Maybe it was the influence of Ruislip last year, maybe it was simply a reflection of the fact that it was a Division One versus Division Four contest but, whatever it was, our lads certainly put in a performance that blew Leitrim’s challenge to pieces this afternoon at McHale Park. They kept with us for a fair bit of the opening half but once we’d rattled their net for the first time twenty minutes or so in, we quickly moved in for the kill and we had the job all but done by half-time.
It was hard to know what to expect coming into this one, our opening championship match of 2012. I was one of those who’d voted for the decisive win option in the pre-match poll and I was pretty much convinced beforehand that we should win with a bit to spare but, of course, we’ve all seen examples of matches where we’ve been slated to win easily and have ended up in far from easy scrambles. For all we knew in advance, today could have seen us caught up in another one of these sticky encounters.
In the opening quarter, the visitors went pretty much toe-to-toe with us. It was clear that they’d come with a plan, one that involved a fairly robust approach in the physical stakes allied to a determination to funnel back and defend in numbers. But they also showed an ability to move the ball rapidly up the field and to have a right run at us.
Central to all this was their go-to man, centre-forward Emlyn Mulligan, who saw plenty of ball in this period and who quickly put Donal Vaughan on the back foot. Donie never got to grips with the Melvin Gaels playmaker and before the half-hour mark Lee Keegan had been switched across to the middle. From then on, Mulligan’s influence on proceedings began to wane.
What really turned the contest our way, though, was our ability to get goals at the right time, with the first coming from Alan Freeman just after the 20 minute mark. At that stage we were just a point in front – with our opening six points coming from Cillian O’Connor (a free), Alan Dillon, Kevin McLoughlin, Keith Higgins (after a trademark explosive downfield surge), Lee Keegan and Dillon again – but then the move which ended in our opening goal saw the ball rapidly transferred downfield by Lee Keegan to Andy who then quickly offloaded to Kevin McLoughlin. Played in by the Knockmore man, Alan Freeman twisted and turned to make space for himself before emphatically smashing the ball to the net.
This score was immediately followed by a well-worked point with Andy – who’d had a bit of a mare early on, when he just couldn’t succeed in claiming any clean ball – cleverly handpassing the ball in along the inline for Danny Geraghty. The burly Ballintubber debutant collected it, drove on and boomed it over from close in.
You could see then that we were on the cusp of cutting loose. The Brother had observed after about ten minutes that the high-intensity approach of the Leitrim lads would soon see them run out of puff and as the half-time whistle approached it was becoming obvious that they were already struggling to stay with us.
Two Mulligan frees cut the gap back to three as Leitrim fought to keep us within range. Then a bad wide by Colm Boyle, which came after a free for us in a good forward position, suggested that we weren’t yet ready to press home our advantage to the full.
This soon changed, however, when Donie raided forward to set up Andy who smartly smacked the leather past McCrann for our second major of the day. Andy was then hauled down by the neck just outside the square and Cillian tapped over the resultant 14-yard free. From the kick-out, Barry Moran rose to seize clean possession and then ran through the heart of their defence before pointing to leave us a full eight points ahead at the break.
It didn’t take a genius to see that the match was as good as over then. I had been chatting to one of the Leitrim supporters before the throw-in and he’d reckoned the only game plan his team had come with was to stick with us for as long as possible in the hope that doubt would then creep into our minds and that we’d get sucked into a battle for which we weren’t prepared. He’d cheerfully agreed with my assessment that we’d try to bury them with goals and it was already clear at half-time that it was those two green flags that had all but killed off the Ridge County’s hopes.
We continued to turn the screw after the break. Kevin McLoughlin’s point from play got us going, with the visitors responding via a Mulligan free. Then Cillian weighed in with four pointed frees without reply, as Leitrim strove with increasing desperation to halt the waves of attacks now washing strongly in the direction of their posts.
With the result now transparently beyond doubt, James started to empty the bench and soon four subs – Richie Feeney (for Boyle), Ronan McGarrity (for Geraghty), Conor Mortimer (for Freeman) and Michael Conroy (for Doherty) – had all joined the fray. The latter was no sooner on the field when he was providing the assist for Andy’s second goal, which stretched our lead to a yawning fifteen points with the best part of twenty minutes still left on the clock.
By now, all of that early intensity had disappeared from the contest, the pace of which now more resembled that of a challenge match. Our replacements, however, still had every incentive to leave their mark on proceedings, with Richie Feeney prominent in both defence and attack and Michael Conroy busy and inventive in the forwards. Enda Varley, who came on a bit later in place of Andy Moran, also caught the eye with his obvious hunger for the ball, albeit in what was now a game where the pace was a bit the far side of slack.
We continued to rack up the scores. Ronan smashed over a nice point from well out, Alan Dillon finished a flowing move with a typically neat finish and Enda Varley – only on the field at that stage – thumped a left-footer over. A wide from the same player soon after was met with an indifferent silence, the ground already emptying as both sets of supporters sought to get away ahead of the traffic.
A good number of those who had left early would have been back in their cars by the time Kevin McLoughlin buried our fourth goal of the afternoon a few minutes before the end. Before that final green flag, Conor Mortimer had chipped over a close-in free and Michael Conroy had planted a lovely point from play.
Leitrim had by now – with five minutes to go – lost Fabian McMorrow to a second yellow and we were still showing no inclination to let up. Dillon, Mortimer and a number of others were involved in the build-up to McLoughlin’s goal and then Conor had all the time in the world to land his second point, this score from play also being the day’s final score, in a match where we ended up with an embarrassing, though fully deserved, 22-point winning margin to our credit.
It’s very hard to undertake any kind of critique on today’s performance. Leitrim were game but limited opponents and they simply couldn’t match what we had to bring to the contest over the seventy minutes. Twenty minutes, yes, but once we got going we simply steamrolled them. It wasn’t pretty, I doubt if too many Mayo supporters took too much joy in seeing our lads batter them into submission but – like me – I’m sure there was plenty of grim satisfaction that we’d done the kind of job on them that our 1/80 match-day odds suggested we’d be capable of doing.
Our full-back line wasn’t really tested today but all three looked after everything that came their way with solid efficiency. Kevin Keane couldn’t have had a more relaxed championship debut, Ger Cafferkey looked like a man well ready for more challenging contests while Keith was his usual busy self. Behind this trio, David Clarke didn’t really have anything to do but what he did he did okay.
The half-backs were, perhaps unexpectedly, the ones to raise the most questions about themselves today. Donie got a bit of a roasting from Mulligan and Colm Boyle didn’t command his area with the kind of authority that would have been anticipated in advance. Lee Keegan did well when moving across to 6 – it’s hard to believe that this was Lee’s first full championship start, so integral he’s now become for us – but the most eye-catching half-back performance today came from sub Richie Feeney. He’ll be pressing hard for a starting berth in three weeks time.
Danny Geraghty kept a low enough profile at midfield and I’d say it wasn’t just me that would have liked to see how a switch between himself and Donie would have worked out. The Ballintubber man did, though, see a fair bit of ball and he bagged a nice point in the first half. He should, I reckon, have been happy enough with how his championship debut went.
His midfield partner, Barry Moran, will be more than happy tonight. He put in a Man of the Match performance in the centre – undoubtedly his finest ever shift for the county – where he caught tons of clean possession and initiated attack after attack. There are still big questions about our midfield – most of them revolving round the issue of when we’re likely to see Aidan O’Shea rampaging around the middle third again – but you couldn’t fault the big Mitchels man’s contribution in this sector today.
Kevin McLoughlin also put in a very strong performance today and he kept popping up all over the place, his quick brain and quick hands keeping us moving. His late goal was a fitting reward for yet another good championship outing by the lively Knockmore man.
Kevin’s half-forward colleagues also did well, with Cillian deadly from frees and involved in many of our attacking movements. Alan remained further up the field today than he often does and I think this worked better for him and the team as a whole. The Brother reckons Alan might be better suited at this stage to a place in the full-forward line and I think he might have a point.
The full-forward line didn’t really sparkle but they all still had their moments. Andy couldn’t catch a cold for much of the game but he still thumped in two well-taken goals and while Alan Freeman didn’t see as much ball as you’d expect either he showed a real predatory instinct in the way he nabbed the game’s opening goal. Jason didn’t score today but he provided two or three lovely and very unselfish assists for points in the first half.
The subs did fine too, with Richie particularly prominent and Michael Conroy also intent on making his presence felt. Ronan got a rousing cheer when he came on and it was great to see the Ballinaman back in the thick of things again. Conor and Enda also did their bit to keep the scoreboard ticking over as the second half progressed.
So we’re back in the Connacht final with a second successive All-Ireland series appearance now looking to be on the cards. I sincerely hope we do make it back to Croke Park in early August as I have a second successive Connacht final RSVP to deliver, due to our impending summer holidays once the kids finish up at school. The provincial decider is sure to be a different kind of game to today’s lopsided encounter and today’s match wasn’t exactly ideal preparation for the final either but the lads did what they had to do today. If they do the same in three weeks time then they’re likely to do just fine in that one too.
Mayo: David Clarke; Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins (0-1); Lee Keegan (0-1), Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle; Barry Moran (0-1), Danny Geraghty (0-1); Kevin McLoughlin (1-2), Cillian O’Connor (0-6, frees), Alan Dillon (0-3); Alan Freeman (1-0), Andy Moran (2-0), Jason Doherty. Subs: Richie Feeney for Boyle, Ronan McGarrity (0-1) for Geraghty, Conor Mortimer (0-2, one free) for Freeman, Michael Conroy (0-1) for Doherty, Enda Varley (0-1) for Andy Moran.
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A quick word about the minors, who laboured to a quite fortunate 1-6 to 0-6 win over Sligo in their Connacht semi-final in this afternoon’s curtain-raiser at McHale Park. Our lads never looked very convincing in this contest and their cause was helped in no small part by a very dubious penalty awarded to us shortly before half-time. Adam Gallagher, the team’s captain, converted the spot-kick with more than a little aplomb and it was this goal that eventually separated the teams at the finish.
Given the way the minor championship works, today’s win was the key one because regardless of how the Connacht final goes, our lads are now guaranteed a place in this year’s All-Ireland quarter-finals. Roscommon (who hammered Leitrim in their preliminary round clash yesterday evening) face Galway next weekend for the right to meet our lads in the final but on today’s evidence Tony Duffy and his backroom team will have plenty of work to get through (not least on basic team tactics) if we’re to have any hopes of landing our first provincial title at this level since 2010.
My thanks once again to Mayo Mick for his superb photos taken at McHale Park today, which I’ve used in this report (a few are mine but the good ones are Mick’s). It was great to meet up with Mick after the match and to see that he’s back on his feet once again.