Photo: Club ’51 (via Facebook)
In the build up to this year’s Connacht championship opener in Gaelic Park, New York, the outgoing GAA president Liam O’Neill had raised serious questions over the future of this tie. He doubted whether the counties involved had the appetite and the financial wherewithal to take part in the fixture and he helped to cast doubt on any future participation of New York GAA in the Connacht championship.
Well, if O’Neill and his fellow Croke Park bureaucrats had paid as much attention to what supporters and the grassroots GAA community actually want, as opposed to sneaking off and doing exclusive TV deals with a foreign broadcaster, they might see for themselves just how wrong they are. O’Neill’s comments were all the more confusing when you consider that the justification for the Sky deal is purely for the benefit of our emigrant/ex-pat community.
If this game did nothing else it highlighted the efforts that the GAA community in New York and America went to in welcoming the Mayo supporters to their home, and, it reinforced yet again the almost maniacal support that the Mayo team get from the Green and Red army. These two points should not be forgotten. As someone posted on Twitter in the build-up to this game, “If Mayo were playing on the moon there is a fair chance that they’d get a huge crowd at it!”
Gaelic Park is a lovely little ground, like so many club grounds throughout the country. Dressing rooms in one corner of the ground, a club house in the other and seated terracing running along the length of the pitch on one side. The “executive boxes” on the opposite side of the pitch were made up of a parked subway train, just to remind us all, if we needed it, that we were far from MacHale Park.
The “homeliness” of the ground was nice on one level, but slightly dangerous on another. The venue was not capable of handling the huge crowd (estimated to be slightly over 5,000 – take notice Mr. O’Neill!) and the lack of stewarding made for a worrying situation at half-time when the crowd going to and coming from the clubhouse got “funnelled” along the walkway to the terracing and everything came to a standstill. I don’t want to be critical but our hosts obviously were not used to handling such a big and thirsty crowd.
Photo: Club ’51 (via Facebook)
The bright and sunny day was perfect for football and only a brief rattle of thunder and flash of lightning threatened to spoil the day. As a warm-up to the main event an underage ladies’ match between St. Brigids and a Feile Girls selection got things rolling. This was followed by an U14s Feile Boys contest between New York and Philadelphia.
The standard of football in this match was easily on a par with U14s at home and the No.7 for Philadelphia was as good a player as I have seen at this age group anywhere. There has been a shift in focus in GAA circles in America lately. No longer are the clubs content to entice Irish lads out to play for them for three or four months of the Summer. The focus is now on underage development and producing the next generation of footballers. If the level of skills execution that the New York and Philadelphia sides displayed is anything to go by then they certainly have the coaching structures right.
The main event itself started after the singing of Amhran na bhFiann and The Star Spangled Banner. The only change to the side listed in the programme was the late inclusion of Alan Dillon. He took Adam Gallagher’s no.24 shirt in what was, for me anyway, a slightly disappointing development as I had been looking forward to seeing if Adam would get a run out to build on his excellent early league form. Aidan O’Shea lined out at no. 9 for the throw-in but then immediately switched places with his brother Seamus at no.11 and remained there for the entire game.
Mayo, as they have been doing all year, won the throw-in and within 23 seconds of the start we had registered our first point of the day. New York had obviously studied the tactics employed by London in last year’s championship and had decided to “timber in” to the Mayo lads. Mayo made it clear from the outset however that they were more than happy to play it that way if New York so decided.
One impressive off the ball schemozzle involved Gary O’Driscoll and Kevin Keane early in the first half. O’Driscoll had hit a sly dig at Kevin however Kevin responded with interest and ended the contest with two sweet left hooks to the body that lifted O’Driscoll off the ground and dropped him to his knees. It was as good as anything Foreman delivered in Madison Square Garden.
Photo: Club ’51 (via Facebook)
This all contributed to a scrappy enough first half that saw us strangely looking to bat down and break ball around the middle of the field instead of fetching cleanly. We were guilty of running the ball into congested central areas of the field, delaying and overplaying the ball instead of taking the shot, going scoreless for two five-minute periods and failing to see and pick out our runners when they were wide and in space. In the first half alone Diarmuid O’Connor made three excellent runs into space but was not picked out and Doherty was another whose runs went unrewarded.
Aidan O’Shea operated on the ’40 but was given license to roam across the line and also inside to the full-forward line. The Mayo tactic was to try to pick him out in front of goal and it almost came off as he hit the woodwork. Andy Moran had an effort blocked and Keegan had another goal effort saved. While Gavin Joyce in the New York goal should be credited with having a fine game, this annoying habit we have of creating goal chances and not taking them must be sorted and quick. One thing is for sure, we will need goals in the Hyde.
The disjointed and scrappy nature of the game continued into the last few minutes of the first half when Kevin McLoughlin was taken out of the game with a high and dangerous forearm to his face. He was receiving a pass from Keegan and was on the turn when McGinley met him full-on. There is no doubt it was a straight red card challenge and I think the Kerry referee Padraig O’Sullivan took the occasion and difference in class into account when producing just the yellow. Kevin was bleeding and well shook and was replaced by Enda Varley in the first substitution of SEVEN of the day.
Photo: Club ’51 (via Facebook)
A 0-11 to 0-2 lead at half time was about fair. New York had kicked four wides in the first half, had some terrific performers in Jason Kelly and Brendan Quigley, and had tried to exploit our supposed weakness under the high ball into our square. To be fair to Mayo both Hennelly and Keane dealt with anything coming in high, Vaughan and Keegan had attacked from the wingback positions to add to the scoreboard and our full-forward line scored four points in that first half.
Another factor Mayo had to deal with was their inexperience of playing on an astroturf pitch that had a heavy dosing of rubber pellets. This type of surface makes for a lovely running surface as it is very zippy and springy but the difficulty is with the bounce of the ball as it “carries” very far and will “bounce-on” much higher and farther than on a grass surface. This made it difficult for our midfielders and half-backs to judge the delivery of the ball into the forwards.
Mayo introduced Tom Parsons for Jason Gibbons (who’d scored an excellent long range point and made two clean fetches) and Richie Feeney for Jason Doherty (disappointingly quiet) at half-time and straight away after the restart scored 1-1. The impressive Diarmuid O’Connor finally got his rewards for a very good performance with a goal. I know he is young and still learning the game, and I know that this was only New York, but Diarmuid didn’t put a foot wrong. He makes very intelligent runs into space, has a massive pair of legs for a young lad that helps him cover the ground at ease and he collected three or four breaking balls from midfield where his ability to read the ball and time his run meant that he was in the right place at the right time. The boy is a player already, make no mistake and I believe in time, may be a more natural ball-playing forward than his older brother. Alan Dillon was brought on for Diarmuid shortly after his goal but he can be happy with his contribution.
Mayo started going through the gears at this stage and Seamus O’Shea, whom I thought had a very good consistent game throughout (although he didn’t agree when I was talking to him later), was beginning to exert his influence in the middle of the field where he was carrying ball forward and bursting through tackles. Tom Parsons’ movement around the middle third and his ball-winning ability made it very difficult for New York to gain primary possession and with Feeney hoovering up any rare loose balls, New York were starved of possession. Conor O’Shea was introduced for Andy Moran on 54 minutes and he showed well for the ball, turning to carry it forward when he could. Conor, like his brothers, is a big man but he looks more mobile and quicker than either Seamus or Aidan and is another one to look out for over the coming seasons.
Mayo were now finding space in the forward line at will and their superior fitness was telling as we scored three goals in the last 15 minutes. Varley netted one to go with his point and then Cillian O’Connor slotted away two identical penalties (although the second one was harshly given I felt) in the space of seven minutes to give him a personal tally of 2-5 with only one point from play.
Brendan Harrison was brought on for Keith Higgins with eleven minutes to go and Darren Coen came on for Cillian with five to go. Darren was our seventh sub of the day and as I didn’t bring my GAA Rulebook with me I can only assume that there is an unconfirmed blood sub somewhere in the substitute listings. Darren got a peach of a score, as he so often does when he is given a chance, when he took the ball in the left half-forward position, cut inside, side-stepped two Yanks and drilled the ball over the bar from 35 metres out.
Enough was enough and the ref called a halt to the game. The players hung around on the field to chat to supporters, swap geansais and sign autographs for the kids; however it was interesting to note that Dillion was away in the corner with the trainer carrying out lung-bursting shuttle sprints as everyone else relaxed.
In a game where Mayo had very little to gain and a lot to lose we did enough to keep things ticking over and our opponents guessing as to what our starting fifteen will be like. This time last year Harrison, Gibbons, Parsons and Sweeney were not real options but going into this Summer I believe they all are. In Diarmuid O’Connor and Adam Gallagher we have two players of undoubted ability and all they need is time to gain experience at this level. Playing Aidan O’Shea on the ’40 was not without its faults but he scored two points, hit a wide and the woodwork and is yet another option for Horan for this summer. Kevin Keane is finally shaking off the crisis of confidence that he has struggled with since September 2012 and is back in contention for a spot, as is Richie Feeney. The only disappointments for me were the performances of Doherty and Moran where both were far from impressive in a game where they should have shone.
Photo: Club ’51 (via Facebook)
That was New York and all it had to offer us. A great spot, a brilliant time and the place was well named when they called it The City that Never Sleeps because we didn’t get much ourselves. As for the future of the fixture? Well, Liam and the great and the good at GAA HQ, open your eyes and see what it meant to those that organised everything Stateside and those who travelled to follow our team. More travelled to New York to see Mayo than will travel to Australia to see the International Rules. See what it meant to the Mayo ex-pats over there where they couldn’t do enough for us. I say “Roll on NYC 2019”.
But first, we have the Hyde and the Rossies to deal with. Hon Mayo!