This match could have been a classic. If we hadn’t beaten Cork last weekend, thus rendering as irrelevant the outcome our final match of this year’s NFL campaign, today’s clash with Monaghan would surely have been a real blood and thunder affair. Instead, it was a meeting between a team that was really bulling for a result and one that wasn’t hugely bothered about the outcome. Seen in this light, our two-point loss today at Inniskeen shouldn’t be viewed as any kind of surprise.
The conditions at the wonderfully appointed grounds of the Inniskeen Grattans GAA club, that lies nestled amongst the drumlins in the heart of Patrick Kavanagh country, cried out for a proper footballing contest. The weather was unseasonably warm today (just like it was for our meeting with Cork down by the Lee this time last year) and the sight of all that whitethorn coming into bloom all over the place provided proof that the longest winter known to man or beast is at last safely behind us.
The pitch was in perfect condition and you didn’t have to probe too deeply to uncover the great pride the locals have over the fabulous facilities they’ve put in place, a development made possible by a canny land deal at the height of the boom which saw the club relocate from the middle of the village to just out the road, where they now have a ground well capable of hosting matches such as today’s. They even had rows and rows of nice green and red seats in their tidy-sized stand to make us feel right at home in the lovely rolling countryside.
Monaghan needed to win today and were then relying on Galway and Cork to do the same in order to survive on points difference. They knew that if either of the two other results went the wrong way they were buggered but, of course, all they could do was to do their bit and hope that the other two did the business as well.
Our bright opening – with Jason Doherty slicing over a beauty of a point with the outside of his boot no more than ten seconds after the throw-in – seemed to suggest that Monaghan’s own task of recording a rare enough win over us would be beyond them. We led by three points to one after five minutes, with Kevin McLoughlin – once again playing in a withdrawn role, in between midfield and the half-backs – and James Burke getting points for us while Tommy Freeman, profiting from a slip by Cathal Hallinan, got the home side’s opener.
Our positive start was quickly negated, though, when an utter screw-up at the back led to a situation where, instead of the ball being cleared upfield, Tommy Freeman found himself one-on-one with David Clarke and he brought the home support to its feet by smashing home the game’s opening goal. A Conor McManus free soon after sent them two ahead.
Freeman was proving such a handful at this stage that Keith was shifted across onto him but Freeman continued to show well for the ball and, as the half wore on, there was increasing amounts of it coming in his direction. The next score, though, came from our Freeman with Alan – who today operated in the ‘hole’ between the two-man half-forward line and the inside line of Varley and Doherty (not with any great success either, you’d have to say) – pointing from play. Soon after, a Jason Doherty free squared it up once again.
We then had two close shaves in as many minutes, with a Peadar Gardiner slip giving them the opening for a goal chance that Clarke pawed away for a fifty. Just after, Jap Finlay found himself with the goal at his mercy but somehow managed to poke his shot badly wide. That was the last miss he’d record all day, though, as he finished the seventy minutes on a hugely impressive haul of eleven points (nine of them from frees).
The first of those came after Freeman had put them back in front again, when Gardiner, clattering like an ould wan into one of their lads, conceded a really stupid free well within Finlay’s range. Jap pointed it with ease with the wind at his back but Campbell soon replied in kind with a free for us. Then a burst forward from Clerkin drew a foul from Burke and Finlay’s free restored their two-point cushion.
Tom Parsons, once again a largely disinterested presence at midfield, then shot a truly horrible wide but Campbell did much better with our next attack, taking a superb pass from Alan Freeman and lofting it over the bar.
Ger Cafferkey saw yellow for his next foul, another one that was well within Finlay’s range and then the same player smashed over a truly wonderful point from play from beyond the fifty. It was one of those scores that you knew was going to sail over from the instant it left his boot and sail over it did to the delight of the Farney faithful.
A foul, a yellow and a free for us converted by Campbell cut the deficit to two and then another free, this one knocked over by Doherty, left us just a point in arrears. From the kickout, they decided to go short but made a hash of it, with Doherty nipping in to intercept. The Burrishoole man poked the ball in Andy Moran’s direction and off went Andy steaming in on goal and he buried the leather emphatically to send us in at the break with a rather undeserved two-point cushion.
Our obvious failings in that first half were a midfield where we weren’t winning anything – Seamus O’Shea was in the thick of things but clearly wasn’t fully fit while Parsons clearly wasn’t interested – and an inability to stop them carving us open repeatedly through the middle. We were wobbly enough further back too, in particular under the high ball, and but for a bit of good luck we could easily have repeated our Croke Park feat of conceding four first half goals.
They began the second period with the greater urgency, which was no surprise given their need to get something tangible from the game. Tommy Freeman, once again out in front to claim the probing ball forward, turned and tacked over the first score of the half and Finlay then pointed a free, following a jersey tug by McLoughlin that earned the Knockmore man a yellow card.
We made our first substitution at that stage, with Gardiner hobbling from the fray to be replaced by Ruaidhri O’Connor. The Ballintubber man went on to have a positive enough 30 minutes on the pitch but it would have been even better to see how he would have fared had he played from the start.
Campbell then pointed from play but that was the last bit of action the Swinford man saw as he was, quite oddly I thought, replaced by Aidan Kilcoyne with Ronan Rochford replacing the ineffective Cathal Hallinan at the same time. A few minutes later, a knackered-looking Seamus O’Shea was also called ashore to be replaced by Barry Moran.
The changes didn’t make much difference to the way the game was going, however, with our backline continuing to prove far too open and, as the game went on, our backs far too willing to get suckered into conceding cheap fouls. Frees for such fouls led to further points for McManus and Finlay as they edged in front again but sandwiched between the two was a cringeworthy miss by Tom Parsons. Fed intelligently by Varley, he came barrelling through with just the keeper to beat but then thrashed the ball badly wide.
But then the game turned sharply back in our direction. Andy punched one over to level it up and then Jason Doherty scored a goal that was broadly similar to last week’s effort against Cork. He had it all to do when claiming the ball out on the left near the endline but it was his sheer persistence as much as anything else that resulted in the ball hitting the net but hit it it eventually did, sending us three clear with around fifteen minutes to go.
That inspirational score should have, I dunno, inspired us or something but instead of closing out the win, it was the home side that sprang to life in those closing minutes to claim the day’s spoils. Three frees – all needlessly conceded – negated Doherty’s major and two further minors from Finlay, one from (yet another) free and the other from play, edged them two clear.
The scores were coming thick and fast now, with James Burke booming over a beauty for us from out on the left wing but Darren Hughes – who had a super game for them – came rampaging forward and lashed over a vital score for them. Another Finlay free, one of many softish awards to them over the course of the final quarter, put them three up and although we recorded the final score of the day – another Burke point – they had the last laugh as they ran out the winners by two points. Not that they were in any mood to chuckle at us, though, as Galway’s inability to beat Dublin meant that it was the Farneymen rather than Armagh that fell through the trapdoor to Division Two.
Because of the oddly imbalanced incentives facing the two teams today, it’s difficult enough to say an awful lot about our performance. While the home team were fighting for their Division One survival, our lads appeared to be playing in a challenge match and we never really managed to operate at the level of intensity they reached, especially in that final quarter.
Our line-up was, I thought, quite odd but it was obvious that James Horan was giving a number of players the chance to impress ahead of next week’s panel cull. A number of lads needed to put in good displays today but what was disappointing was that very few of them did. As a result, a number of fringe players may have ended up playing themselves off the panel for the summer but the same could also be said of more established names such as Tom Parsons, Aidan Kilcoyne, Peadar Gardiner and Barry Moran.
What was most disappointing of all, however, was that the strength and tactical nous we’d shown in spades against Cork last week was entirely missing today. Midfield was beaten up the proverbial stick and it would have been great to see the combative Kilcullen in there instead of the pusillanimous Parsons. After the Cork game, James Horan rightly lauded his team for preventing the opposition in making soft runs through the middle but we were opened up at will in that sector today. Whatever lessons we’d learned ahead of the Cork game were clearly unlearned by the time the team bus drew up at Inniskeen today, with the result that we looked as unsure at the back as we’d done during that chaotic opening half in Croke Park last month.
But it’s difficult to be too harsh about today’s performance in what was, after all, a meaningless final league match for us. It’s been, all in all, a good league campaign for us, in the sense that we’ve learned loads and have blooded a number of new faces, some of whom now look set to displace a few long-standing members of the panel. Such change, although undoubtedly painful for those involved, is plainly necessary if we’re to move forward.
As our focus now shifts away from the league and on towards Ruislip and then back to McHale Park for our expected June meeting with the next-door neighbours, the theory about the direction we’re headed in this year will soon enough face its first high stakes test. It’s then that we’ll really learn if this league campaign was really the useful exercise that many of us think it has been.
Mayo: David Clarke; Cathal Hallinan, Alan Feeney, Keith Higgins; Peadar Gardiner, Ger Cafferkey, James Burke (0-3); Seamus O’Shea, Tom Parsons; Aidan Campbell (0-4, two frees), Andy Moran (1-1), Kevin McLoughlin (0-1); Enda Varley, Alan Freeman (0-1), Jason Doherty (1-3, two frees). Subs: Ruaidhri O’Connor for Gardiner, Ronan Rochford for Hallinan, Aidan Kilcoyne for Campbell, Barry Moran for O’Shea, Cillian O’Connor for Varley.