Ronaldson, who won most of the plaudits for a thoroughly committed and energetic performance, one which should ensure that he starts again the next day.
Negatives from the today would, I guess, include that scoreless opening fifteen minutes (another dopey start?), our lack of midfield dominance (though Tom Parsons did, admittedly, put in a fine day’s work today) and our second-half disinterest. They’re all minor quibbles, though: the lads put in the work when it was needed and they won by double scores in poor weather conditions against a team that never really asked them any awkward questions. You couldn’t really ask for much more than that.
And so, after three rounds of the league, we’re sitting fourth in Division 1, with our three points placing us ahead of Tyrone and Dublin (in that order) on two points, Donegal on one and Westmeath, who, with no points are rooted to the bottom and are now certainties for relegation. Although this means we’re in the top half of the table (just about) after three rounds, we can’t yet start to assume that this campaign will end in mid-table respectability. Far from it, in fact, when you consider what’s ahead of us in the coming weeks.
Next Sunday, it’s Jack O’Connor’s resurgent Kerry down in Tralee (at least I think it’s Tralee), the Sunday after that we host the Dubs (who didn’t look at all bad on the telly today), then we travel to our own Boulevard of Broken Dreams in Salthill to face Liam Sammon’s Galway (who pinched an excellent win up in Omagh last night). After that lot, we entertain the All-Ireland champions Tyrone, who are having an uncomfortable NFL to date and who, like us, could well be scrapping for Division 1 survival when we collide on Easter Sunday. In other words – hang onto your hats, guys, we could be facing a bumpy ride over the coming weeks!
MAYO: David Clarke; Liam O’Malley, Donal Vaughan, Kevin McLoughlin; Peadar Gardiner (0-1), Tom Cunniffe (0-1), Andy Moran; Tom Parsons (0-2), Ronan McGarritty; Barry Kelly, Trevor Mortimer (1-1), Mikey Sweeney (0-1); Conor Mortimer (0-3, two frees), Austin O’Malley (0-1), Mark Ronaldson (0-2). Subs: Aidan O’Shea for O’Malley (yellow card), Aidan Kilcoyne (0-1, free) for Sweeney, Seamus O’Shea for McGarritty, Alan Dillon for Ronaldson, Colm Boyle for Moran.