Well, that was the unbeaten run that was. Any game where you shoot eighteen wides is a game you deserve to lose and it felt somehow inevitable, appropriate even, that our profligacy in front of the posts at McHale Park this afternoon would cost us today’s Division 1 match against a hard working and determined young Dublin side. It eventually did though Andy Moran came close to snatching a sensational winning goal from a free right at the death but his effort was deflected onto the bar and over to seal a one-point win for the visitors.
Eighteen wides. 320 miles behind the wheel. Give or take a bit, that’s one wide for every eighteen miles I covered today, most of it in glorious spring sunshine. Dublin, in contrast, recorded only three wides all day – that’s one for a little over every hundred miles travelled. I bet they enjoyed their day behind the wheel a bit more than I did, especially the return leg.
Eighteen wides. Several of them of the truly horrendous variety, including one from Trevor Mortimer, totally unmarked from about twenty yards out in the first half, a necklace of missed frees in the first half (more about them in a bit), an awful miss from no more than ten yards out by Neill Douglas early in the second half, a shockingly inaccurate second half ’45 from Andy Moran that had the distance but was closer to the corner flag than it was to the goal when it went over the end-line and then some abject shooting late on by a very tanned Conor Mortimer. We had every kind of wide under the sun today and a few more besides and it goes without saying (but I may as well say it anyways) that it all made for pretty painful viewing.
The news that Alan Freeman – who was on the starting fifteen in our last NFL match, against Tyrone – was taking Mark Ronaldson’s place at corner-forward was predictable enough, given Johnno’s reluctance to engage in change for change’s sake. The Aghamore man was, in any event, fully deserving of his starting place and – wides apart – he performed fairly okay for us today.
Within two minutes of the throw-in, he already had an assist to his credit, offloading to Seamus O’Shea who thumped over the day’s opening score. That was, however, also our last point from play in the opening half, a period where we played with a fresh enough wind at our backs. From the off, we decided that Route One was the only way to go and, with the surfeit of possession we were winning around the middle and further back from our effective closing down of Dublin’s attacks, there was plenty of this kind of ball hoofed in.
99% of it went to waste and the most wastage occurred at the hands of Aidan O’Shea. Most of it he failed to catch, what he did catch he fumbled and what he didn’t fumble ended up in shots that went nowhere. And still we kept raining the ball into him, even in the second half when we now had the wind against us and a piercing sun in our eyes. It was pure kamikaze football.
It was also noticeable that while we hobbled towards half-time adding frees from Enda Varley (who got two in that half – here’s the second one he scored) and Alan Freeman, the Dubs were getting all of their five points from play (their entire afternoon’s total would end up coming from play). Their impressive economy of thought and movement every time they got near our posts contrasted greatly with our more aimless hit-and-hope approach.
By half-time, our wide count must have been close to ten and our miss count included two desperately poor attempts from frees by Enda Varley and Aidan O’Shea, the latter ending up being deflected out for a ’45 that Alan Freeman then screwed wide. We needed to sharpen up significantly in the second half and we needed to come up with a better attacking plan than all those Hail Mary balls we were lamping into the unhappy Aidan O’Shea.
So what did we do on the restart? More high ball into nowhere in particular and more wides, lots more of them. Neill Douglas made a great interception from a lazy pass out of defence but, all on his own no more than ten yards out, he blasted it wide. Dublin were now defending tigerishly and our lads’ tactic seemed to be to try to burrow through the swarm cover, a tactic that quite correctly won precious little sympathy from the ref. Andy did, though, win a close-in free for a quite theatrical dive, which Enda pointed but we then followed this up with further wides from Chris Barrett and Andy from that awful ’45.
It was starting to look like that kind of day when suddenly, out of nowhere, we scored quite a stunning goal. Tom Parsons, a bit too quiet again today, rose to claim a majestic mark and then offloaded quickly to Keith Higgins (at least that’s who PJ reckoned it was) and he put Enda Varley clean through. The Garrymore man confidently rattled the net to put us a goal to the good with ten minutes played in the second half.
This should have been the moment where we put all that crap shooting behind us and seized control of the contest. Instead, though, we let them back into it. A good breakout from the back – led by Keith Higgins – ended up in our fumbling the ball, ceding possession to them and conceding a point converted superbly by Dublin’s impressive midfielder Ross McConnell. Worse was to follow as the Dubs carved us open in their next attack, with sub Bernard Brogan put through one-on-one with David Clarke (at the game I thought it was Keaney but it was Brogan) and he finished with ease to edge the visitors back in front again.
Andy then levelled with our second (and final) point from play but soon afterwards Trevor Mort lost the ball out round the middle and McConnell was there to snap it up and fire over a wonderful score from a long way out. That was the signal for the Dubs to perk up their lugs and hit for the finishing line and further points, from McAuley and Keaney, put daylight between the sides. The Dublin following on the terraces at the bacon factory end had now found their collective voice and were in good spirits as those final, decisive points were knocked over into that end. All we could do, meanwhile, was gaze at the alluring backdrop of a snowcapped Nephin.
We did pull one back when Aidan O’Shea – still battling gamely – was fouled and Alan Freeman slotted the free over. Alan then gave way to the tanned Mort but all he did was remind us that he’s not exactly infallible from frees either. In the end, it all came down to a late, late free from Andy Moran who – fair play to him – went for the goal that would have secured a wholly undeserved win for us but it got deflected over and so the Dubs prevailed by a single point.
Our desperate shooting today will be the most talked-about feature of today’s game and so it should be but, in retrospect, we can, I suppose, recognise that our failings in the forward department were amplified by Mark Ronaldson’s absence. Not only was Ronaldo our top scorer in the NFL to date, he was the chief marksman in the whole of Division 1 and we really missed his attacking prowess today. We’ll miss him equally badly up in Celtic Park next Saturday night.
The other mitigating factor was the early injuries suffered by Peadar and Ronan – which saw both of them gone from the fray with only twenty minutes played – and whose loss certainly upset our rhythm. We missed those surging runs that Peadar loves to go on and while Seamus O’Shea thrived at midfield, his absence further forward didn’t help us either, even if Neill Douglas did put in a decent shift in that sector.
In terms of good points, I thought that we were sound enough defensively, with Keith, Donie Vaughan, Kevin McLoughlin and Trevor Howley our strongest performers at the back. Ger Cafferkey had a few early wobbles but he improved as the game went on.
Seamus O’Shea was superb around the middle and was, by some distance, our best player today. He’s as strong as a bull and once he gets moving, it takes a hell of a lot to knock him out of his stride. His emergence is a real plus and you can sense that he’s on the cusp of becoming a key man for us. Tom Parsons was less effective but he worked hard and his part in the goal was a significant one.
The forwards were, as you’d expect with that wide count, all over the shop but, as PJ noted afterwards, it was the newer guys who did better. Varley, Freeman and Douglas were the three who showed most for the ball and they could have done with more support from the other guys when they were getting all that swarm attention from the Dublin backs. Andy’s performance was nothing like the stellar shifts he’d put in against Galway and Tyrone while Trevor Mortimer had a complete stinker and should not have been left on after half-time. Aidan O’Shea had another very poor outing and I really think it would be in everyone’s interest if he were now allowed to concentrate on his U21 duties over the next few weeks.
So, now that we’ve got this rather rude reality check, we’ll get a chance to see what this team really is made of. Those wins over Galway and Tyrone never meant we were world beaters and today’s one-point loss to the Dubs doesn’t mean we’re a bunch of chumps either. Two tough away matches are up next and, if we lose in both Celtic Park and in Tralee, we could, I guess, find ourselves facing Monaghan at McHale Park in three weeks time with relegation worries on our minds. Going into today’s match, most of us were, I think, under the assumption that our graph is an upward one. After today’s setback, we now need to show over the course of our remaining four league matches that this really is the case.
MAYO: David Clarke; Donal Vaughan, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Peadar Gardiner, Trevor Howley, Kevin McLoughlin; Tom Parsons, Ronan McGarrity; Andy Moran (0-2, one free), Seamus O’Shea (0-1), Trevor Mortimer; Enda Varley (1-3, three frees), Aidan O’Shea, Alan Freeman (0-2, frees). Subs: Chris Barrett for Gardiner, Neill Douglas for McGarrity, Barry Kelly for Mortimer, Conor Mortimer for Freeman, Mikey Sweeney for Aidan O’Shea.