We live for days like this, we truly do. What a day, what a result and now, in three weeks time, we have the All-Ireland final itself to look forward to. As that heartstopping final quarter of today’s semi-final unfolded so agonisingly slowly, I really feared we wouldn’t make it over the line but somehow we summoned up enough reserves and determination – which culminated in Keith Higgins claiming the ball on our goal-line right at the death – to get the result, to down the Dubs and win our place in the All-Ireland final against Donegal three weekends from now.
It shouldn’t have ever come down to that, of course, because we had the All-Ireland champions on the griddle and ready to turn up the heat with twenty minutes left to play. Ten points ahead and rampant, we spurned a good goal chance when Jason Doherty pulled the trigger too quickly (he could equally easily have punched it over the bar) and then when we lost Kevin McLoughlin to injury, we lost all shape around the middle and Dublin came at us in waves.
Michael Darragh Macauley almost single-handedly destroyed us from then ’till the end, rampaging through the middle as our centrefield found itself utterly eclipsed and the backs were forced to foul in scoreable positions to ward off the goal chances we knew could kill us. They still got through with a clear chance for a major but, one-on-one with David Clarke, Bernard Brogan wasn’t able to direct his shot sufficiently to evade the flailing arms of the Stephenites’ netminder and the danger was averted.
Eventually, though, we did manage to post the two additional points – one an utterly crucial free from Cillian O’Connor, whom I felt really came of age today – and the second a point from play from sub Seamus O’Shea that only barely sneaked inside the post. Although we still had to endure that final agonising passage of play as the Dubs tried to engineer a goal, we knew then that we’d at least get the draw. The joy of the large, loud Mayo following in HQ once we’d secured the win was, however, unconfined and emotional.
All manner of rumours were swirling round in advance of throw-in today, with the one about Dublin’s Alan Brogan being replaced by Ciaran Kilkenny (who on today’s showing looks a class performer, by the way) proving to be on the money. Colm Boyle’s late replacement by Chris Barrett was a bit of a shock, though, even if word of Colm’s non-appearance had begun to leak out this morning as the consensus seemed to be that Richie Feeney would start in his place. Instead, Chris Barrett was handed only his second championship start under James Horan and he went on to put in a fine performance.
Last Sunday’s semi-final between Donegal and Cork – which I was also at – was an intense encounter from start to finish and today started off in the same frantic manner. We took a while to settle, conceding two cheap points from frees early on, but once Cillian O’Connor had landed the first of three ‘45s into the Hill (the other two are here and here, by the way), we started to settle. He followed it up soon after with another one and when Michael Conroy got our first point from play in the 11th minute we had secured a lead that, those helter-skelter final minutes notwithstanding, we wouldn’t thereafter relinquish.
We really put it up to the Dubs in that opening half, with the champions visibly labouring and they failed to get a point from play until there was over 20 minutes on the clock. We perhaps hadn’t managed to translate our dominance into points by then – we only led by two at the half-hour mark – but a late scoring burst, with points from Kevin McLoughlin (two from play), Jason Doherty (a real beaut) and two from Enda Varley (one a free) sent us in six ahead at the break and looking good.
This was despite having lost Lee Keegan – one of our real key players now – with a nastily dislocated finger (the post-match news was that the Westport man should be okay for the final) after about 15 minutes. Richie Feeney joined the fray in place of Lee at that stage and immediately proceeded to get well stuck in.
With Alan Brogan now on for Dublin, you could sense that they were getting desperate but we still needed to close out the win in the second half. A bad miss just after the restart by Michael Conroy didn’t augur well for our ability to do so but once we got motoring again, we really began to rip them to pieces. Two frees from Cillian (here’s one of them) and points from Richie Feeney, one from play from Cillian and then another from Alan Dillon stretched our lead to ten. I really thought we’d eat them without salt at that stage.
We should have done and if Jason had buried that chance we would have done but then the tide went out on us. We went over twenty minutes without a score, with Dublin knocking over eight points without reply in that period to cut the gap right back to just two points. David Clarke’s save from Brogan’s goal chance was utterly crucial but so too were those last late points from Cillian and Seamie. In the end these late scores were enough to get us there and while we won by three points in the end it was, if anything, a more tense final few minutes than our other win over the Dubs at this stage of the championship six years ago.
James Horan, speaking after the game, rightly praised our resolute defending but he also pointed to the numerous errors we’d made over the course of the seventy minutes. There were plenty of mistakes made, for sure, but that’s only to be expected in a contest of such intensity and I’d say the greater concern will be about the way we were blown away in the middle third from twenty minutes out. That’s definitely one to bottom out before we face the Church of Jimmy The Redeemer’s lads in three weeks time.
We had several stand-out players today, with Alan Dillon (MOTM on The Sunday Game), Keith Higgins, Cillian O’Connor, Kevin McLoughlin and David Clarke leading the posse in this respect. The backs defended like tigers and moved the ball forward swiftly and with purpose. They coped well with the pre-match loss of Colm (though he did come on the second half) and that of Lee after just 15 minutes and they fought and harried and hunted in packs right to the end.
Midfield wasn’t as great a success, although both Barry Moran and Aidan O’Shea had their moments. Barry kicked a glorious point in the first half and he won an absolutely crucial ball from a kickout late on, which led to one of the final two insurance points (I can’t recall which one it was) and Aidan fairly put himself around the place, winning three rousing first half turnovers.
The forwards were excellent – the same forwards who, according to some pundits, would struggle to get scores against Dublin’s sticky defence. All six of the starting forward line scored from play today and twelve of our nineteen points also came from open play. It took a while for the quick, low ball into the corners to pay dividends but as the first half wore on it began to do so increasingly. Then early in the second half when we cleared our throats and starting to roar properly we attacked with a venom rarely seen by a Mayo team at this stage of the championship.
It would have been a thing of beauty, for sure, if we had pushed on at that stage and given Dublin the kind of pounding it looked like we were going to. But, you know, the fact that we didn’t leaves us in delicious territory as we turn our gaze towards the summit and the lads from the hills. They’re still raging, roaring favourites and – much like Galway fourteen years ago – we’re likely to get the chance to come into the final unannounced and unheralded. This in turn will give us the opportunity, as the Tribesmen did to Kildare back then, of mugging them and carting off the silver.
But that’s one for another day. This win has still to be savoured properly and living as I do up here in the capital, I’m going to have a fair bit of fun doing that over the next few days doing just that. My own little Dub was utterly inconsolable at the final whistle and howled his head off for ten solid minutes but, as I told him would be the case in advance regardless of the result, he still has a team in the final and all the fun that goes with it. And it sure is set to be a fun three weeks ‘till the decider. Well done lads for getting us there and thanks for keeping the dream alive inside us.
Mayo: David Clarke; Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan, Chris Barrett; Barry Moran (0-1), Aidan O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-2), Jason Doherty (0-1), Alan Dillon (0-3); E Varley (0-2, one free), Cillian O’Connor (0-7, three ‘45s, three frees), Michael Conroy (0-1). Subs: Richie Feeney (0-1) for Keegan, Alan Freeman for Varley (blood), Colm Boyle for McLoughlin (blood), Jason Gibbons for Feeney, Shane McHale for Keane, Kevin McLoughlin for Doherty, Seamus O’Shea (0-1) for Aidan O’Shea.