Is our aim set too low? If it is and if that’s something we’re happy with then today’s narrow NFL Division 1 defeat to Kerry down in Tralee can be chalked down as a positive. At least we didn’t disgrace ourselves, we fairly put it up to them in the second half, we coulda woulda shoulda. But if our ambition is too low and that’s something that we’re not happy about then today’s narrow defeat was, just like the Derry loss at the outset of the campaign, one that we maddeningly allowed to slip from our grasp just at the point where we’d given ourselves a real chance of snatching a positive result.
I’m not saying that we’d have deserved to win today or anything but, hey, who amongst us would have cared about that had we done so? We’d managed – somehow – to survive a Kerry onslaught for much of the seventy minutes and we’d even managed to stay in the hunt despite our having no-one who was able to staunch the damage that the Gooch was wreaking on us every time the ball came near him. We’d even managed to keep the flow of scores up despite the fact that our forwards, for the most part, couldn’t get on the scoresheet from open play, with Conor, in particular, kept firmly under wraps all day by Tom O’Sullivan. Despite all that, we entered the closing minutes only two points down and had Conor taken that goal chance that came his way five minutes from the end, I think we bloody well would have won it.
But we didn’t and so we’re left with our moral victory and our NFL relegation battle to get on with while they have the win they expected, as Jack O’Connor keeps his charges dancing to his tune as he plots furiously ahead to September and, once again, redemption. See: in the end, it’s all about expectations.
The team we finally announced a few minutes ahead of throw-in showed five changes from the one that took the field against Westmeath seven days ago, with the U21 contingent of Kevin McLoughlin, Donal Vaughan, Tom Parsons and Mikey Sweeney, as well as the injured Barry Kelly, giving way to Ger Cafferkey, Chris Barrett, Pat Harte, Alan Dillon and Ciaran Conroy. It was good to see Chris Barrett making a return to the colours after his year off through injury but, unfortunately for the Belmullet man, he was given a task that has faced many a Mayo half-back in recent times, i.e. play instead at corner-back, and, even worse, do so facing Colm Cooper. Pat Harte slotted into Tom Parsons’ midfield place while Alan Dillon lined out at left half-forward. Ciaran Conroy was named at top-of-the-left but, from the off, he took up the full-back position marking Kieran Donaghy (as he’d done with more than a little success in the corresponding fixture in Castlebar last year), leaving Ger Cafferkey to operate as extra cover in front of the back three.
This ultra-defensive formation seemed to do the trick early on as Chris Barrett gave the Gooch very little room to roam in a scoreless opening ten minutes. We even had a goal chance by Alan Dillon beaten away before Donaghy, from all of 40 yards out, finally broke the deadlock after 11 minutes. It was a lead they would never lose from that point on. Cooper finally evaded Barrett’s shackles soon after to score from play and when Barrett and Cafferkey combined to foul the Crokes man a minute later, the jug-eared genius popped over his second and daylight had started to appear between the teams with a quarter of an hour gone.
Kerry now began to play a bit – with the half-backs pushing up and the ball being flung around in dizzying movements as they came looking for the goals that would kill the game as a contest before half-time. According to Mike and Billy on Midwest, they should have had at least one or two during this spell of dominance but instead it was Ronan, thumping one over from 35 yards out on the right after a neat pass from Mark Ronaldson, who got the next score, opening our afternoon’s account in the process.
A minute later Conor pointed a free to reduce the gap to just one but the next ball into Cooper saw him out in front of Chris again and over it went. Ger Cafferkey harried him out to the right when the Crokes man took possession again two minutes later but it made no difference as the Gooch spun and shot over his shoulder to restore the home side’s three-point lead.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic, though, with Austie – one Mayo man with reasonably happy memories of playing Kerry, it must be said – putting himself about and Jacko’s young fella (their Aidan O’Shea) was lucky to stay on the field when he took a wild swing which caught the Vincent’s man. O’Shea got black-booked for the foul and Conor knocked over the free.
Goal chances opened up at both ends just after, with Alan Dillon setting up Austie whose shot was blocked by Diarmuid Murphy in the Kerry goal but a minute later Kieran Donaghy saw his effort flash wide. According to Mike Finnerty, the pace was so frenetic at this point that it was approaching Championship standard.
A foul by Andy Moran on Cooper yielded the inevitable pointed free but Gardiner then fed Harte and, from 50 yards out, the Ballina man thumped over a great morale-boosting score. It was the home side who finished the half stronger, however, with points from Michael Quirke and Cooper – his sixth of the half, three from play – sending them in 0-8 to 0-4 in front at the half-way mark.
The real fear for us at this stage was that they’d break through for an early goal which, if this were to happen, could, we knew, quickly result in the match turning into a second-half rout. Instead, however, we restarted on the offensive and reeled off three points in the first six minutes of the half, with a free from Dillon followed by what Mike Finnerty described as a “magnificent” effort from play from Austie, followed by another from play, this time from Andy Moran.
Colm Cooper – who else? – steadied the ship with a point for the home side and he initiated the move that led to Darren O’Sullivan’s first of the day but Jack O’Connor obviously wasn’t totally happy with what he was seeing as he hauled off O’Shea, Quirke and Walsh with Aidan O’Mahony, Seamus Scanlon and Tadhg Kennelly coming on for the final 25 minutes.
We needed fresh legs too and Aidan Kilcoyne was our first man to come off the bench, replacing Mark Ronaldson. Austie showed that he still had plenty left in the tank soon after by withstanding a couple of robust hits before landing the ball over the bar to cut the gap to two. Cooper’s next – his last of the day and his eighth in all – came from a free after another foul on him by Chris Barrett. Darren O’Sullivan then smashed a 50-yarder over as Kerry went four clear and looked to be kicking for home.
Aiden O’Shea came on for us, replacing Dillon, and we went back on the attack, with Killer curling one over from the left and then Andy Moran, with Paul Galvin making the mistake of standing off him 50 yards out, belting over a second to cut the deficit back down to two with 12 minutes still left on the clock.
Marc O Se fell awkwardly and hobbled off, with all the kerfuffle surrounding his going adding two minutes to the upcoming additional time, as well as taking some intensity out of the contest. With time running out, we really needed a goal if we were to pull off an improbable act of larceny and, with five minutes left, we damn near got one. Conor was played in but his effort wasn’t convincing and neither was the way he went down in the small square. Killer had the range with the ‘45’ but just shaved the wrong side of the post.
With the seventy minutes up, Donaghy closed out Kerry’s scoring in the same manner as he’d opened it and it was clear that this was the one that would seal the win for them. Trevor bagged the last point of the afternoon and Austie recorded our ninth wide deep in stoppage time before the ref brought an end to the day’s proceedings.
So, defeat it was but not the hiding we’d feared we might get, not least because of the way we’d been forced into so much improvisation in terms of the line-up ahead of throw-in today. On that point, by the way, is it just me or is it the case that there’s something a mite pathetic about Johnno’s wholly predictable bleating over the U21 fixture clash? How long has he known that our U21s would be playing Galway on the 14th of March with the seniors facing Kerry the following day? Three months? Four months? However long it was, it was surely long enough to make alternative plans (plans, perhaps, like Heaney, Nallen, Higgins and others) to ensure that this wouldn’t be a problem. Planning ahead to cater for known issues such as this is, I’m nearly sure, what management is all about.
Having not made it to the game today and with no spies having made the long trek south either, it’s difficult to say anything about performances from this afternoon. Obviously we had no-one who was capable of holding Colm Cooper but no blame can be attached to the returning Chris Barrett for failing to put manners on the Crokes man. Chris will have happier days back in his favoured wing-back position and, as pointed out earlier, we could still have won it even with Cooper’s eight-point haul for them. Conor’s miss when put through on goal was arguably the game’s deciding moment but, as we know, Conor is no regular goal-getter and this chance fell to him late on in a game where he’d been well shackled by Tom O’Sullivan.
Billy Fitz said that our most prominent performer was Trevor and it’s great to see the Shrule-Glencorrib man back in the thick of things again on a consistent basis. If he can manage to avoid injury – something he hasn’t done for at least four years now – he could be a real asset to us when the serious stuff begins in a few months time. Austie also got plaudits for his performance today – and rightly so – but I still doubt if he’ll be in any way central to our plans come summer.
And so it’s onto Ballina and the Dubs next Sunday. With Tyrone’s fluky and undeserved win over Westmeath today (Colm Cavanagh’s late winning goal for the All-Ireland champions was as clear a square ball as you’ll ever see), they go ahead of us in the table. Donegal’s loss to Galway pushes them closer to the brink and Dublin – after the hiding Derry gave them last night – are deep in trouble too. If we lose to the Dubs, however, they’ll have more room to breathe while we’ll be in real danger of getting sucked into the scramble to avoid the drop. This makes it a must-win game for the both of us and so there’ll be no moral victory on offer for failure next Sunday, regardless of how honourable any such failure might be. We used up that card down in Tralee this afternoon.
MAYO: David Clarke; Liam O’Malley, Ger Cafferkey, Chris Barrett; Peadar Gardiner, Tom Cunniffe, Andy Moran (0-2); Pat Harte (0-1), Ronan McGaritty (0-1); Mark Ronaldson, Trevor Mortimer (0-1), Alan Dillon (0-1, free); Conor Mortimer (0-2, frees), Austin O’Malley (0-2), Ciaran Conroy. Subs: Aidan Kilcoyne (0-1) for Ronaldson, Aiden O’Shea for Dillon.