It was always the obvious result, wasn’t it? So obvious that I’d pointed to the likelihood of such an outcome a few days ago (but not obvious enough, I must confess, for me to have the courage of my convictions and opt for the draw in my mini-league predictions) and I had great fun today at McHale Park with a convivial group of fiftysomethings from Dungannon about how both sets of players weren’t doing all that well in their attempts to disguise what they were up to. A draw meant we’d both stay up and, from our perspective, it also meant that we wouldn’t have to brood upon another unwanted loss to Tyrone. It also helped to ensure that we wouldn’t leave this year’s league behind us with any unnecessarily uppity notions about ourselves and where we stand in the world. It was, in other words, the perfect result.
And a perfect day it was for football too, a great day to give my three little Jackeens their first outing at McHale Park in their Mayo geansais. On the drive over to Castlebar in PJ’s seven-seater, Nephin looked resplendent and majestic and, once we got to gawk at it, the new stand in McHale Park looked fairly jaw-dropping too. It’s absolutely enormous and, poles notwithstanding, the view from high up in that steeply inclining structure will surely be something to behold. It was also interesting to see that the floodlights are already up and so we can start to imagine what Saturday night league games will be like at the venue from next February.
As the lads did their pre-match calisthenics with the new stand in the background, there wasn’t any hint of any changes to our line-up but, as the lads lined up just prior to the throw-in, it became apparent that Conor would, after all, be in from the start to replace Alan Dillon (injured, I presume), with BJ dropping back to the half-forwards. Tyrone made a number of changes too, notably with Martin Penrose coming in for Owen Mulligan and Penrose had a right old ding-dong with Liam O’Malley over the course of the opening 35 minutes.
For a change, we opened brightly: we were winning plenty of the loose ball that was appearing around the middle and our backs seemed confident and tight against the All-Ireland champions’ attack. We opened our account with this nicely struck ‘45’ from Andy Moran after 6 minutes and shortly after this we should have had a goal on the board as well. Conor Gormley had won the first few balls into the Tyrone square but Aidan O’Shea then claimed the next one with a superb leap, turned and cannoned a fierce shot off the crossbar. We hit the post at least once in the melee that followed but somehow the ball stayed out of the Tyrone net and, to make matters worse, they came straight down the field and banged over the equaliser. O’Shea was soon on the board himself, though, as he won the next ball in and this one he belted over the bar.
We were looking in good order at this stage and although Tyrone enjoyed plenty of possession over the next ten minutes or so, they hit a succession of quite comical wides. With 25 minutes gone, the wide count had reached eight for them but, not to be outdone, we then went up the other end and shot three of our own, one of which was a truly horrific free from Austie that sailed yards wide to the right. Tyrone racked up their ninth wide just after but then, in the final ten minutes of the half, they suddenly roused themselves and seized total control of the game.
First came a point from play from out on the right. Then Martin Penrose made a real meal of a tackle by Andy Moran, leaping into Andy’s outstretched arm and tumbling dramatically. It wasn’t a free – if anything it was a free out for the dive – but Pat McEnaney (yes – that Pat McEnaney) not only gave them the free but he also sent off Andy on a yellow. It was an incredibly harsh and an incredibly stupid decision but then, as we know to our cost, Pat McEnaney has an incredibly bad record when it comes to reffing Mayo matches. No wonder poor old Andy looked so glum as he trooped off but at least this meant that Chris Barrett would get a welcome run-out in his favoured half-back position.
They pointed the free to go two up and then followed it up with four excellent points from play, two from Sean Cavanagh – who up till then had been getting little or no change out of Ger Cafferkey – and one each from Enda McGinley and Martin Penrose, who was now proving to be a bit of a handful for Liam O’Malley. This barrage sent the visitors in five points up at half-time which meant that, despite a quite promising opening twenty minutes, we were once again faced with having to undertake a second-half rescue job. To make matters worse, we had gone twenty minutes or so in that first half without scoring and the only point from play had been that Aidan O’Shea one.
Still, we had the wind with us now and our track record in previous league matches this year was such that we could reasonably expect a more rousing second half from the lads. And, at that stage, we needed a performance too because with the Dubs murdering Westmeath and the Derry/Donegal game too close to call, the prospect of our ending up in that second relegation place wasn’t looking all that preposterous.
In short, we needed to up our game significantly and it quickly became apparent that we would indeed do this. Trevor got us on our way with a smartly taken point from play but it was young Aidan O’Shea who brought the crowd to their feet soon after with a beautifully taken goal. Once again he outfielded Conor Gormley, turned and drove past his man before slipping the ball past the keeper into the net. It was an inspirational score and while Tyrone responded quickly with a point, Austie then brought us to within a point with this one that their goalie felt obliged to guide over, just in case like.
A free from Austie brought us level with twenty minutes to go and while they edged in front again, just after that we almost bagged a second goal as Tom Parsons, who had just come in for Mark Ronaldson, came steaming through and smashed a shot that the goalie parried out into Mort’s path. Conor was only inches out but somehow he missed the chance but the resultant ‘45’ was played short to Ronan who boomed it over from way out to bring us level and then Pat Harte was on target from even further out as he put us back in front for the first time since early in the opening half.
They drew level but then another monster point from Ronan edged us in front again with just ten minutes left to play. A point from them, following a careful piece of end-to-end play during which we never came close to touching the ball, brought the match back to all square once more. By now, we’d heard on the radio that Derry were beating Donegal and so the result of our game wasn’t going to change anything. The crack with the Dungannon crowd really got going now as we chided each other’s players about how badly they were disguising the fact that they were playing for the draw.
Ronan came in for a good bit of slagging from both of us when he smashed over a third long-range effort to nudge us back in front and it looked as if we weren’t reading the script when we then won a close-in free that Conor pointed to send us two clear.
But it did, of course, end all square. They got another one after another end-to-end move and then, with the seventy minutes almost up, they bagged the leveller. They even kicked a few more wides as well just to keep the whiff of tension in the air but it was always going to end in a draw and end that way it eventually did.
And so we’ve completed our league campaign with three draws out of seven starts and with all sorts of questions about why we keep dozing off in the first halves of matches. If we could only play like we do in the second half all the time then we’d be a serious proposition for any team in the country but, then again, if your aunt had balls she’d be your uncle. What we do have is a problem, one that keeps reoccurring and which needs to be fixed pronto.
In terms of positives, you have to start with our wunderkind from Breaffy who had another stormer today. You can kinda understand why Johnno would want to play Aidan all the time and he was a real handful for Conor Gormley all day today. It’s difficult to see now how Barry Moran will oust him from the full-forward berth for the championship, even if the Irish education system is likely to do that job for him for the New York jaunt and, possibly, the June clash with either Leitrim or Roscommon as well. However, it’s now almost inconceivable to imagine that he won’t start in the Connacht final against Galway (assuming we both get there) and if he does, then on today’s form, Finian Hanley had better watch out.
At the other end, Ger Cafferkey was prominent too and although Sean Cavanagh did escape the clutches of the Ballina man the odd time, in general Cafferkey looked confident and assured in the role. I thought we looked reasonably okay in the defence and while it was tough on Andy Moran to get yellow-carded the way he did, it did afford Chris Barrett with some welcome game time in his place.
Midfield was awful in the first half but then things improved greatly in the second, especially when Tom Parsons joined the action. Pat Harte had an absolute stinker in the first half and Ronan looked as if he couldn’t catch a cold but we fared much better in that sector in the second half, during which time Ronan weighed in with three superb points. Tom is a dead-cert to start there in the summer, I think, and it’s a pity that Ronan isn’t being made to scrap a bit harder for his spot too. It’s not just opposing full-backs that need to feel the O’Shea effect, I reckon.
We were in and out of it in the forwards. I don’t think the deep lying role worked with Mark Ronaldson today, Trevor battled and battled but he’ll never be an effective centre-forward, BJP mixed the good with the anonymous and Conor did the same but only with a bit more of the anonymous. All of this meant that the heavy lifting was left with Aidan and Austie, the latter of whom ended with three points, two of which came from play. Like he did in last year’s NFL, Austie would appear to have played himself into a championship starting place: let’s hope things work out better for him this summer.
That’s it with the winter-cum-spring football for another year, then. It’ll be high summer – the day before the longest day of the year, in fact – before we see the lads play in McHale Park again, although anyone who goes on the junket to New York next month will get to see them play a match which may or may not bear any resemblance to a full-throated championship clash. The new stand should be close enough to the finished article by late June but, although we now appear to be moving the right direction in terms of what our championship starting fifteen might be, it’s still far too early to say if the on-field redevelopment project will be as well advanced by then.
MAYO: David Clarke; Liam O’Malley, Ger Cafferkey, Kevin McLoughlin; Peadar Gardiner, Tom Cunniffe, Andy Moran (0-1, a ‘45’); Pat Harte (0-1), Ronan McGarritty (0-3); Mark Ronaldson, Trevor Mortimer (0-1), Billy Joe Padden; Conor Mortimer (0-1, a free), Aidan O’Shea (1-1), Austin O’Malley (0-3, one a free). Subs: Chris Barrett for Moran (yellow card), Tom Parsons for Ronaldson, Barry Moran for Padden, Alan Dillon for Austin O’Malley.