On a day that you’d hesitate before exposing your dog to the elements, Mayo produced another committed league performance this afternoon in Castlebar but, as has already happened more than once to us in this NFL campaign, we didn’t get the result that our performance merited, with two late points from play allowing Galway to escape McHale Park with a one-point victory. While it could be argued that the loss was no more than we deserved due to our slackness at the back (where two more goals were conceded and there could have been more), the way we fought back from a goal down early in the second half – with the wind against us and the snow pelting down – was a heart-warming sight and it bodes well enough for the more serious tests that lie ahead this year. Galway’s greater cuteness got them over the line – just – today but I think we can be happy enough at how the lads played today and there is no cause to feel in any way despondent about our chances of reversing the outcome when we, as we’ll almost certainly do, clash again for real in the middle of July.
Despite the dire predictions about the weather, it was nice and sunny when we arrived in McHale Park after the early morning drive down across the frozen countryside. The crowd, at throw-in, looked about the same size (3,000 or so) as that which turned up for the last home game, against Kerry, with the adverse forecast having clearly put paid to any hopes of a bumper crowd for this derby encounter.
We played with the slantwise wind into the Albany end in the first half and immediately got on the board when Mort was fouled and popped over the resultant 14-yard free. Michael Meehan had a chance to level the scores when he was tripped by Kieran Conroy but he put the free wide. Tom Parsons blasted a bad wide for us and Bane (who came on after only a few minutes for the injured Coyne, with Meehan dropping back) did likewise for them before Austie put a sideline ball wide. A full eleven minutes were on the clock before Alan Dillon got our second from another close in free. The robust nature of these opening exchanges had already showed clearly that, unlike last May in Salthill, we were matching the visitors in the physical stakes.
Dillon then put another free wide following which Joyce fed an unmarked Michael Meehan who opened Galway’s account from play. On 16 minutes, the same player put over a free to level the scores. Austie tried his luck from a 60-yard free but it was caught on the line and cleared. Joyce, coming deep repeatedly for the ball, got penalised in quite comical circumstances, with Ronan going tumbling over his shoulders as the Killererin man got a free given against him for overcarrying. From the free, the ball was fed to Tom Parsons and he fired over our first point from play from well out on the left.
Kieran Conroy was penalised soon after for throwing the ball as he tried to clear his lines, with the ball moved forward when someone gave the ref some lip. Joyce made to take the free well in from where the ref had indicated but was told to move it back out and he then proceeded to blaze it wide.
Just after the 20 minute mark came our best move of the game, in which we carved Galway open. Ronan started the move in midfield, transferring it to Parsons, who made ground before feeding Heaney and the Swinford man cleverly played in Andy Moran who slipped the ball low past Paul Doherty in the Galway goal. The goal put us four points to the good and we were looking well in control.
It could have got worse for Galway soon after as Cullinane was slightly fortunate that his clumsy tackle on Austie (which looked like an elbow to the face from where I was) only resulted in a yellow card. Galway’s attempts to get back into the game were being frustrated by repeated interceptions at the back but we had a lucky escape too when Damien Dunleavy, who was prominent in midfield throughout, saw his punched effort from a cross come back off the upright.
Galway were penalised at the other end for an illegal pick-up and Austie stroked the free over to send us five clear with half-time beckoning. With the wind favouring Galway in the second half, it looked a decent enough lead but the way we had been living dangerously at the back was punished just a minute later, when Joyce fed Meehan and the full-forward picked out the unmarked Fiachra Breathnach. One-on-one with Clarkie, the corner-forward buried it, cutting our lead to two points.
Ronan then shot a bad wide and Joe Bergin, who’d fallen heavily at midfield, hobbled off injured. A throw-ball 50 yards or so from our goal ended up in possession for them and the substitute Bane put it over to reduce the gap to the minimum at half-time.
As the lads came out for the second half, the odds looked stacked against them, with the wind now favouring Galway and 35 minutes of aerial bombardment in prospect. Meehan fluffed another free just after the restart as the hailstones began to tumble down from the leaden, grey sky. Meehan soon had the ball in a dangerous position again, however, and although his goal effort was parried brilliantly by Clarke, the unmarked Clancy swept the ball into the net on the rebound. Meehan then pointed a free to put Galway three clear, with the hailstones now falling furiously.
Clarke’s normally booming kickouts were hanging in the air and then swirling back sideways in the strong wind and it looked like we’d struggle even to get past half-way in the deteriorating wintry conditions. However, a quick free in saw the ball end up with Mort and he knocked it over to cut the gap to two. Keith had by now switched inside on Meehan, with Conroy moving to left-half, but Galway soon showed that they had plenty of scoring options when Sice launched a ball into the wind and it curled sufficiently to make it over the bar.
An out-of-sorts Pat Harte was replaced by Barry Moran, who took up position around the middle. Gill, who could have counted himself fortunate not to have been subbed himself, showed he still had something to offer when he broke forward and released the ball to Heaney, who steamed through the middle and lashed it over. Colm Boyle got another from play soon after to cut the deficit back to a point.
Tom Cunniffe was replaced by St Vincent’s Pat Kelly and, with the weather worsening all the time, we began to dominate all over the field. Andy Moran won yet another ball inside and he fed Gill who I’d though sliced the ball horribly but instead, with its progress held up by the viciously swirling wind, it eventually made it through the posts for the equaliser. Then, just to keep us all happy, it started to snow and there was still twenty minutes to play.
Meehan had another bad wide (he shoots more wides than points from play, for sure) before another Austie free – which was delayed for more than the injury time played before he was allowed to take it – put us ahead for the first time since early in the second half. It didn’t last long, however, as Colm Boyle was penalised at the other end just afterwards and Meehan drove the resultant free over the bar.
Our next attack ended with Howley’s shot coming up short. They got a free the other way and, as the ball came in, Conroy punched it out, where it was snaffled up by Padraig Joyce who whipped this unexpected gift over the bar to edge Galway back in front. Parsons then hit another wide and with just over five minutes left, Barry Moran was replaced by Mark Ronaldson.
Mort was fouled bearing down on goal and Austie again pointed from the free. Soon after, Ronaldson shot for goal from close in, when a point was the more sensible option, only to see his effort beaten away. Seconds later, however, Kieran Conroy made amends for his earlier mistake at the back by palming the ball over the bar to put us back in front by one, with just three minutes to go.
It looked as if we might just eke out a narrow win at that point but then two late points from play secured the spoils for the visitors. First came a long-range point from substitute Paul Conroy and then Clarke made a total hash of the kick-out, which went straight to Joyce and he showed all his old guile and coolness to snatch the winning point.
While the result was obviously a disappointment, we shouldn’t, as some tool did in a text message to Mid-West after the game, conclude from it that we won’t win Connacht this year. Once again, we got another committed performance from the lads, this time in quite appalling conditions, and there was only a bounce of a ball between the sides at the end. We could, just as easily, have been making our way home with another narrow win to celebrate.
In terms of negatives, the two goals we conceded are obviously the biggest cause for concern. Fiachna Breathnach was left totally unmarked for the first, providing further grist to the mill for those who suggest that Tom Cunniffe isn’t a tight enough marker for corner-back. We also seemed to leave them too much time and space for the second, with Matthew Clancy stealing in unmarked to bring to nought David Clarke’s excellent save from Meehan’s initial effort. And so, our tendency to concede soft goals – a problem that has dogged us right throughout this campaign: indeed, it’s been a problem for the best part of a year now – has still to be solved and, while this remains the case, we’re aways going to be in danger of getting ripped asunder in the big games.
On the positive side, we stood up well to Galway and didn’t take any of the shit they’ve become used to doling out to us. Every time they hit, we hit back and we often got our hits in first. In doing so, we laid down quite an important marker for the Summer. I also thought our performance level remained high throughout, especially in that second half period after we’d conceded the second goal. Trailing by three points and with the weather getting ever more miserable, it would have been easy to throw in the towel but instead the lads upped the pressure and it so nearly resulted in a win.
Overall, I thought the backs played reasonably well as a unit and defended quite tigerishly at times but, as already noted, we still coughed up two quite poor goals. You could see that the Galway lads could smell that there were goals to be had and in that they were right. It could be the case that Tom Cunniffe’s replacement by the more experienced Pat Kelly will prove to be a more long-term move. Kieran Conroy remained on but did get shifted off Meehan and ended up getting a late point in the process. Colm Boyle had another solid game at the back and while both Howley and Higgins had more than their share of defensive work to do, both did well and still managed to contribute to our forward movement. Heaney was solid enough and chipped in with a good point from play in the second half.
Tom Parsons continues to improve at midfield and is now well on the way to bolting down one of those midfield places for the Summer. Ronan put in a decent performance too, winning a good lot of primary ball and getting well stuck in when the occasion demanded.
Pat Harte didn’t have the best of days and while Barry Moran did okay when he came on, he ended up giving way to Mark Ronaldson just before the end. James Gill appeared fairly lackadaisical in the first half but he did contribute significantly to that second half recovery, getting his name on the scoresheet in the process.
Alan Dillon and Mort seemed to find the going hard enough (and, with hailstones, snow and that cold, biting wind, the going was certainly on the hard side) but both put in a lot of effort. So did Austie who, for the first time in a while, didn’t score from play but still racked up three points from frees and, hardy man that he is, didn’t seem all that put out by the inclement conditions. Andy took his goal well and, once again, won oodles of ball. We really do need to come up with a better plan, however, as to what he should do with all that possession he’s able to claim.
So, defeat to the Herrin Chokers it is. Never mind, as (a) it’s only the league, (b) it won’t, by the looks of it, cost us our place in Division One, (c) it was their turn to beat us in the league and (d) it’s now our turn to do them in the Championship. Today’s latest instalment in the Mayo v Galway canon shows that, once again, there’s very little between the counties and the solid performance we put in for long stretches today should leave us with at least some degree of confidence about our ability to do the business when it really counts in mid-July.