Having been denied any tangible reward from our two opening matches in this year’s NFL, it would have been galling to see another committed performance producing a similar negative outcome. For that reason alone, the draw that Mayo secured in tonight’s Division 1 clash with Laois at O’Moore Park is to be welcomed.
It was far from a faultless performance and many of the problems that were evident the last day against Donegal were equally visible under the lights tonight. We could so easily have lost it there at the end but we could have won it too. So, instead, the cliché gets to win: the draw was a fair result.
It was a dirty old night in Portlaoise, with misty rain drifting down slantwise across the pitch. As we approached the town, we could see from the motorway the ground lit up in the gloom away to our right. Parking was a breeze too but the reason for this was clear once we got inside the ground, as the crowd was a small one – no more than a couple of thousand – although there was a fair sprinkling of Mayo support.
Having bought our programmes, we finally got to see the much-delayed line-up. (If they had time to get it to the printers then why couldn’t they have put it up on the shaggin’ website as well?) A midfield pairing of David Heaney and James Gill suggested that we were looking for a bit more bite in that sector but otherwise, apart from David Clarke returning between the sticks and Conor Moran coming in for the injured Chris Barrett, the lineup was the same as that which started against Donegal.
We started very sharply, with Austie whipping over a point within ten seconds of the throw-in. Alan Dillon burst through soon after but his shot on goal was beaten away and Mort put the rebound wide. Two minutes gone and we were certainly looking lively.
Laois had fielded Brendan Quigley at full-forward and, with our defensive frailties now well known by all and sundry, BJ was obviously in for a night of it. Quigley was fouled following the first such ball of the night and Michael Tierney popped over his side’s opening point from the resultant 14-yard free.
Mort got his first from a free a few minutes later but then Andy Moran missed our second goal chance of the night when a fisted point would surely have been the easier option. Colm Parkinson showed him exactly how this should be done soon after to level the game at 0-2 apiece.
Dillon, who really looked up for it tonight, restored our lead with a superb point from play, following good work by Andy Moran. Andy had started well too and was giving his marker, Aidan Fennelly, a real roasting in the corner. James Gill then joined the fun, knocking over a cracking point with the outside of his boot to put us two clear.
Andy Moran’s marker was hauled off at this point but Laois showed that they could cause problems too, with Michael Tierney notching his first from play. Mort restored our two point advantage soon after with a glorious effort from play out on the left wing.
At that stage, with twenty minutes gone, we looked well in control. But then Alan Dillon, who seemed to have pulled something a little earlier went off injured, to be replaced by Trevor Mortimor. Little did we know it then, but Dillon’s departure would signal a major shift in the pattern of the match.
Laois got another free close in which Tierney converted with ease and with the home side now starting to take a stranglehold around the middle, the supply of ball into our forwards began to dry up. And as this ball became more of a rare commodity, our distribution of what ball we did get began to go awry too. The net result was that a match we were looking reasonably comfortable in rapidly mutated into one where we were under a bit of pressure.
Ross Munnelly pulled Laois level from play and then when Clarkie’s kick-out went out over the sideline Colm Kelly smacked over a point from well out to give the home side the lead for the first time. That score seemed to jolt us back to life, with Peadar Gardiner rattling over the equaliser from play soon after. Munnelly, again from play, and Mickey Mullins, from a free after a foul on Conor Mortimor, then traded points.
Up till this point, our backline, although shaky, was holding up reasonably well. I was more worried about our corner backs – especially the maddeningly loose Liam O’Malley – than about BJ who was coping alright with Quigley. But then Padraig Clancy rose unchallenged in midfield to claim the ball and he turned and whacked a Hail Mary one into the big full-forward. This time Quigley caught it cleanly and BJ was powerless to stop him turning and firing it low past Clarke to the net.
The reaction from the sideline was to take off Conor Moran, who had done little – good or bad, up till then and send on Ronan McGarritty for his first taste of action since being made captain. He shot a horrendous wide soon after coming on but then won what looked like a soft free close in. Well within Mort’s range, by the look of it, but he screwed it wide.
A goal down at half-time, Johnno took off the largely ineffective Mullins and, as he’d done against Donegal, threw Killer into the fray for the second half. We were out of the traps rapidly in the second period too, with Austie reprising his first half effort, slotting over the opening score of the second 35 minutes as many of the crowd were still scurrying back to their seats.
But we were soon on the defensive, with Tom Cunniffe spilling a ball at the back and David Clarke was forced to make a good save to prevent a second green flag. Laois then got another free close in and once more Tierney nailed it, following up just after with another from play when he was left in acres of room, with Liam O’Malley nowhere in sight.
Killer then bagged a super point from play but Laois, still winning more than their fair share of ball around the middle, came hunting again for that second goal that would kill us off. They nearly got it too, with Clarke making another important stop, this time from Quigley. Back on the attack they came again but this time their efforts ended in a bad wide.
We looked under severe pressure at this point, ten minutes or so into the second half and it was obvious we’d need a goal to get ourselves back into it. Where we’d get a goal from was another issue but, suddenly, we got one. Andy Moran burst forward and laid it off for Trevor Mortimer who was adjudged to be fouled in the square. Andy stepped up to take the spot-kick and, cool as you like, slotted it home to level the match once more.
Brendan Quigley put them back in front with another fine point from play but we were now moving with confidence again and Austie fired over his third from play to haul us back level. They got another from a free but Gardiner then hit a stirring one from play to keep us in the hunt for the spoils.
Every time Laois got the ball now it was Route One stuff and soon another high ball found Quigley. He couldn’t get a shot in but BJ stuck his foot in and Tierney popped the resultant free to edge Laois back in front.
Killer then burst forward on a surging run and fed Trevor who banged it over to level matters again. We were now getting some ball around the middle again – with the excellent Trevor Howley making his presence felt in no uncertain terms – but we were failing to make any kind of intelligent use of it as instead we kept pumping high ball into our small two-man full-forward line, with predictable results.
With ten minutes to go, BJ came off injured to be replaced by Shrule-Glencorrib’s Kieran Conroy. He’d had a tough evening’s work where Quigley, using his height to good effect, was always going to prove difficult for the Belmullet man to contain. Oh never mind, BJ, it’s only Kieran Donaghy up next.
With time running out and the match there to be won, there was a longish spell where the ball remained in play but the action swung from one area to the other and back again. “Next score wins it” was my instinctive thought and I didn’t feel too confident that we would. But I was wrong: Gardiner fed Higgins who fed Austie who fired it over his shoulder and, for good measure, over the bar as well. But, sadly, I was also wrong about it being the winning score, as Quigley won yet another ball close in, this time Keith Higgins conceded the free and Tierney slotted over his eighth point of the night to level the match for the final time.
There was still time for either team to win it but we hit a wide and they hit a wide and it looked all over but then they got a free about 40 or so yards out. A point here would have been the winner for sure but Beano McDonald, just on the pitch, landed it short where it was claimed by James Gill and ushered to safety as the ref finally blew time.
The draw was, indeed, a fair result but it’s not an outcome that’ll please either side who both remain stuck at the foot of Division 1. Next up for us is Kerry in Castlebar and we really have to get something out of that one or else relegation will be difficult to avoid.
Back tomorrow with some more considered thoughts on tonight’s action.
MAYO: D Clarke; T Cunniffe, BJ Padden, L O’Malley; C Moran, T Howley, K Higgins; D Heaney, J Gill (0-1); P Gardiner (0-2), A Dillon (0-1), M Mullins (0-1, free); C Mortimor (0-2, one free), A O’Malley (0-4), A Moran (1-0, pen). Subs: T Mortimor (0-1) for Dillon, R McGarritty for C Moran, A Kilcoyne (0-1) for Mullins, K Conroy for Padden.