Having sworn blind coming out of Limerick last August that I was retiring from this supporter’s business, here I was rolling up to Castlebar on the 3rd of January to write up a match report on the first round of our FBD league campaign. According to my (non-Mayo) spouse, you can’t keep a good Mayo person down. So armed with everything from thermal socks to fleece lined jacket, I joined the 1,500 or so other Mayo patrons on a bright, dry, but nonetheless nippy afternoon in MacHale Park.
Mayo, hoping for a repeat of their three-point victory over the same opponents this time last year, started with three total newcomers to the inter-county scene: Darren McHugh (Hollymount/Carramore) at right corner-back, Caolan Crowe (Garrymore) at centre-back, and Alex Corduff (Ballina) at midfield. Fringe players from last year also got a run out with Stephen Coen at left corner-back and a somewhat bulkier Adam Gallagher at centre half-forward. Former players in the guise of the heralded Evan Regan (right corner-forward), Neil Douglas (right half-forward) and the still light-looking Mark Ronaldson (left corner-forward) are also now back in the mix.
The old hand was still very much visible though, with Hennelly, Cafferkey, Keane, Barrett, Gibbons, Conroy and Doherty all in the starting line-up with Clarke, Barry Moran, McLoughlin, Vaughan and Freeman making up the bench alongside Keith Rogers and Mikey Sweeney. Therefore no sign yet of Cunniffe, Andy Moran, Dillon, the O’Connor brothers (U21 and Colleges), Feeney (College), Higgins, Keegan, Boyle, the O’Shea brothers, Harrison, Varley or Parsons, nor any new players from the 2013 or 2014 vintage of minors, or the Under 21s who were in action yesterday.
Our new management team were out in force, though, with Noel stoic on the sidelines with our new Maor Foirne, to be joined by Pat who spent the first half watching the action unfold from a different vantage point. Maurice Sheridan provided the Mayo interest on the NUIG sideline, along with seven Mayo men in their extended playing panel.
With Michael Conroy as stand-in captain, Mayo started playing into the sunny Albany end, keeping four forwards inside their ’45 with Douglas and Conroy dropping deep on the flanks. At the rear, it appeared to be a continuation with the policy of man-on-man in the full back line – to the extent that Stephen Coen spent much of the second half following his man out the field. All in all, there doesn’t appear to be any dramatic tactical variations from the previous seasons.
The opening ten minutes were characterised by lateral hand-passing and soloing, little shooting and just two pointed frees from the boot of Galway man Peadar Ó Griofa, who would finish the afternoon with an astonishing 1-7 of NUIG’s total, all from frees bar the goal. What followed then was some quick-fire scoring from Mayo, who racked up seven points in eight minutes.
Neil Douglas opened Mayo’s account from 30 yards, before firing over another from the resulting kickout. Darren McHugh burst forward from corner-back to level up the scores at 0-3 apiece. Jason Doherty put one over on the turn after good work from Caolan Crowe before Evan Regan pointed a free won from a turnover from the right hand side. Michael Conroy then hit a skyscraper with Mark Ronaldson getting in the act too, leaving Mayo four points to the good at 0-7 to 0-3, and surprisingly no wides kicked in the first half.
Despite Jason Gibbons lording it at midfield, Mayo’s good work was at danger of being undone, though, conceding frees regularly following direct running from the Galway men. NUIG got their first point from play in the 20th minute after some unsettling soloing in the full-back line by Michael Conroy resulted in a turnover. This was followed by a point from Comer, a couple of frees, and then some indecision under a high ball into the full-back line saw the ball drop to Ó Griofa who buried it into the bottom right hand corner of the net.
This six-point swing was compounded by a questionable black card for Jason Doherty on the stroke of half-time for a hand trip. Although Neil Douglas responded by sending over a skyscraper point, it left Mayo two points behind at half time, 1-7 to 0-8.
Mayo started the second half with Rogers, Sweeney and Freeman coming on as substitutes, but the fresh legs didn’t seem to prevent some uninspiring kickouts and wayward shooting in the opening ten minutes. Nothing of note was happening outside of Neil Douglas manfully shipping two heavy tackles and making a fine block, until out of nowhere Alan Freeman managed to retain a difficult high ball, before fisting it through the full back’s legs. The ball made its way across to Mark Ronaldson who trickled the ball over the line to put Mayo ahead 1-8 to 1-7. Following a pointed free from Ó Griofa, the game went through a long period of scorelessness, before Regan nailed a difficult free from the right hand side, having missed an easier one moments earlier.
NUIG scored again before Mayo produced the score of the game. Barry Moran, on for a ten-minute cameo, fielded a kickout straight from Hennelly, turned and kicked it to Neil Douglas who turned and fired it over the bar – three kicks from end to end. Unfortunately Douglas hurt himself in the act, which resulted in the forward being replaced by the returning Ger Cafferkey. We then stretched our lead following a marauding run from Chris Barrett, and that gap was extended to three points when Regan swung over another fine free from 45 metres.
With time running out, however, Mayo were put on the back foot by some direct running from NUIG. Rogers had to haul a man down to prevent a goal chance, and following that pointed free, Damian Comer found himself one on one with Robbie Hennelly who closed him down fantastically to block the ball. NUIG spurned another goal chance before Adam Gallagher and Ó Griofa traded frees. Mayo closed out the five minutes of injury to win by two points, but not as convincingly as they could be happy with.
Overall, positive showings from Jason Gibbons, Caolan Crowe and Chris Barrett. Regan and Gallagher showed good hands and strength but were always winning the ball going away from goal. Alex Corduff showed his inexperience by throwing himself in too often, while Coen, Keane, McHugh and Cafferkey were solid but unspectacular in the backline. Doherty, Sweeney and Ronaldson were willing in the forward line but finding it difficult to make the ball stick – Freeman posed more danger when he came on. Man of the match, though, is reserved for Neil Douglas, who showed bravery and heart in shipping heavy tackles and making blocks, vision and technique with some stylish kick passes into the full-forward line, and a finisher’s instinct with four points from play.
So the cobwebs of winter are blown away with a hard-fought win, and we have two more home FBD matches against IT Sligo (in Ballina) and Roscommon (MacHale Park) before the long trip down to Kerry in the Allianz League opener on the 1st of February. Sure, isn’t it like we were never away?
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Darren McHugh (0-1), Ger Cafferkey, Stephen Coen; Chris Barrett (0-1), Caolan Crowe,Kevin Keane; Jason Gibbons, Alex Corduff; Neil Douglas (0-4), Adam Gallagher (0-1, free), Michael Conroy (0-1); Evan Regan (0-3, frees), Jason Doherty (0-1), Mark Ronaldson (1-1). Subs: Alan Freeman for Doherty (black card, HT), Keith Rogers for Cafferkey (HT), Mikey Sweeney for Conroy (HT), Barry Moran for Corduff (50 mins), Ger Cafferkey for Douglas (injured, 51 mins).
NUIG scorers: Sean Moran (0-1), Cristoir Davey (0-1), Damien Comer (0-1), Peadar Ó Griofa, (1-7, seven frees), Kevin Gibbons (0-1, free).