If yesterday’s football – both the oval ball version over in Cardiff and, closer to home, the dramatic U21 victory over the Rossies – could be classified as the champagne variety, then today’s tipple was, by contrast, the flattest of flat beers. It was worse than that: it was like a rancid old pint of Guinness that’s been left so long that the head on it has started to turn brown at the edges and it has loads of bubbles where there shouldn’t be any bubbles. It was, in other words, poor entertainment and while I normally never mind putting in the mileage to see the county team in action, today I regretted every one of those 320 miles I’d driven for the dubious pleasure of witnessing the afternoon’s action at James Stephens Park in Ballina.
There was one glorious moment today but, sadly, that occurred well before I’d reached the showgrounds. The trip down had been a breeze, with even the often troublesome N5 quiet and clear and as I came onto the John Healy Road at Carracastle, I sped past the “Welcome to Co Mayo” sign at a fair old clip. I had Disc 2 of The Best of Horslips on the CD player with the volume up as loud as it would go and, as the road leveled out after a brief incline, suddenly away to the right there were the dazzling Ox Mountains, all alluring in the mist-laden spring sunshine while up above a USA-bound airplane speared through the blue sky as the beardy lads on the CD belted out The Man Who Built America at a truly frightening decibel level. In truth, the day could only reasonably be expected to go downwards from there.
And it did. The match – a must-win one for both teams – ended instead in an insipid nine points each draw with neither side capable, as a Cavan man once put it to me, “of kicking dust on a Halloween night”. Dublin’s shooting with the wind at their backs in the first half – a first half where we failed to score for the opening 26 minutes – was so wayward that they registered twelve wides when shooting into the town end goal. While we responded with only seven such misses in the second half, this measly total was arguably due more to our inability to manufacture a sufficient number of scoring chances than it was a reflection of superior marksmanship on our behalf. They were awful. We were awful. It was all truly awful. We should have both been beaten.
Have we ever started a match on the front foot in the Johnno II era? Maybe the odd time we have but, more often than not, we tend to cede the opening quarter to the other lads and see what kind of lead they build up before we stir ourselves. In this facet of our play we once again excelled today, letting Dublin gallop into a five-point lead and shoot ten wides before we finally arose from our slumbers and set off in pursuit. The Dubs had a strong wind in their favour and weren’t shy about having a go from distance but, as the above stats show, they missed twice as many attempts as they scored in that opening salvo. Diarmuid Connolly and Bernard Brogan got two each of those points, with Blaine Kelly bagging the other.
Our first substitution came before our first point, with Chris Barrett enduring another square-peg-in-a-round-hole outing in the corner and an uncomfortable opening twenty minutes for the Belmullet man saw him replaced by Ciaran Conroy who took up duty, for the most part, at full-back as we reshuffled the defence. Our problems, however, had their origins further upfield, as the hometown midfield pairing of Harte and McGarritty were struggling badly and we were failing to grab any of the loose ball that appeared in the middle third. We rarely got in sight of the Dublin posts in this period and our only wide came from a truly wild effort from Conor early on that ended up nearer the corner flag than the posts.
Then, we suddenly got going with points from play by Alan Dillon and Austie within seconds of each other and three minutes later a Dillon free cut the gap to just two. Connolly then drove over a ‘45’ for them before a free from Conor reduced the gap back to two at the break.
Dublin should have gone in at half-time minus both Conal Keaney and Ciaran Whelan but the ref, one Padraig O hAodha (Ard Mhacha), was already giving visible proof that no matter how badly the two teams could perform, he could plumb the depths much further. Keaney took out one of our lads (I’m not sure which one it was) as he had just offloaded the ball and was sprinting forward to get the return pass. Highly disruptive foul? Apparently not – just a black book offence. Then Ciaran Whelan seemed to deck Andy Moran but, once again, the black book was deemed to be sufficient punishment. These two incidents were bad enough but throughout the match the ref made a whole series of bewildering decisions, which didn’t seem to have any connection with what was happening on the field. Whatever rules Mr Padraig O hAodha (Ard Mhacha) thought he was enforcing today, they sure weren’t anything to do with Gaelic football.
Like the Ireland rugby team, we tend to play better in the second half than we do in the first but, then again, given our habit of somnambulating through much of the first half on most days, this is pretty much a prerequisite. So none of us were unduly worried about our half-time position and, with the wind behind us for the second period and buoyed by the knowledge that Dublin had failed to score in the second half in their last two league visits to the county, we had every expectation of witnessing a winning score being racked up over the course of the second 35 minutes.
Pat Harte got us motoring two minutes in with this point but they then got another before this Dillon free was followed by a second from play for the Ballintubber man to bring us level ten minutes into the half. Aidan Kilcoyne had come on for Barry Kelly just after the restart but, along with Conor and Austie, he was guilty of missing an easy enough scoring chance at a stage of the game where we really needed to start turning the screw on the visitors. Austie’s bad miss, totally unmarked only twenty yards out, was sufficiently embarrassing for the sideline to haul him ashore, with Aiden O’Shea coming on for the Vinnie’s man.
Another Dillon free, his fifth point of the day, edged us back in front again but his next one soon after came back off the post where Aiden O’Shea gathered it, appeared to be fouled but the loon with the whistle gave a free out. Then came the tale of two fifties, with Connolly driving his into the wind and over while Andy put his to the left and wide.
BJ came on for Killer with five to go and immediately set about shoring up the centre but all of our attempts to get the ball moving forward came to naught and instead it was Dublin who broke downfield, the ball eventually making its way to Keaney who fisted over what looked certain to be the winning score with a minute to play. It wasn’t to be, though, as Aiden O’Shea won a great ball at the other end, squirmed free of the tackle and looped over the equaliser to rescue a share of the spoils.
It was a deeply depressing performance, I have to admit, but before getting stuck into the negatives, it’s worthwhile pointing out what few positives there were. The main plus from today was the solid showing at the back, where we defended well for the most part and, once again, came through the seventy minutes without conceding a goal (that’s three matches in a row now that this has happened). When you think that we’re still missing Keith Higgins and Trevor Howley (both of whom should definitely be back come summer), as well as the promising Kevin McLoughlin and Donal Vaughan, not to mention old hands such as James Nallen, David Heaney and Aidan Higgins, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to weld together a formidable enough combination at the back for the championship.
Alan Dillon was also excellent today – scoring five of our nine-point total and, for the first time since the Tyrone match last August, he looked purposeful and dangerous every time he broke forward. Without him playing the way he did today, we’d have been well beaten today.
Apart from that, we were shambolic. Midfield was a disaster zone and while both Ballina lads fought hard in the sector, they had very little to show for their efforts. BJ made an immediate impact when he went in there late on but why the hell wasn’t he brought on earlier instead of the lethargic Kilcoyne? Or why wasn’t Seamus O’Shea given a chance? He was listed among the subs so I assume he was fit but, once again, he was left to cool his heels on the bench.
Aside from Dillon, the forwards were all over the shop. Barry Kelly never got going and the two Mortimers have rarely – and certainly not simultaneously – played as poorly for their county. Ronaldson did some good foraging out the field but his absence inside in the second half left us short of attacking options when we really needed them. Austie did manage to get a point from play but apart from that, did little or nothing to get us moving in attack.
What struck me about the team from midfield up was that we didn’t seem to have any clear plan at any stage as to what we should be doing with the ball or how we should go about opening up the Dublin backline. Time and again, balls were sprayed about to nobody in particular or hoofed aimlessly into the square. It was only when young O’Shea – still a schoolboy but one who’d played all of yesterday for the U21s including extra-time, it should be noted – came on that we showed any ability to get on the end of these projectiles. Even then, the Breaffy youngster was provided with no options for offloading the ball once he’d claimed it and two or three chances for second half points went a begging as a result.
Somebody commented on the site here about one of our recent matches to the effect that the forwards were all playing like individuals rather than a team and that’s what it looked like again today. Do these guys plan any moves in training? It certainly doesn’t look like they do, with every attack resembling a series of panic-stricken encounters with the ball, that gets offloaded as quickly as possible to nobody in particular. We don’t seem to be working to any particular game plan, our forwards never seem capable of making themselves available to the man in possession and we cough up possession far too cheaply all the time. More often than not, we appear simply clueless in attack.
We looked anything but Division 1 material today and our failure to put away a moderate Dublin team in that second half now means – with just high-flying Galway and All-Ireland champions Tyrone left to play – that we’re scrapping for our lives down at the bottom of the table. On the basis of today’s evidence, we can’t have any great confidence that we’ll be as fortunate in escaping the drop as we were twelve months ago. This team simply doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere and although our increased solidity at the back is something to be welcomed, our failings further up the pitch are now assuming alarming proportions. Unless we start playing like a team and discover some kind of half-decent form, another unhappy summer and Division 2 football next year is beginning to look like what’s coming down the tracks at us.
Mayo: David Clarke; Liam O’Malley, Ger Cafferkey, Chris Barrett; Peadar Gardiner, Tom Cunniffe, Andy Moran; Pat Harte (0-1), Ronan McGarritty; Barry Kelly, Trevor Mortimer, Alan Dillon (0-5, three frees); Conor Mortimer (0-1, free), Austin O’Malley (0-1), Mark Ronaldson. Subs: Ciaran Conroy for Barrett, Aidan Kilcoyne for Kelly, Aiden O’Shea (0-1) for Austin O’Malley, Billy Joe Padden for Kilcoyne.