I promised last week that I wouldn’t mention the Salthill ‘hoodoo’ in advance of throw-in and I kept my word. Now that the match is over and with it the supposed hex that Galway had over us at that absolute hole of a venue, I feel it’s safe to mention it again. When Michael Meehan smashed in that injury-time leveller (having taken exactly how many steps, Mr Bannon?), it looked as if we’d have that particular monkey on our backs for a while longer. But fair play to the lads for keeping the cool, winning the next kick-out and with it a free that was channeled through to Peadar Gardiner who lamped it over to seal what felt like a truly historic victory.
It shouldn’t, of course, have come to that: when the Mortimer brothers combined to notch our second goal of the afternoon to put us seven up with ten minutes to play it looked as if the contest was over then. But that palmed effort by Conor finally sparked the defending champions to life and they fought tigerishly over those final frantic minutes to maintain their provincial crown and their 42-year unbeaten record against us at this truly horrendous hole of a venue.
They nearly did it and we’d have been kicking ourselves tonight had they done so because, in truth, we should have won this match with a bit to spare. The fact that we had to play the match in the worst county ground in the province (I did mention the fact that it’s an abominable hole, didn’t I?) with a gale blowing right down the field all day in a match officiated by a complete and utter tool – who gave every possible break to Galway in the second half – kinda skewed matters a bit. I’m convinced that had this match been played in McHale Park we’d have beaten them out the gate but – you know what? – doing them by the minimum margin in such dramatic circumstances on their own turf was far, far sweeter.
This was a match we needed to win, no question of that. It was only last night that I realised defeat could mean a showdown next weekend with the likes of Kerry (but of course those jammy fuckers went and drew Antrim this evening) so winning Connacht made more sense than ever as the best route to the All-Ireland series. It became clear early on when the hits started going in and where it was, in contrast to 2007, our lads doing most of the hitting that we were going to leave everything on the pitch in pursuit of this one.
Once we’d settled down on the terrace (and there’s a lot of terracing in Pearse Stadium: it rings three-quarters of that hole of a ground, in fact) behind the town end goal – to see the minors cling on to get a slightly undeserved draw against Roscommon – and realised that a gale was blowing right in from the Atlantic, it immediately became clear that playing with the wind in the first half would be a big advantage to us, as it’d allow us to use the Twin Towers to get a good lead on the board. Our problems in 2007 and again last year stemmed from allowing Galway to build up a clear first-half lead and so if we were able to set the pace, we were unlikely to end up in the same fix.
That was the theory doing the round in my head (I’d parked the fact that we’d have to play the second half against the wind) and the early exchanges did seem to suggest that Galway would indeed have trouble coping with our rangy attack, as Killer pounced on a Barry Moran tapdown to put us two up following David Heaney’s opener.
But then the Knockmore man pulled a goal effort badly wide and two Nicky Joyce points from play brought them level. The dopey-eyed one was already giving Liam O’Malley a tough time and the Burrishoole man was eventually switched off Joyce midway through the half, with Donal Vaughan taking his place at the start of the second period. Keith Higgins was switched onto Joyce and soon enough he’d put some sort of manners on him in the way that Trevor Howley did so effectively with the more illustrious Joyce all day.
By the end of the first quarter, it was becoming obvious that we weren’t making great use of the wind. Bergin was doing well at midfield and Hanley won the first few tussles with Barry Moran and too often, it seemed, we were trying to run at them rather than use the wind to channel the ball inside. On the positive side, though, the lads were clearing working their nuts off and time and again were first to every 50:50 ball.
We opened up another two-point gap, following traded points by Heaney and Padraig Joyce, and Aidan O’Shea was involved in both. He scored the first himself and then provided the assist for a Pat Harte piledriver that was aimed for the net but which instead hit the crossbar and flew over.
And then, out of the blue, came Barry Moran’s goal. They gave the ball away stupidly to us, it reached Ronan in acres of space well out and he hit a high, hanging ball into the square where Barry and Hanley collided with it and the Mitchels man got the touch to put it over the line. Square ball? They didn’t bother analysing it as such tonight on The Sunday Game so it probably wasn’t.
Alan Dillon followed up the goal with a nice point from play created by a Barry Moran knockdown to put us six clear. Despite all those dark clouds that were punctuating that blue sky above us, the afternoon was starting to look up. If we pushed on from here, the job could be as good as done by half-time, I mused idly to myself but then Galway hit three on the spin to cut that handsome lead in half.
We then knuckled down and fired over three of our own – this one from Trevor, an absolute monster score by Ronan and then a lovely slow motion turn-and-shoot from Alan Dillon and we were six to the good once more. A Nicky Joyce free for them cut the lead to five at the break but it was interesting that all of our 1-9 half-time total had come from play.
Given the adverse conditions we’d be facing in the second half, it was a decent enough lead to have at that point, though we knew we could have done with a bit more, knowing as we did that Galway would return with interest the assault on the town end goal that we’d undertaken in the first half.
What we couldn’t have bargained for, however, was that ref John Bannon – who’d done reasonably okay in the opening 35 minute – would mutate into a complete and utter prick in the second half and would give almost every decision in Galway’s favour. (In case you think this is just me, The Sunday Game put the free count 35-19 in Galway’s favour for the afternoon and I’d challenge anyone to justify why they got nearly twice as many frees as we did over the course of the seventy minutes). With the wind and the ref behind behind them in that second period, a trying 35 minutes it turned out to be.
We made two changes at half-time, with Aidan Kilcoyne slightly unlucky to be hauled off in favour of Conor (though Conor was always going to feature for at least half the game) and Liam O’Malley in no way unlucky to be replaced by Donal Vaughan. Conor made his presence felt within just four minutes of the restart, intercepting a sloppy pass out from one of the Galway backs and thumping it over. Bannon was making his presence felt too with the first of a number of ridiculously soft frees but the normally dead-eye Meehan was off target from the placed ball and this miss was followed up with two more howlers from play.
From our vantage point behind the goal we were defending in the second half, it was all looking messy and chaotic around the middle in that third quarter of the game. Scores were hard to come by but bookings surprisingly easy – who would have bet in advance of the game that the first two yellow cards of the days would be flashed at Alan Dillon and Mike Meehan? Then Ger Cafferkey – who did well on Meehan all day – got booked for what looked to me like a legitimate challenge on the Caltra man while no sanction was imposed on the Galway man who took down Pat Harte with a rugby tackle a few minutes later.
Three stupid frees yielded three worrying points for them and so, with fifteen minutes to go, the lead was back to three. Mort then pointed our only score all day from a free before Trevor set him up for the goal that should have set us on our way with ten minutes left to play.
While Meehan’s equalising score was the stuff of nightmares for those of us standing (yes, standing, like most of the punters had to do today) behind that goal, we had already been well warned about such a possibility five minutes earlier when Kenneth O’Malley superbly turned over the bar a goalbound effort from the Galway no.14. That score had cut the gap to five and then further points from Nicky Joyce and Sean Armstrong reduced it to three.
The keep-ball fuckology was predictably highlighted on TSG tonight and, in one sense, rightly so but if the tactic had got us over the line, it would have been hailed as a bit of mastery. As it was, the one time we broke out of a passing sequence to have a pop, Pat Harte screwed a truly awful effort yards wide.
What was really heartening, though, was the way we reacted to Meehan’s goal. The lads immediately switched on the offensive button and went hunting for the winning point. Peadar Gardiner deserves great credit for galloping forward to give the option for the quick pass from the free (which Conor wanted to take but thank Christ he couldn’t get his hands on the ball) and, of course, he’ll get all the plaudits for the superb way that he banged over the winner.
And so we’re back, at last, in the All-Ireland series, for the first time since 2006. This is the third Connacht title we’ve won since the current format came into being and we remain the only Connacht champions since 2001 to have ever got further than the quarter-finals. In both 2004 and again 2006, we made it all the way to the final itself. Can we do so again? Could we go one better? You’d never know: after today’s historic win, we’ll fear nobody and with all the babble about Tyrone and the Dubs and Kerry and Micko and all the rest, we’ll arrive into the All-Ireland series completely under the radar. That’ll suit Johnno down to the ground and it could mean that his team could well give us even more enjoyable days this summer than today’s heartstopping one eventually proved to be.
MAYO: Kenneth O’Malley; Liam O’Malley, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Peadar Gardiner (0-1), Trevor Howley, Andy Moran; David Heaney (0-2), Ronan McGarritty (0-1); Pat Harte (0-1), Alan Dillon (0-2), Trevor Mortimer (0-1); Aidan Kilcoyne (0-1), Barry Moran (1-0), Aidan O’Shea (0-1). Subs: Donal Vaughan for Liam O’Malley, Conor Mortimer (1-2, one free) for Kilcoyne, Mark Ronaldson for Barry Moran, Tom Parsons for Heaney.