I’ve seen more poor Mayo performances at Croke Park than I really care to recall but today’s staggeringly inept display against Cork was surely right up there with them. We were truly awful this afternoon and we deserved the hammering we eventually got from a Cork team that never had to get out of second gear against us. We were never in this game at any stage and we never gave any hint that we had anything positive to say about ourselves. As a performance by an inter-county team, it was little short of a disgrace and the way we collapsed utterly in that second half was utterly inexcusable.
As a supporter, I try to take at all times to take an optimistic viewpoint about our chances, reasoning as I do that if you want to be a true supporter, then you’ve got to support the cause you believe in. But it’s got to be a two-way process and today there was simply nothing coming back from a number of Mayo players in Croke Park. There have to be consequences for such ineptitude and this has to mean significant changes ahead of the Sligo game. If there aren’t, I cannot see our season lasting beyond the first round of the qualifiers.
By half-time, it was already abundantly clear that we’d blown yet another Croke Park final. Four points wasn’t an insurmountable deficit but the boneheaded stupidity with which we’d attempted to attack the Cork rearguard in the first half suggested we were unlikely in the extreme to come out at the start of the second half and hit Cork with a barrage of points like we’d done down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh two weeks ago. Rose-tinted fool that I am, that’s exactly what I was hoping for but any sane observer would have by then concluded that we’d be doing well to keep the gap where it was at. In the event, Cork doubled it and, had they floored the accelerator when they had the chance, they could have made it far, far worse.
But the really annoying thing was that we should, of course, have been three or four to the good ourselves at half-time. The backs put in a very solid thirty-five minutes, repeatedly turning over ball and moving it forward. Our problems started, though, when the ball crossed the halfway line, as we missed chance after chance to pick off easy points when they were there to be taken.
Instead, we made repeated, insane attempts at goal, none of which – apart from one unlucky fisted effort from Aidan O’Shea which came back off the cross-bar – came remotely close to hitting the target. Aidan seems to think that every time he gets the ball then he must, on his own and ignoring everyone else, go for goal. He did this a number of times today and wasted a few gilt-edged chances for points as a result. Trevor Mortimer was equally culpable, repeatedly being fed good ball on the burst thirty yards out but every single time, he wasted the opening that had been created. His performance culminated in a truly risible goal attempt from 20 yards out that he ballooned wide.
While we were engaged in squandermania at one end of the field, Cork were quietly taking their points at the other and were slowly starving us of oxygen. Donncha O’Connor, as I feared he would, gave Trevor Howley a roasting and Cork were allowed all day to canter right through the heart of our defence without being met by any kind of enquiry on our part. The rest of the backs held up reasonably well, although Daniel Goulding’s sheer class eventually proved too much for the battling Liam O’Malley.
There was a short spell after the break when it looked as if we were going to make a game of it. The Mort swung over a peach of a point from play just after the restart and followed it up with a close-in free, cutting the deficit to just two. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have kicked on from there and at least made a game of it. Instead, we failed to score again for the best part of twenty minutes and the four points that Cork got in the meantime kept them comfortably in the driving seat.
We’d totally lost midfield by then and gone too was our first half ability to win any breaking ball. The heads had gone down right throughout the field and Cork were already swinging over those devil-may-care winner’s scores before Goulding applied the coup de grâce via the game’s only goal with seven minutes left. But for a superb and hugely brave intercept by David Clarke the killer blow would have come a few minutes earlier than it eventually did but when Cork finally landed it, that was the signal for much of the weary Mayo support to head for the exits.
It’s difficult to pick out positives from today, for the simple reason that there were very few to choose from. Kevin McLoughlin’s first half performance – where he set up repeated attacks and handed two points on a platter for Conor – was excellent, the workrate in the backs was admirable and David Clarke’s repeated heroics in goal were uplifting. But these are poor pickings from a national final and the measly list of positives are heavily outweighed by a significant inventory of negatives.
Top of the list has to be our headless chicken approach to attacking. We were nothing short of pathetic going forward in the first half, as we spurned repeated chances to take easy scores, ones that would have put the pressure back on Cork. We lacked any kind of fluency in the forwards and it’s somewhat ironic that the much-criticised Conor Mortimer – who finished the day on six points, three from play – was the only forward to emerge from the contest with his reputation more or less intact. The rest of them were very poor and Johnno should have made changes there sooner than he eventually did.
Seamus O’Shea had a reasonable enough day at midfield, from where he notched two points, but alongside him Tom Parsons’ performance was very disappointing and I cannot understand why Johnno left him on for the second half. The Charlestown man has bundles of talent but he appears to have precious little application anymore and after today’s latest no-show he cannot any longer be regarded as first fifteen material. Likewise Trevor Howley at centre-back. The Knockmore man has been destroyed in that position twice now at Croke Park and while I think he could be redeployed to good effect in the corner, it’s painfully clear that he’s not the man to quarterback the defence.
Similarly, it’s difficult to see how we can hope to challenge the top sides with a team that includes Trevor Mortimer. I hate having to say this about Trevor as he gives 100% to the cause but we simply cannot afford the amount of wastage from bad passing and poor shooting that comes from him. With the other players we have pushing for places in the forwards (notably the returning Aidan Kilcoyne), it’s hard to see how Trevor can be considered as a championship starter.
Those of us of the glass half-full variety who, like me, may have felt that the promised land wasn’t too far away are, after today, left with no option but to reassess brutally where we stand in the scheme of things. Prior to today, I thought we might well be serious players this year, that we might go very close to the ultimate prize. Trooping out from Croke Park in the rain this evening, I couldn’t help but accept that such thoughts are complete and utter bullshit – we’re not remotely close to making any kind of breakthrough and we could well hit the ditch in the championship down in Markievicz Park in six weeks time.
In seventy minutes this afternoon, all the good vibes generated by our positive NFL Division 1 campaign have been frittered away and so instead we face into our preparations for the championship back at square one. The Mayo team and management have a number of hard questions to answer after today’s abject performance and they’ll need to come up with some answers pretty damn quickly or else the Sligo lads will do it for them when they get hold of them on June 5th. While today’s final is likely to prove but a footnote to the year’s action, it could – unless we’re able to reinvent ourselves rapidly and radically – be a portent for what lies ahead for us this summer. Over to you, Johnno.
Mayo: David Clarke; Chris Barrett, Ger Cafferkey, Liam O’Malley; Donal Vaughan, Trevor Howley, Kevin McLoughlin; Tom Parsons, Seamus O’Shea (0-2); Andy Moran (0-1), Alan Dillon (0-3, frees), Trevor Mortimer; Conor Mortimer (0-6, three frees), Aidan O’Shea, Mark Ronaldson. Subs: Ronan McGarrity for Ronaldson, Aidan Kilcoyne for Trevor Mortimer, Alan Freeman for Parsons, Barry Moran for Conor Mortimer, Pat Harte for Aidan O’Shea.