We always knew these opening two matches in this year’s National League were going to be tough. Last weekend’s one-point loss to Kildare was a bit galling, in that we could easily have won it but came away with nothing, but today, aside from the opening ten minutes, we were simply never at the races.
The trip up from Dublin was easy enough to negotiate and even though we came through a sleet shower ten miles or so out from Omagh, once we were settled into our seats at Healy Park the day was fine and clear. The pitch looked in great nick too and the lads looked to be in good fettle as they went through their pre-match warm-ups.
We’d stopped for the spuds in the Silver Birch beforehand where along with the Club ’51 meet-up and the roast beef dinner we also picked up some inside knowledge about two switches to our starting fifteen. These were confirmed over the tannoy at Healy Park before throw-in, with David Drake getting his first league start in place of Brendan Harrison while Diarmuid O’Connor lined out instead of Darren Coen at corner-forward.
Once the action got underway, we looked like we meant business and were well on top for the first ten minutes of the contest. Cathal Carolan got our opening point, a score in which Shane McHale played two cameos, first initiating the move and then offloading to the Crossmolina man to finish.
The home side were quickly level, though, when McCurry was out in front of Ger Cafferkey to claim a quick ball in and he fairly skinned Ger before knocking it over. We reclaimed the lead when Gibbons hit a wonderful raking pass to Kevin Mc who fed the in-rushing Keith Higgins who blasted over when a clear goal chance was on. Some neat inter-play by them at the other end finished with Mattie Donnelly firing over the first of what would eventually be a haul of five points from play.
We then missed four separate chances to reclaim the lead. First Kevin Mc was short with a free, then Cathal Carolan’s woeful attempt from play also came up short while soon after David Drake had a goal attempt batted away by Tyrone’s ‘keeper Morgan. Jason Gibbons then took a ridiculous pot-shot from forty or so yards out and that too came up short.
Over the course of the next ten minutes, how costly these misses would be became clear as Tyrone let rip, hitting us – as Kildare had done at around the same point in last Sunday’s game – for 1-4 without reply. Donnelly cleaned out Kevin Keane twice in quick succession to post two points from play and then McCurry, who was also getting much the better of his battle with Ger Caff, squeezed over a lovely score from a tight angle.
Tyrone were swarming us now and they could have had a goal when Peter Harte was allowed to stroll through the middle but he fired over. The next time they ripped through us, however, McCurry extracted full payment with a cracking shot to the net.
Seven points down after just 20 minutes, we really needed to step it up and in fairness to the lads, this is what we did for the next five minutes. Adam Gallagher got a point from play, so too did Kevin McLoughlin and then Lee Keegan kicked a superb point from out on the wing.
We couldn’t sustain this momentum, though, and instead they broke forward with Donnelly again beating Keane to it and drawing the foul, with McCurry converting the free. At this point, Keane was finally taken off Donnelly with Colm Boyle switching across but although he won his first one-on-one with the Tyrone full-forward, normal service resumed with the next ball in. Boyle – already by the looks of it feeling the effects from an earlier knock – bought the dummy and ended on the turf with Donnelly pointing at his ease.
Adam Gallagher then pointed from a free after Lee Keegan was fouled but Diarmuid O’Connor was booked soon after for a foul that looked borderline black. It was already noticeable at that stage that the ref – Armagh’s Padraig Hughes – wasn’t reaching for the cards that often so young O’Connor would have been unlucky had his afternoon been ended then.
As the match progressed, it became clear that the ref wasn’t having any of this black card nonsense at all at all. Tyrone copped onto this quickly too and in the second half it was like the good old bad old days with Tyrone funnelling men back and hauling down opposition attackers with gay abandon. I’m no fan of the black card, partly because I think it’s a stupid way of doing things but mainly because consistent application of the rules by refs in Gaelic football is such a problem. Today proved that point in spades.
The ref’s quixotic world view didn’t, however, have any bearing on the result today. Tyrone should, in fact, have been out of sight before the break when a move involving a necklace of passes ended with an overcooked final one on the edge of the square. So instead of a palmed ball to the net, we managed to get it clear but back it then came to Donnelly who kicked his fourth from play to send them in six points up at the break.
Changes were obviously needed and, for once, James Horan wasn’t slow in making them. Four subs were introduced for the second half, with the hapless Kevin Keane and Colm Boyle (injured surely) replaced by debutant Stephen Coen and Brendan Harrison respectively, while in the forwards Cathal Carolan and Diarmuid O’Connor made way for Brian Gallagher and Michael Conroy.
I’d have added Andy Moran to that list too as he’d spent the entire first half spilling ball and he looked visibly knackered ten minutes into the second half. But incredibly Andy stayed on right till the end, while his obvious replacement – Alan Freeman – had to wait until five minutes from time before getting an all-too-late run-out. Try as you might, it’s really hard to figure that one out.
We were on the attack from the restart but it was a fruitless movement that kinda summed up our day. First Aidan O’Shea stupidly decided to shoot for goal in front of a thicket of defenders from twenty yards out and after it whacked off one of the half-dozen Tyrone lads who were in close proximity Mickey Conroy, with an equal lack of nous, picked the ball off the ground. Tyrone immediately punished us, with McCurry pointing from out on the left after Robbie Hennelly came haring out and got caught in no-man’s land.
We started to come back into it then, however, with Adam Gallagher pointing a free after Kevin Mc had been hauled down (not deliberately, obviously, so no black card). Then Big Dawg was dragged down by Cavanagh (once again a complete accident it would appear) but Kevin Mc’s free, from well within scoring range, fell short and was collected by Morgan. Tyrone responded immediately, the sub McAliskey pointing from play.
Another accidental pull-down saw another pointed free from the excellent Adam Gallagher as we finally began to motor. The same player had one from play following a great forging run by Kevin Mc and then Kevin himself pointed to cut the gap to four.
A wonderful individual score by Adam Gallagher then got us to within a goal of the home side following which the young Mayo Gaels man pointed a softly awarded free. Halfway through the second half now, we were almost back in the hunt but sadly that was as good as it got for us. Sean Cavanagh came on to steady the ship for them at midfield and we seemed to run out of puff, as they tacked on two more points – the first from play by McGinley and the second a long-range free from Morgan.
One of the more bizarre substitutions we’ve made in recent times saw Ger Cafferkey make way for Jason Doherty, as Brendan Harrison and Keith Higgins shifted back in the resultant reshuffle.
We got back within a goal once more with another Adam Gallagher free but a long-range attempt from a free soon after from Robbie Hennelly fell short. Within a few minutes, the game was up for us completely when, after a McNeice free, a flowing move involving several dummies (all of them bought by our lads) ended with McCurry smashing in his second goal of the day.
We got two more scores – another free from Adam Gallagher and a late, late point from play from Andy – to one for them but we were a well beaten side at the finish.
Overall it was a very, very poor performance. 2-15, on top of 2-19 last week, is a big score to concede – doing our points difference no good in the process – and once again today our full-back line was beaten up a proverbial stick. Tyrone cut through our defence with ease, we laboured at midfield, failed to win enough breaking ball in the middle third and were generally wasteful, one-dimensional and clueless up front. It wasn’t one of the pretty ones, that’s for sure.
The brightest spark for us today was young Adam Gallagher who once again showed he has what it takes in the forward line. He showed constantly for the ball, passed with intelligence and was well able to take a score – ending the day with nine points (six from frees) to his credit. He was my MOTM (for us – I guess Donnelly or McCurry would be in the frame for the overall award) by some considerable margin.
Alongside him, Kevin McLoughlin was lively and productive in spurts, showing further tentative signs that his form of old may be returning. Lee Keegan put in a decent enough shift too and Jason Gibbons worked hard but never came close to putting in the same kind of storming display as he posted the last day. Aside from those, there were precious few who stood up today and I think it’s just as well we did bin the players’ rating idea as I fear we could have ended up with a few (or maybe more than a few) with numbers close to zero against them for today.
But it’s still only early days and, as we know all too well, those flying in February can often crash and burn before August comes around. Our league campaigns in the James Horan era have always mixed the rough with the smooth and it could be that this one will prove no exception.
Don’t forget that last April we were in the drop zone until around ten minutes from time in our final round match down at Páirc Uí Chaoimh and yet we managed to end the day in fourth spot so we shouldn’t, I reckon, be drawing any dire conclusions at this stage about our Division One status. We’ve still our three home games, as well as what should be a handy trip to Cusack Park in Mullingar, in which, once again, to secure safety in the top flight. We’re more than capable of getting enough out of these games to do this.
Our first home game is our next one, where a struggling Kerry side – who also lost today – make the trip to Castlebar in three weeks time. Getting a result in that one still isn’t, to my mind, absolutely essential but it would, of course, be very welcome. What’s really important, though, is that our performance level starts to improve on what we’ve seen so far this year. We were very poor today – far worse than we were in Newbridge – and we need to use the three-week gap now facing us to get us back to a level at which we can once again begin to look on the year with confidence about our prospects.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey, Colm Boyle; Lee Keegan (0-1), Shane McHale, David Drake; Jason Gibbons, Aidan O’Shea; Cathal Carolan (0-1), Keith Higgins (0-1), Adam Gallagher (0-9, six frees); Kevin McLoughlin (0-2), Andy Moran (0-1), Diarmuid O’Connor. Subs: Stephen Coen for Keane, Brendan Harrison for Boyle, Brian Gallagher for Carolan, Michael Conroy for O’Connor, Jason Doherty for Cafferkey and Alan Freeman for Keegan.
Kiltane’s defeat in today’s All-Ireland Intermediate club final is, of course, also deserving of a mention tonight. Monaghan’s Truagh Gaels had too much in the tank in the end for the Erris lads, for whom today must be really heartbreaking, having come so far only to fall short within sight of the summit. Enormous commiserations to them and well done on the stirring and gutsy campaign that got them as far as Croke Park today.