It was cold, it was wet, we got bet. That’s a ghastly enough triptych for anyone to be going on with so there’s no need to tip into the mixture any other stuff about it being yet another Croke Park final defeat. And so I won’t.
It’s a few hours now since the final whistle sounded at HQ and obviously you all know how the match panned out, either because you were among the 22,000-odd punters who were there today (including around ten from Cork) or because you’ve been following the action on TV, radio or online. Because of this, there’s no need either to detail how the match played out in any kind of blow-by-blow way (and there were a fair few blows). So, apart from some brief broad-brush words, I won’t do that either.
What is important to do – and which those of you in the comments have already been doing over the past few hours – is to give some thought to what the result means for us in terms of how we’re shaping up and what hopes we can reasonably have for the summer campaign that lies ahead. I’ll try to rise to this, though I have to admit that it’s a bit of an uphill battle, given the evening that’s in it.
As regards the game itself, it could be argued – if you’re into clichés – that it was the classic game of two halves. That’s only partly true, though, because while we went in at half-time four points ahead it was obvious even then that our midfield shortcomings were causing us major problems and that something needed to be done there urgently. So, although we’d won the half, we hadn’t done so convincingly. The second half, though, went decisively against us with the two goals effectively killing the game as a contest.
It took us a while to get settled into the game today and although we were well on terms with them in the opening twenty minutes, even at that stage it was clear we had problems in the middle third. In advance of the match, I’d identified in my own mind the Cork half-back line as a real area of opportunity for us but O’Leary, Canty and Kissane put in a very strong opening half, to the extent that our half-forwards spent much of that opening period back-pedalling.
Cork repeatedly cut from the back with a series of rapid thrusts and as they did so – another cliché coming up, I’m afraid – the image was like a knife going through butter.
No questions were asked of Canty, Kissane, Pearse O’Neill and Alan O’Connor as they repeatedly cut right through the middle. In fact, it took some poor shooting by the Rebels and some good defending by our lads to ensure that these repeated forays didn’t cause too much damage on the scoreboard in that opening period.
We didn’t get our first score of the day from play – a cracker from Keith Higgins – until the 18 minute mark and the bulk of our first half scores came from Cillian O’Connor frees (including this one). Cillian could – and really should – have found the net with the one point he got from play (or alternatively he could have lifted a pass over to the unmarked Barry Moran to palm home) but instead he drove it over. Cork, meanwhile, got most of their scores from play, a pattern that would continue in the second half as well. In fact, only a single point of the Rebels’ total came from a free.
Just before half-time, another possible goal chance for us was rather savagely prevented when Pearse O’Neill poleaxed the inrushing Donal Vaughan. Donie was coming full-tilt when O’Neill intercepted him and left him in a heap on the ground. When you consider the mild infractions for which Donie himself and Colm Boyle had been booked earlier on, the monstrous Aghada man was lucky to stay on the field. Likewise, how Noel O’Leary escaped a card for his thuggish rough-housing of the prone Ballinrobe man is beyond me.
Facing the wind in the second half, we had to keep pushing on with the hope that we might get six or seven clear of them before the inevitable onslaught hit us. Instead, Alan O’Connor was allowed to lope forward and shoot over unimpeded less than a minute after the restart and another two points for them quickly followed to cut our lead back to the bare minimum.
It was then that James finally started to undertake some surgery on the team, with Jason Gibbons a bit unlucky to be the one called ashore to give way to Pat Harte at midfield. It made little or no difference, though, as Cork continued to come at us and when Colm O’Neill smashed home the opening goal of the contest the reality of another league final defeat at the hands of the Donkey Ayters began to come into focus.
That first goal wasn’t, however, fatal and, in fairness to the lads, it provoked the right response as we drove forward in an attempt to rescue the contest. The Lee Keegan incident – where the TV replays confirmed beyond doubt that Pearse O’Neill (still on the field, still fouling) had pushed him – was clearly pivotal, denying as it did as certain pointed free for us (which would have left us just one down) only for Cork to go up the other end and score the second, decisive, goal.
Even then they had an element of luck in getting it with the miscast Aidan Walsh (why is everyone saying that playing him at full-forward has been such a success when he so clearly isn’t at his best there?) catching his only ball of the day and, despite Keith Higgins’ despairing dive, driving it to the net to seal the Rebels’ third league title in a row.
To our credit, we kept plugging away after that but it was obviously a hopeless cause by then and with the rain now pouring down, I’d say it wasn’t just me that had lapsed into Beam Me Up, Scotty mode at that stage. We couldn’t have had too many complaints about the five-point margin with which we finally went under. And then we had the rain and the biting cold to face on the way home too.
So, after the high of beating Kerry the weekend before last, today’s result is clearly a bit of downer. Cork showed, as James Horan admitted afterwards, a far greater intensity than we did and their cuteness with the dark arts, allied to Maurice Deegan’s hamfisted refereeing (he’s rapidly moving up the shiteometer, in my opinion), was something we struggled to cope with.
Midfield is the main weakness that everyone has identified but, as PK said a bit earlier in the comments, we also did very poorly in attempting to win breaking around the middle of the field. Cork hoovered up the majority of loose ball in this sector and our half-forwards, in particular, came out a poor second-best here.
Conor Mortimer and Michael Conroy never got motoring either, partly because the ball going into them was so poor but also because they weren’t able to do much with the ball they did get. We should have made changes there far sooner than we did.
Today’s match provided further proof that we’re no nearer to sorting out what to do in relation to full-forward either. Cillian will definitely make the first fifteen for summer but is very likely to do so at corner-forward rather than 14. We’ve an urgent need to fill this yawning selection gap before the serious stuff starts in a few months.
And that’s it, really. A poor ending to a kinda weird league campaign, one where we thought for a good while we might get relegated but then came close – but not close enough – to winning outright. We’ve learned a bit about ourselves over the past few months and we learned some more (sadly more negatives and positives) in this respect today. We are, I believe, still heading in the right direction but we’re also, in my opinion, some distance away yet from competing with the top teams where it really matters. As long as we keep learning and continue improving as we do so, we’ll be fine, even if this means that other painful lessons – like today’s one ultimately proved to be – may lie ahead of this group of players as they seek to close the gap on that elite group of true contenders for All-Ireland glory.
Mayo: David Clarke; Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins (0-1); Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan (0-1), Colm Boyle; Barry Moran, Jason Gibbons; Kevin McLoughlin (0-1), Andy Moran (0-1), Alan Dillon; Conor Mortimer (0-1, free); Cillian O’Connor (0-6, five frees), Michael Conroy. Subs: Pat Harte for Gibbons, Enda Varley for Conroy, Danny Geraghty for Barry Moran, Jason Doherty for O’Connor, Richie Feeney for Dillon.