This wasn’t the first Connacht final that I’ve missed down the years but it’s probably the first where the temperature in the part of the world that I’m in is bordering on three times as high as it was at the match. I may have the weather but the Nestor was won over there: oh, to be wet and cold and even happier than I am.
I listened in to the game on Midwest, where Paddy Henry proved a poor substitute for Mike Finnerty but the Twitter feed and a few chats on the phone with PJ and The Brother kept me reasonably well in touch with developments back at the ground. The latter also provided the photo above of the scoreboard which confirms the county’s 43rd Connacht final success as well as the cracking one below of Alan Dillon hoisting the Nestor Cup. Thanks for that, Bro.
I’m not going to attempt a match report today – my absence from proceedings, a family commitment to play a game of crazy golf over here straight after the final whistle sounded at Hyde Park and the need to ingest some rather nice red Moretti beer later on over dinner all meant that the words were never going to flow in any kind of coherent way today. Instead, what I’ve done is jot down a few random thoughts about what today’s win might perhaps mean for us.
The fact that we did win is, of course, the most important thing about today. Like we eventually did in Ruislip, like we did against Galway on another day when the conditions were more akin to what you’d see at a league game. If the hallmark of John O’Mahony’s Mayo was that the team seemed utterly incapable of winning any match of importance, then James Horan’s charges appear to be an outfit that doesn’t want to lose. If that is the case, then it has to be seen as a very welcome development.
Winning Connacht isn’t any longer an end in itself – certainly not under the current championship structure – but for a manager in his first year in charge, it’s still a notable achievement. It’s all the more so given what James Horan inherited when he took over the role late last year. In his first campaign as an inter-county manager, James already has silverware to show for his efforts and he has gone a long way to win back the respect the county lost last year. We’re indebted to the Ballintubber man for doing so.
But, of course, winning Connacht also gets us back to the All-Ireland series for only the second time since 2006. The last time we made it this far, we squandered a great chance to go further and instead ended up suffering what proved to be a very wounding defeat. Now we’re back, with a new man in charge and, it seems, a far grittier mentality.
At the start of the year if we were told that James’s first year in charge would have given us the retention of our NFL Division One status and a Connacht title, I think we’d all have been happy enough with that. As a result, we’re now heading for bonus territory and a win in the quarters would push us decisively into that happy zone.
It’s all in the lap of the gods, of course, as regards who we draw in the quarters but I think it’s fair to say that they’ll all see us as the easy pick from the provincial champions’ bowl. Given the poor showings by Connacht champions in recent years, that’s nothing that should surprise us and, in one sense, it could work to our advantage. They’ll all expect to beat us but so too did Tyrone back in 2004.
The fact that, once we got past London, our Connacht campaign has been played out in NFL conditions might also act to our advantage as we approach Croke Park. We haven’t provided the pundits with anything to salivate over as yet and so it’s likely that we won’t attract too much attention (apart from the usual lazy-as-shit ‘analysis’) in the lead-in to the All-Ireland series. The less that’s written and spoken about us in the national media between now and early August, the better.
Back to today’s game, there were a number of obvious positives. Cillian O’Connor’s performance was self-evidently crucial to the win, his eight-point haul matching that achieved by the much-heralded Donie Shine and his accuracy from dead balls effectively putting to bed all those issues we’ve been fretting about over the freetaking duties. Cillian also has plenty of Croke Park experience under his belt so we can be confident enough that he’ll acquit himself well when called upon to deal with placed balls at HQ.
Robbie Hennelly’s fetch from above the crossbar in the dying seconds was another moment that swung the contest our way. Had that gone over, it could have ended in a draw or maybe even Shine would have lamped over another to seal the win for the home team. Robbie’s save kept our noses in front and when we got our next score, it was the final nail in the coffin for the Rossies.
The bench was also vital today. Being able to bring an experienced head like Ger Cafferkey on to mark Donie Shine midway through the second half helped to ensure that the Sheepstealers wouldn’t be able to up the ante on us in the last quarter. Enda Varley came on and scored what my Dad said was our best point of the day. Ronan McGarrity and Peadar Gardiner also added experience to the cause just when it was needed, with the latter notching a vital point close to the end.
I’m obviously sorry I wasn’t in Hyde Park today but, like the Kerrymen, I’ll now be able to swan into Croke Park in early August to see the lads play their trade in the All-Ireland series. It’s very hard to know how we’ll do then but, for now, victory in Connacht is worth celebrating and celebrate it we should.
I’m sure there’ll be plenty of porter sunk tonight to mark this dogged win and once I finish up here, I think I’ll down another one or two birras to mark the occasion too. They serve prosecco for breakfast here and while I’ve managed to resist the temptation up ‘till now, I’d promised myself in advance that if we won today, I’d have a glass of the bubbly stuff tomorrow morning on what will be our final day here before returning home to the wind and rain on Tuesday. As I lift the glass, I’ll point it homewards and wish the lads all the best for what faces them next in this campaign, a campaign which now leads us back to Croke Park and the All-Ireland series.
Mayo: Robert Hennelly; Keith Higgins, Alan Feeney, Tom Cunniffe; Richie Feeney, Donal Vaughan, Trevor Mortimer; Aidan O’Shea, Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-1), Alan Dillon (0-1), Andy Moran (0-1); Cillian O’Connor (0-8, frees), Alan Freeman, Jason Doherty. Subs: Ger Cafferkey for Alan Feeney, Enda Varley (0-1) for Doherty, Ronan McGarrity for Seamus O’Shea, Peadar Gardiner (0-1) for McLoughlin.