Any win we achieve over Galway is a thing to be savoured and today’s bizarre and, it must be admitted, enormously fortunate one will be savoured like many others have been in the past and, we hope, like plenty of others will be in the future. In doing so, however, any sense of self-satisfaction we have has to be tempered by the realisation that we could, and perhaps should, have been beaten out the gate by half-time at Tuam today. Once Galway had spurned the chance to sink the dagger between our clavicles just before the break, however, our lads finally realised this was, indeed, Galway versus Mayo and, over the course of the remaining 35 minutes, they proceeded to wipe the floor with our high-flying neighbours.
We outplayed them in the second half just as much as they’d outplayed us in the opening 35 minutes and although it looked as if Joe Bergin’s equalising point three minutes from time would ensure what would have been a deserved share of the spoils for a very rattled home side, one particular border man hadn’t read the script. All week the talk (here and elsewhere) has centred on Conor Mortimer but it was Trevor who had the last word today, his point two minutes from the end finally breaking the Tribesmen’s resolve and, in doing so, almost certainly securing our place in Division 1 for another year.
If one were to have predicted such an outcome at half-time today, one would have been certain to have been asked what kind of drugs one was sampling. Galway had played ducks and drakes with us in that opening 35 minutes where, once again, we’d started slowly and where our inability to win any ball in the middle third had meant that it was one-way traffic in our direction. On Midwest, you could almost hear Billy Fitz tearing his hair out in frustration as he struggled to explain why, for the third match in a row, we remained stuck in neutral for the entire first half. In that period, we only managed three points, all of them frees (one early on from Alan Dillon, followed by two shortly before the break from Austie), and we also went a full twenty minutes during that half without scoring at all at all.
The throw-in at Tuam Stadium was delayed by ten whole minutes today, due to the numbers still outside trying to get in. Eventually, some 6,140 souls paid in at the gate to witness what was, in every sense, a game of two halves. Galway were out of the traps smartly from the throw-in and they quickly made their intentions clear by aiming accurate, Route One ball into Michael Meehan whose marker, Ger Cafferkey, was given a searching examination in that opening half by the Caltra man. Meehan connected with Padraig Joyce’s first ball in with his fist and Galway were off and running after just thirty seconds.
Cafferkey got black-booked for fouling Meehan in a tussle for the next ball and Paul Conroy knocked over the free but, a minute later, Aidan O’Shea drew a foul from Finian Hanley at the other end and Alan Dillon opened our account from the resultant free. Points from Bergin and Meehan followed for them and then Ciaran Conroy (named at corner-back but tracking his namesake Paul Conroy) popped up at the other end to test the Galway ‘keeper. Austie then hit a wide, our first of the day, from out on the left as we struggled to settle with ten minutes played.
The home side, by comparison, were well settled into their open, attacking rhythm and two more points from play over the next ten minutes – the first from Meehan, the second from Cullinane – saw their lead stretch to five. Just as had happened in the earlier matches against Donegal, Kerry and Dublin, we’d hit the snooze button at the throw-in and gone back to the land of nod for an extra half-hour’s kip. Once again, the question would be whether or not the game would be over by the time we finally got around to waking up.
Galway had already missed a clear-cut goal chance by that stage, with Joyce feeding Clancy and the lad with the dodgy locks put Meehan in on goal but just as he was about to pull the trigger, the Caltra man slipped on the wet surface and screwed his shot wide.
At least David Clarke was doing what he could as he hauled down a shot from Sean Armstrong that was flying a good foot or so over the bar. Elsewhere, our frustration was beginning to show with Trevor and Ronan making it three names in the ref’s book with less than half an hour played. Then, after what Mike Finnerty described as one of “scores of the year” – when Armstrong back-heeled the ball to Clancy who fed Conroy for Galway’s eighth point of the day – Pat Harte stupidly pulled down Sean Armstrong and got his marching orders, with Tom Parsons replacing him. Meehan knocked over the free from 50 yards out to send Galway seven clear but almost immediately, a free at the other end from Austie brought the gap back down to six.
Then came the game’s turning point. Paul Conroy was put through on goal, one-on-one with Clarkie and as the young forward tried to go round the big Ballina netminder, Clarke hauled him to the ground. It was a certain penalty and, under the new rules, an even more certain yellow card for our man but, although ref Joe McQuillan gave the penalty alright, Clarke got off with a black book ticking.
Up stepped Meehan to take it and, having already scored a few from the spot in this campaign, it seemed there could only be one outcome. A goal at this stage for them and it was obviously game over, as we’d be going in nine points down, but the Galway no.14 went for power and drove his shot to the right and wide.
Six down at half-time it was but we knew it could have been much, much worse. Changes had to come and it was inevitable that one of these would see Johnno end the folly of leaving Conor on the bench. He did, with Mikey Sweeney – who’d hardly seen the ball in the first half – giving way. The other change wasn’t at all as obvious, with Kevin McLoughlin replacing Ciaran Conroy but three minutes after the restart, the Knockmore man announced his arrival in style by thumping our first point of the day from play over from 40 yards out.
It was clear that we’d grabbed the initiative on the resumption but we needed an early goal if we were to have any chance of rescuing something from the game and, with Dublin and Donegal both winning at this stage, it looked as if anything but a win would have us in the bottom two by sundown. A minute after that McLoughlin point, we got the goal we so desperately required with Mark Ronaldson wisely deciding not to pick the ball off the greasy surface and opting instead to dribble in soccer-style before passing to Aidan O’Shea who slid it home.
That was the first goal conceded by Galway in this year’s NFL and you could sense that the score had rattled them. Austie then rattled them some more by knocking over a point from play from out on the left and so, with 1-2 on the board within five minutes of the restart and playing with the wind, we were only a single point adrift of the Herrin Chokers in a game where we’d looked a beaten docket at half-time.
Ger Cafferkey was then pulled up for a too-short free kick (an offence that you see being committed all day, every day with impunity – especially by the Nordie teams) and Paul Conroy pointed the free to steady the Galway ship somewhat. But then the Galway crowd were incensed moments later when Joe McQuillan suffered his own Graham Poll moment by black-booking Ronan a second time but then failing to flash the yellow card at the Ballina man. This error was to have significant consequences, as Ronan was in the thick of it after that and had he gone off on yellow at that stage, we possibly might not have dug out the win.
When Kevin McLoughlin caught Paul Conroy high moment later, he too was lucky to stay on and by now the home crowd were positively baying for blood. Short memories the hoors have, though – do they not recall the thuggish footballing style they practiced under Peter Ford’s reign? Meehan pointed the resultant free from fifty yards out and Galway were three to the good once more.
A minute later Austie was fouled at the other end and Conor got his name on the scoresheet from the placed ball. It was seven minutes after that before the next score came but, from our perspective it was worth waiting for. Aidan O’Shea, who gave Finian Hanley a match he won’t forget in a hurry, used his height and weight cleverly to knock the Galway full-back out of the way and create space for himself to gather the ball and stick it over.
Meehan and Conor then traded frees, with the game now entering its final ten minutes. From what the lads on the radio were saying, we were now well in the ascendancy but could we – as we’d failed to do against Dublin last weekend in Ballina – close the deal on our great rivals?
It took the two lads on our side who both live in Tuam – under the one roof, by all accounts – to answer this question in the affirmative. Peadar Gardiner fired over the equalising point with seven minutes to go and then just after that belted over another to edge us in front for the first time. Joe Bergin managed to cancel out that lead score but our lads now had the scent of victory in their nostrils and they came hunting once more for what this time proved to be the decisive score. The ball was fed to Trevor who gathered it, dropped it, stooped to gather it again and then let fly from twenty or so yards out to secure the unlikeliest of wins for us.
There was still time for Joyce, deep in injury time, to fail with an attempted equaliser direct from a sideline ball from well out but as soon as he’d missed that one, the ref called time and so, for the first time in almost two years and for the first time on Galway soil since that famous Connacht final win in Tuam in 1999, we had a victory over the Herrin Chokers to celebrate. And celebrate it we will.
Unfortunately, events beyond my control (which, incidentally, showed the inane stupidity of that old Bill Shankly quote about life, death and football) meant that I couldn’t get to Tuam for the match today and so I can’t really add much more to that which I’ve already said about the proceedings. Billy Fitz singled out Peadar Gardiner, Mark Ronaldson, Aidan O’Shea (who decisively answered his doubters today with a superb debut performance), Austie and Trevor Mortimer, the latter whom he named as Man of the Match. I’m not in a position to quibble with any of that.
While the win is, of course, a welcome one – and the fact that it’s over Galway makes it more welcome still – it does leave us with many unanswered questions and top of the list has to be the one about why it takes us so long to get going in every game. We rarely, if ever, start with our best foot forward these days and while today we did enough to make up for that aimless, lazy first half, we know that luck was on our side in helping us to get over the line. We won’t have that kind of luck every day and unless this repeated failing is rectified, we could find that results like today are as good as it’ll get for us this year.
Today’s win doesn’t secure our Division 1 place for us next year but it would now take an unlikely set of results the next day to send us down. If Dublin hammer the bejaysus out of Westmeath while we lose to Tyrone and Donegal beat Derry, then we can still get relegated but that’s an extremely unlikely scenario. I know we’ve traded in unlikely events so far in the campaign but today’s win should send the lads into the match with Tyrone in good spirits and, you never know, if they decide to play for the two halves against the All-Ireland champions, anything could be possible.
MAYO: David Clarke; Liam O’Malley, Ciaran Conroy; Peadar Gardiner (0-2), Tom Cunniffe, Andy Moran; Pat Harte, Ronan McGarritty; Mark Ronaldson, Trevor Mortimer (0-1), Alan Dillon (0-1, free); Austin O’Malley (0-3, two frees), Aidan O’Shea (1-1), Mikey Sweeney. Subs: Tom Parsons for Harte (yellow card), Conor Mortimer (0-2, frees) for Sweeney, Kevin McLoughlin (0-1) for Conroy, BJ Padden for Austin O’Malley.