That old cliché about thin margins between winning and losing was certainly borne out at a cold, wet and windy Páirc Uí Chaoimh this afternoon. For much of today’s final round league game against Cork we were behind and so, with Kerry and Donegal both winning for most of their respective matches, we seemed to be heading for Division Two. But in a tense and tight final quarter, our lads chiselled out a gutsy one-point win and with Kerry edging out Tyrone by a point it was a late equalising Dublin free that sent Donegal through the trapdoor instead. And our win was enough not just to avoid the drop but to send us through, once again, to the NFL semi-finals. A Croke Park semi-final against Dublin next Sunday – what’s not to like about that?
The weather forecast last night cautioned about wind and rain in the south of the country but it was only as we were clearing the toll on the M8 at Fermoy that the first spits of rain hit the windscreen. The rain fell steadily from then on, however, and the conditions at Pairc Ui Chaoimh were anything but ideal for football, with a strong, swirling wind blowing diagonally down towards the city end goalposts, while the incessant rain and biting cold combined to make it a day for the real hard-core fraternity.
We were taking our seats in the stand as the teams were being read out and Ed McGreal’s prediction the other night proved correct as we made two switches prior to throw-in. Kevin Keane – who many felt was a bit hard done by not to be named in the team in the first place – started in the corner instead of Chris Barrett while Donal Vaughan lined out at centre-back, replacing Tom Cunniffe.
We played into the wind in the opening half and although we ended up struggling for much of that half we actually started fairly brightly. Jason Gibbons tore into the game from the throw-in and we took an early lead with a nice, crisply taken point from play by Kevin McLoughlin. We failed to build on this, though, because, despite winning plenty of ball in the middle, we weren’t able to turn this possession into scores and we soon found ourselves very much on the defensive.
Photo: Mayo Mick
Cork used the breeze intelligently and a succession of fast-moving attacks yielded a steady return of scores. Seven points went over David Clarke’s crossbar without any response from us as we went through a barren and quite dispiriting 25 minutes. Failing to score was one thing but the succession of unforced errors we made – on at least five separate occasions during this period misdirected passes went straight to the opposition – was even more depressing. Little wonder, then, that the large Mayo following were keeping fairly quiet at that stage.
The Cork guy sitting beside me reckoned that they’d need a cushion of at least six or seven at the break to hold on (how right he was) and his team were well on the way to doing this with ten minutes to go to the break. We enjoyed a productive spell from then to the short whistle, though, with a pointed free by Kevin McLoughlin followed up by three from play – a peach of a score from Michael Conroy, one from close-in by Alan Freeman (after a blatant push in the back by the Aghamore man when the ball was in flight that Maurice Deegan somehow managed to miss) and the third coming from Aidan O’Shea who emerged from a ruck with the ball and bashed it over the bar.
Three down at the break was a good return after that underwhelming first half display and with the wind now with us for the second period we knew we were far from out of it. But with Kerry seemingly skating to victory in Omagh and Donegal leading the Dubs in Ballybofey we also knew that as things stood then, we were heading for Division Two.
Donie got us going in spectacular fashion soon after the restart by smashing over a glorious wind-assisted point from way out as we took the battle to the home team. For the first ten minutes of the second half we were dominant all over the field but failed to add to this score and when Goold pointed from play for them we found ourselves back at square one. Soon afterwards, though, a stupid foul on Colm Boyle as he released a long-range ball inside resulted in a free well within range and Cillian duly obliged to cut the gap to two.
Photo: Mayo Mick
Then came the incident which I really felt was pivotal to the outcome. Fintan Goold was sent clear – from a fisted Kerrigan pass, I think – and one-on-one with David Clarke a goal looked certain but the country’s best shot-stopper once more did the business, superbly batting Goold’s shot away to keep us in the contest.
Kevin McLoughlin – who was nothing short of magnificent today – then notched the next two points, the first from a free and the second from play, to haul us level. But could we now close it out on a day when something more than a moral victory was required?
Cork were making it clear that they wanted it too at this stage. A bout of handbags broke out around the middle of the field – with Deegan flapping around like an ould wan as the digs and the dunts were being handed out – and it was noticeable that we were happy to give as good as we got in this particular schemozzle. The cards that Alan Freeman and Richie Feeney – who’d come on a bit earlier for Cathal Carolan – got were a price worth paying for the clear message conveyed to the Corkmen.
Photo: Mayo Mick
They had the next say on the scoreboard, though, with a Goulding free edging them back in front. But we weren’t done yet either and a magnificent sideline from way out on the stand side by Cillian O’Connor restored parity. A few minutes later, the same player then landed a second monstrous sideline kick from the other side to put us in front for the second and decisive time:
Cork now came in search of the equalising score and in those frantic final moments wave after wave of Rebel attacks crashed into our rearguard. They had their chances to level it, perhaps even to win it, but none of these attacks yielded a score and instead our lads hung on for the gutsiest of wins. It may not have been pretty but it was great to see the lads hang in there and dig out a result on a day when the result was really required.
In terms of performances, many of the lads had good and bad patches but it’s hard to look beyond the collective effort in securing the result when assessing how each of them did. For what it’s worth, here goes:
David Clarke was great, his second-half stop from Goold unquestionably kept us in the match at a stage where a goal would have finished us. In the full-back line Kevin Keane put in a steady shift, Ger Cafferkey was calm and assured and Shane McHale did plenty to show that he has what it takes to challenge for a first fifteen place come summer.
The half-back line was strong and aggressive – well, with Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle there, it’d hardly be anything else now would it? – and the returning Donal Vaughan put in his best showing for the county for quite some time. In Barry Moran’s absence, Jason Gibbons did well at midfield and Seamus O’Shea worked hard there too.
Kevin McLoughlin gave further evidence today that he’s returning to the scintillating form of last year. Kevin was the beating heart of the team today – Man of the Match by some considerable distance – and he was in the midst of everything positive we did today, repeatedly knifing through the Cork defence, and bagging two crucial scores from play as well as the two he got from placed balls. In contrast to the Knockmore man’s rapier thrusts, Aidan O’Shea was the team’s battering ram and his tussle with Noel O’Leary wasn’t one for the faint-hearted. Cathal Carolan did loads of unselfish work out the field until he was replaced near the end.
Cillian O’Connor had a productive day too, and not just because of those match-winning frees either. Playing in a more withdrawn central role, he worked hard and hit hard all day and he showed huge composure to land the frees that ultimately secured our Division One status and the day out in Croke Park next weekend.
Alan Freeman battled hard – harder than he’s done for a long while – and was a bit unlucky not to see this effort translated into more tangible reward on the scoreboard. Michael Conroy was always a good outlet for the ball but he too wasn’t able to turn this into scores, apart from the cracker he landed in the first half. Richie Feeney and Enda Varley both made valuable contributions from the bench.
So, after a bit of a rollercoaster league campaign, we’re back into the unexpected but still rather familiar territory of a league semi-final. Match practice at HQ in April isn’t to be sniffed at and having flirted with relegation for so long in this campaign, there’s more than a little irony that we now find ourself in the shake-up for league honours. Whether or not we progress any further is one for another day but the lads deserve great credit for how they did this afternoon, and the appetite for hard work they showed today could, perhaps, augur well for the summer action that lies ahead.
Mayo: David Clarke; Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey, Shane McHale; Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan (0-1), Colm Boyle; Jason Gibbons, Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-4, two frees), Aidan O’Shea (0-1), Cathal Carolan; Cillian O’Connor (0-3, 1 free and 2 sidelines), Alan Freeman (0-1), Michael Conroy (0-1). Subs: Richie Feeney for Carolan, Enda Varley for Conroy, Chris Barrett for McHale, Jason Doherty for Freeman, Evan Regan for O’Connor, Darren Coen (blood) for Varley.