I wasn’t able to make it to Castlebar today but from my vantage point up here in the metropolis, I could clearly discern that the conditions in McHale Park weren’t exactly ideal for a game of ball. On such a day, flowing football was never going to win out, making it likely that a mistake on the part of one of the match’s participants could prove to be decisive.
And so it was, with an absolute shocker of a penalty decision awarded to Kerry by ref Maurice Deegan swinging the tightly-fought contest decisively in the visitors’ favour with little more than five minutes left. The outcome was rough enough justice on a hard-working and committed Mayo team but, once they sit down to analyse the match properly, they’ll realise that our own failings – especially amongst the forwards – also had a hand in how the match played out.
The jungle drums that had been hinting about possible pre-match switches proved correct, with the Feeney brothers replacing Chris Barrett and Trevor Howley prior to the throw-in. Alan and Richie joined their Mitchels clubmate Tom Cunniffe in the full-back line, with Ger Cafferkey taking up station at centre-half.
Kerry had it pretty much their own way in the opening quarter of the game when they went three points clear – via scores from play by David Geaney and Darran O’Sullivan and a free from Colm Cooper – but they might have been well clear before we got going at all as we could have conceded two goals by then. O’Sullivan’s shot for his point could as easily have ended in the net and debutant goalkeeper Robbie Hennelly saved well with his feet from Geaney when we were three down and visibly labouring.
Ronan finally got us going with a trademark long-range effort after 19 minutes and we settled well after that, with frees from Aidan Campbell and Mark Ronaldson pulling us level soon after. Geaney and Andy Moran – who fired over a beauty from way out on the left – then traded points from play before Aidan O’Shea scored from a tight angle to edge us in front for the first time. A free from Geaney, after Ronan was pulled for overcarrying when caught in possession, squared it up at half-time.
The third quarter saw us gradually take over, with Jason Gibbons putting in another strong shift at midfield. Kevin McLoughlin got our opener after the restart, ending a move that began at the other end when Alan Feeney was fouled after outfielding Donaghy. From the free, Tom Cunniffe burst forward powerfully and the ball was channeled to McLoughlin who popped it over from out on the left wing.
A free from Geaney cancelled that one out but a free for us from Aidan Campbell restored our one-point margin. With twenty to go, Darran O’Sullivan got his second of the day to level it up once more.
Neil Douglas, who had replaced Mark Ronaldson early in the second half, pointed to edge us ahead again and we held onto that lead until five minutes from the end of normal time. By then it was looking as if our good recent run against the Kingdom in the league was going to be extended but instead the game’s course was about to be altered by an atrocious refereeing blunder.
The score that turned the game in Kerry’s favour came seven minutes from time when Robbie Hennelly was adjudged to have fouled Darran O’Sullivan in the square. Having seen the incident a few times since on television, it’s now abundantly clear that the penalty award by Maurice Deegan was an absolute travesty. O’Sullivan wasn’t in control of the ball and he was airborne when he barged into Robbie close to the goal-line.
At worst it was a 50:50 collision but O’Sullivan could, and probably should, have been penalised for flattening our man. How the ref could have adjudged that the incident – involving a Kerry player with a long track record of going to ground a tad too readily – is beyond me, as it obviously also was to the outraged home support.
It was all to no avail, though, with sub Bryan Sheehan sending Robbie the wrong way to score his second penalty goal at McHale Park (this was his previous one) and put Kerry firmly (albeit unjustly) in the driving seat.
In a low scoring match played in poor conditions, such a score was always going to be decisive. We missed two frees, they added two more points from play – from Sheehan and sub Kieran O’Leary – and they ended up victors by four points.
As I wasn’t there to see the match for myself, I can’t with any validity opine at length on the team’s performances today. According to the lads on Midwest, we worked hard throughout the afternoon (a fact confirmed by what I’ve seen since on the deferred TV coverage) and with Cooper and Donaghy making such limited impact on the scoresheet, it’s obvious that the backs performed okay. PJ picked out Tom Cunniffe, the Feeneys and Kevin McLoughlin for special mention in this regard, along with debutant Robbie Hennelly whom he said was hugely impressive between the sticks.
Jason Gibbons did well at midfield and PJ says that Ronan did okay there too. Tom Parsons came on too late to make any kind of positive impact on proceedings.
The forwards, however, obviously had an off-day and you can’t help but think that we missed the cutting edge given to us the last day by the injured Alan Freeman and Enda Varley. A return of just eight points is pretty poor no matter how you parse it and it’s also worth noting that we didn’t score until the match was 19 minutes old, failing also to get a score in the last 17 minutes. To make matters worse, we kicked 11 wides over the seventy minutes.
Such statistics will land you in trouble against most teams in the country, against Kerry you’d expect it to lead to a hiding. The fact that our defeat could mainly be attributed to Maurice Deegan and his shite refereeing perhaps tells us as much about where Kerry are at the minute as it does about us.
Overall, I think we can chalk this one down as a valuable lesson learned. This league campaign could well see us getting a few more hard knocks before it’s over but if, in the process, we find out more about ourselves as a team then there’s no need for us to become too downcast at this stage. I’d far sooner see us lose games at this time of year than see us crumble in the pathetic manner we did last summer following a spring campaign of such promise. If today’s defeat helps us understand our strengths and weaknesses a bit better, then ultimately it may prove of more use to us than a narrow win might have done.
MAYO: Robert Hennelly; Richie Feeney, Alan Feeney, Tom Cunniffe; Peadar Gardiner, Ger Cafferkey, Kevin McLoughlin (0-1); Jason Gibbons, Ronan McGarrity (0-1); Aidan Campbell (0-2, frees), Andy Moran (0-1), A Dillon; Aidan O’Shea (0-1), Aidan Kilcoyne, Mark Ronaldson (0-1, free). Subs: Neil Douglas (0-1) for Ronaldson, Tom Parsons for Gibbons, Jason Doherty for Douglas (inj.).