Our positive start to the footballing year continued unabated up at Healy Park in Omagh this afternoon where the lads came away with a deserved one-point win and two important NFL points on a day that certainly wasn’t made for champagne football. Four points up with ten minutes to go, it looked as if we might even win with a bit to spare but a characteristically determined Tyrone fightback late on meant that we had to battle to dig out the win. But battle we did and win we eventually did too.
I didn’t make the trip North today myself and instead remained back at base listening to events from both Omagh and Croke Park on Midwest. I also caught most of the game on TG4 where it was shown in full on deferred coverage and from the off on the TV broadcast you could see clearly what an impact the pelting rain had on proceedings. By the match’s end, the pitch was so ploughed up it was like a herd of cattle had broken into the place, with the heavy underfoot conditions having militated strongly against the fast running style that both teams often favour.
Andy Moran – who put in another strong performance today – got us on our way with the afternoon’s opening point but this was soon answered by two Tyrone scores, the second a free by Tommy McGuigan. Mark Ronaldson – our Man of the Match by some distance today, scorer of a blistering 1-6 – then opened his account with a tap-over free following a foul handpass by Tyrone ‘keeper Pascal McConnell.
It was a goal from the home team that brought the match to life, though, with newcomer Eoin McCusker ending a slick handpassing move by palming the ball to the net. Is such a finish legal nowadays or should he have punched it? I’m not sure but whatever about that, at least half of those handpasses leading up to the goal were (like the layoff for Paul Kerrigan’s goal for Cork last night) clearly of the now illegal, open-handed variety.
The goal spurred us into action with Kevin McLoughlin bursting through and his stinging drive was palmed over by McConnell. Mark Ronaldson then took centre-stage, knocking over three points (two from frees) before sending Alan Freeman in on goal with a superb outside-of-the-boot pass. The Aghamore man was bundled to the ground inside the square by Ryan McMenamin and Ronaldo calmly slotted the resultant penalty beyond McConnell to put us two points clear. Tyrone pulled one back before the break but we looked full value for the narrow lead we took into half-time.
It was, though, the home team that emerged the more determined and they quickly tacked on three points without reply to go 1-8 to 1-6 ahead. An Enda Varley free marked the first of a half-dozen unanswered scores for us and it was this period of dominance – in which we kept the home team scoreless for all of 23 minutes – that won the match for us.
Tom Parsons barged forward from midfield to knock over a classy leveller and then, after a superb block at the other end by the impressive Donal Vaughan, Enda Varley worked hard to win a free and then slammed it over to give us a lead we would hold – just about – ‘till the end. We continued to work hard all over the pitch, with Andy Moran tangling with Ricey in the middle of the park and then Keith working like a demon to dispossess his man and clear his lines.
Forward we came again with sub Barry Kelly (who came on for a subdued Aidan O’Shea) taking what looked like an age to control the ball in the gluepot conditions but then laying it off to Ronaldo who thumped a glorious 30-yarder over the bar. Two minutes later, it was Alan Freeman doing the spadework as he teed up the Shrule-Glencorrib man for his final point of the day.
We were now bordering on rampant and were letting the ball do the work on a day when it looked like the players would have been better off playing in wellies. Ronan sprayed a lovely cross-field pass over to Andy Moran who was in acres of space and who took plenty of time to take aim, swing his leg and put us four clear with ten to go.
Tyrone finally upped their game and came at us trying desperately to rescue something from the match. We showed a bit of cuteness, conceding frees where goals looked on but two close-in frees and a Kevin Hughes point from play meant that our cushion was down to the minimum with three minutes and stoppage time still left to play.
Dogged and disciplined defending by our lads meant that we reached the end of normal time without conceding any further scores but then discipline broke down with a series of incidents that will, one fears, mean that the GAA’s Crime and Punishment brigade will be taking a close retrospective look at what happened in those last chaotic moments of the game.
One of our lads (Barry Kelly?) was bundled over by Joe McMahon, Ricey – a man with a keen nose for trouble – started to weigh in but a swift elbow from Ronaldo fairly softened his cough. A bit of pushing and shoving got going and Peadar Gardiner dashed over to McMahon who put up his hands as the Crossmolina came bearing down on him. Gardiner hit the deck and the ref – who was standing inches away – gave Joe Mac a straight red.
From what I could see on the telly, the sending-off was harsh: Joe seemed to put up his hands instinctively and just caught our man on the nose (and, let’s face it, there’s a fair bit of nose there to catch) but the ref had already pulled the Tyrone man aside for his earlier foul so he’d clearly had enough of him when the second incident occurred.
The issue for us, though, is the Ronaldo incident, for which ref Jimmy White gave him a yellow but it could easily have been red. Will this incident be revisited and, like the Tyrone trio, will it be upgraded to red? Will the fact that it was Ricey that he decked have any bearing on matters? If that’s the case, then the way that McMenamin slyly dropped his knee into Enda Varley as two of his colleagues tried to wrestle the ball from the prone Garrymore man earlier in the second half might also be worthy of a second look.
Anyways. All that argy-bargy dealt fairly effectively with the two minutes of injury time and we then had the satisfaction of seeing a bad pass from Ricey getting gobbled up by our rearguard as Tyrone blew their final chance to claim something tangible from the game. With well over three minutes of stoppage time played, Andy Moran then had the good sense to hoof the ball out over the sideline and so produce the break in play that prompted the ref to blow the final whistle. When he did so, it was to a backdrop of vociferous booing from the incensed home support and Ricey, showing what a classy gent he is, gave the ref a right earful on his way off the pitch. The little lad, watching it all on the box with me, reckoned there must have been a fair few of those bad F words in that load of bile that the Tyrone man spewed out.
Not having been there and with the Mike and Billy Show otherwise engaged at Croke Park, it’s difficult to say much more in terms of today’s performance in Omagh but it’s obvious that the star of the show for us this afternoon was Mark Ronaldson. He looked utterly unmarkeable, scored some wonderful points and nailed the penalty effortlessly. It’ll take something to shift him from that position now.
In the other corner, Enda Varley put in another solid seventy minutes and he’s also becoming an important piece in the Team Mayo jigsaw. The Garrymore man weighed in with another two points today and he put in another performance where he gave the opposition’s backs plenty to fret about. Aidan O’Shea had, by contrast, another unhappy outing but, like Aidan Kilcoyne before him, I’d say the Breaffy youngster is a player more suited to the hard ground. It’s a bit too early to be talking of second-season-syndrome and we’re in the happy position of having plenty of options in attack so that players like Aidan can, perhaps, be used sparingly in the coming weeks.
Andy put in another strong, commanding performance and Alan Freeman did well, as did Barry Kelly when he came on. The midfield triumvirate of O’Shea, Parsons and McGarrity came out on top in that sector and, from my vantage point on the couch, Ronan looked particularly effective. Once again, we made full use of the mark, winning some great, clean possession around the middle. I must admit that I’m becoming a real fan of the mark (as well as of Mark).
And the backs looked good too. Keith had a cracking match and I’m more than happy to sit back and pig out on an extra-large helping of humble pie as a result of this. That second-half dispossession of his was pure class – he waited and waited for the perfect moment to strike and relieve his man of the ball, leaving his opponent on his arse and the ball moving rapidly towards the Tyrone goal. Donal Vaughan in the other corner was also to the fore, with that perfectly timed block in the second half the highlight of a confident and dogged performance by the Ballinrobe man.
The backs as a unit worked like hell, covering across the field like terriers and it was ironic that the team that has made a high workrate its defining characteristic struggled to deal with this intensity. And it wasn’t just workrate – we fairly doled it out over the course of the seventy minutes too, with plenty of hard hits being administered all over the field. It’s only February, I know, but if the lads are still working for and fighting for each other like this in high summer, we could yet go places dish ear.
For now, we’re sitting pretty – along with two other counties, Cork and Dublin, who also have plenty to prove in 2010 – at the top of Division 1 of the NFL. Relegation still isn’t off the agenda, I suppose, but with four points already in the bag and two homes games still to come, we can, I think, be forgiven for having slightly more expansive notions about where this league campaign will lead us.
Where it leads us next, of course, is back to McHale Park for a top-of-the-table clash against Pat Gilroy’s raw but still unbeaten Dublin in two weeks time. Myself and my own small Dub have already traded a few thinly veiled insults across the kitchen table about that one and we’re sure to trade a few more before the teams take the field for what could be a cracking contest in Castlebar. I’m not 100% sure if I’ll take the small lad to that one (he does like to see his teams win, after all) but I’ll be there for sure.
MAYO: David Clarke; Donal Vaughan, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Peadar Gardiner, Trevor Howley, Kevin McLoughlin (0-1); Tom Parsons (0-1), Ronan McGarrity; Andy Moran (0-2), Seamus O’Shea, Alan Freeman; Enda Varley (0-2, frees), Aidan O’Shea, Mark Ronaldson (1-6, penalty goal and two frees). Subs: Barry Kelly for Aidan O’Shea, Ciaran Conroy for Seamus O’Shea, Neill Douglas for Kevin McLoughlin, Mikey Sweeney for Alan Freeman.