We gave everything and more this evening down in the Gaelic Grounds but, in the final analysis, it just wasn’t enough. More than once in this All-Ireland semi-final replay it looked as if we were on our way but eventually it was Kerry who pushed ahead of us in the second half of extra-time to claim their place in next month’s final.
I’m gutted, you’re all no doubt feeling the same and, of course, whatever we’re feeling then you can be sure that James and the lads are feeling it a hundred times more. They put in so much effort again this year but once again, despite the historic Connacht four-in-a-row earlier in the summer, they’ve come away empty-handed. It’s a crushing, massive disappointment.
The bottom line, though, is that Kerry outplayed us from start to finish in the middle third tonight and it was always going to be hard to beat them when we were being cleaned out in the engine room. None of the changes we made there made any material difference and we never got to grips with this basic failing on our part. With the continual stream of possession they won around the middle – which Robbie’s one-dimensional kickout strategy, that saw virtually every ball humped down the middle, did nothing to address – it was always going to be an uphill task for us to come out on top. In the end, we just weren’t able to.
When we got the two first-half goals, though, and were briefly seven points ahead, it really did look as if we were in business. We hadn’t started all that well and Kerry had their noses in front by the end of the first quarter but Cillian’s unbelievable catch from Seamie’s long ball in resulted in a penalty for us, but no black card for the drag down.
Cillian converted the penalty and a few minutes later we were celebrating again. Aidan O’Shea made a great fetch and offloaded to Cillian who poked the ball home at the second time of asking. A free from the Ballintubber man followed just after and we were seven ahead and flying.
But we didn’t build on it and the concession of a stupid goal at the other end, scored by Donaghy, meant that we went in just three in front. Seen another way, though, it was a wonder we were ahead at all as Kerry were so dominant in both gaining primary possession and picking up the breaks.
The injuries suffered by Aidan and Cillian at half-time didn’t help our cause either. Was it a clash of heads between them? I’ve no idea what it was, but there was plenty of blood and both failed to restart after the break, though they did both reappear during the second half. Losing them then did, though, upset our rhythm and Aidan, in particular, was never as effective after.
I didn’t see either what happened in the run-up to either of Kerry’s penalties, I have to admit. I’ve heard there’s controversy about one of them – the second one, I think – but I’d need to see it again before saying anything further about it.
The first one, tucked away to Robbie’s left by O’Donoghue, put Kerry right back into it and when the evergreen Marc O Se – who, it must be admitted, was superb this evening – bombed forward to put Kerry two up with twenty minutes left, it started to look like we were in bother.
Andy Moran’s goal at the other end, though, was just the boost we needed at the right time. A garryowen from Cillian was poorly dealt with by the Kerry goalie and Kevin McLoughlin bundled it into Andy to score.
We looked the likelier winners for the next frantic ten minutes, until the second penalty. O’Donoghue placed this one to Robbie’s right and Kerry were now two to the good with time running out.
It was then that the Kerry playacting got going properly. There’d been a nasty edge to this contest from the start – and this would continue right to the death – but once Kerry got in front then they started a very clumsy interpretation of the Nordie timewasting playbook. One after another they fell like flies and took forever to get up. The three minutes of added time was in no way a fair reflection of all the time lost with this messing around.
Thankfully, they didn’t get away with it but it took a last-gasp punched point from Donal Vaughan to keep our hopes alive and take the match to extra-time. We even had a very late opportunity to win it but Robbie’s long-range free just came up short. Boy, it sure would have been delicious had we sealed it then.
I really thought we’d power on at that stage and for much of the first period of extra-time that looked like what was happening. Two laughably soft frees for them, however, both converted by Keane, pegged us back and kept the contest level as the tie entered its final frantic ten minutes.
We failed to add to our tally in the second period of extra-time while they got the three points that sealed it. There were handbags all over the place in the closing seconds (which suited them fine), there was a pitch invasion by one of our fans, who had to be wrestled from the playing area by several stewards, and Cillian eventually got a straight red for a kick at one of the Kerry lads. I’m not sure which one of them it was but I do hope it was that prick Donaghy.
So that’s it. I’ve said really all I want to say about the game and I’ve still managed to say nothing about the ref. The less said about Cormac Reilly, frankly, the better. All I will say is that if that was anything remotely approaching fair officiating then I clearly know nothing about the rules of Gaelic football.
I’m not going to delve any deeper into tonight’s match either. I didn’t leave it all out on the pitch the way the lads did but I’m emptied and utterly spent all the same. We all gave it everything tonight – the ferocity of the support matched the effort the lads were expending on the other side of the white line – but sadly it just wasn’t enough. There’ll be other days for us, I know, but, for now, there are wounds to lick and from this standpoint they look fairly raw.
As we wallow in our own self-pity tonight, it’s worth recalling all the lads have done over the last few years and, yes, all they can still achieve in the future. I’m only just back in the door and have just seen definitive confirmation of the news that James has stepped down as manager. I’ll say more about this tomorrow but the only right way to sign off tonight is by paying fulsome tribute to James for all he’s done in his time in charge. He took over when we were in total disarray and came close, so bloody close, to leading us to glory. He leaves the county side in an immeasurably better place than he found it. He leaves very big shoes to fill. Thanks for everything, James.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Tom Cunniffe, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan (0-1); Barry Moran, Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-1), Aidan O’Shea, Jason Doherty (0-3); Cillian O’Connor (2-5, penalty goal and three frees), Andy Moran (1-1), Alan Dillon. Subs: Tom Parsons for Barry Moran, Alan Freeman (0-1, free) for Aidan O’Shea (blood), Michael Conroy (0-1) for O’Connor (blood) and for Dillon, Kevin Keane for Cafferkey, Richie Feeney for Seamus O’Shea (ET), Alan Freeman for Andy Moran (ET), Brendan Harrison for Vaughan (ET), Chris Barrett for Boyle (ET).