Five years ago, an utterly toothless display against Sligo in Markievicz Park saw us crash out of the Connacht championship at the preliminary round stage. Since that June 2010 evening, we’ve remained undefeated in the championship within the province and this afternoon at Hyde Park we crushed Sligo, running up what I’m almost certain was the biggest winning margin ever in a Connacht final as we cruised to five Nestor Cup titles in a row.
I think we all expected a win heading to Roscommon today – I certainly did and thought that we might even win with ease – but a victory of the proportions achieved was never something we could have imagined would happen. How could we? Sligo looked like worthy opponents going into today’s final having confidently torpedoed the uppity Rossies in the semi-final. We knew that the last thing we wanted to happen today was to get dragged into a dogfight with the doughty Yeatsmen.
Our lads seemingly thought so too. The ball was hardly thrown in at a packed Hyde Park when we hit them with a ferocity they simply couldn’t live with. A point and a goal from Cillian O’Connor had them staggering, a second goal – with barely five minutes gone – swept to the net by the galloping Seamus O’Shea, after a neat one-two with Aidan, saw them hit the deck.
Having seized the initiative so early, we moved in swiftly for the kill. The impressive Diarmuid O’Connor, raiding up the right wing, fired over his and our second point of the day and Cillian popped over the next one to ease us ten clear.
The Magpies eventually opened their account with a point but then Aidan O’Shea responded in kind, claiming a long ball in from Tom Parsons, who’d fetched clean possession from David Clarke’s kickout.
Marren got a second for them but Jason Doherty cancelled that one out with a boomer at the other end. Then Aidan O’Shea, like a magnet the way every long ball in was sticking to him, gathered another well-directed long one and lashed it into the net. By now it was already clear that a real hammering was on the cards.
We lost Sheamie soon after – with what I think was a groin strain – as Barry Moran came on to replace the Breaffy man. Shortly after that our net was breached for the first time. Brendan Egan should, though, have been pulled for overcarrying – the Vinnies man took at least 12 steps before lashing the ball into the top left corner of the net.
The suffering Sligo faithful didn’t have long, however, to enjoy that score. We went straight down the other end of the field, with Andy feeding Barry Moran who slipped it to Aidan who finished it to the net.
By half-time we were eleven points clear – enjoying a 4-9 to 1-6 lead – and with the Sligo keeper Aidan Devanney having tipped a piledriver from Cillian over just before the break, it could have been worse for them.
But it got worse, much worse, for them after the break. Although much of the intensity was gone from a game long over as a contest, we kept coming at them in waves and those waves engulfed the hapless Magpies in a torrent of second half scores, as our winning margin bulged to an incredible 26 points at the finish.
We got the first three points after the break – Jason (from play), Cillian (from a ’45) and Donal Vaughan (his second of the day, following an end-to-end move) – and then, after Marren pulled one back, Diarmuid O’Connor almost nonchalently knocked over one with his left foot.
Cian Breheny, under enormous pressure, thumped over a glorious point for them but then we peppered them with 2-4 without reply to floor them completely.
The first of these two goals came from Aidan, another glorious catch and emphatic finish to complete a hat-trick of majors. The next score was another goal, with Cillian O’Connor squaring for the in-rushing Lee Keegan to bat home.
They responded to these hammer blows with a second goal, another bad one to concede from our point of view but well put away by Pat Hughes. Our response to this was a late flurry of points from players sprung from the bench, with two of them from Mark Ronaldson and one each from Alan Dillon, Chris Barrett and Patrick Durcan. Mercifully, only a minute of added time was played with a late free from Cillian closing out the win and sealing our fifth Connacht title on the spin.
Hat-trick hero Aidan O’Shea was, once again, our main man today but he wasn’t the only one. Cillian, looking sharp and fitter than he’s been in a long while, was a menacing presence in the forward line too and he was his customary excellent self from placed balls.
Tom Parsons put in a real storming shift at midfield, winning bags of possession, where he was full of pace and powerful running, driving some great ball into the dangerzone. Dessie Dolan tonight on The Sunday Game described Tom’s performance as a “complete midfield display” and he wasn’t wrong.
I thought Darmuid O’Connor was excellent today too. This lad is a real thoroughbred – he has pace, power and intelligence in abundance and he showed this in spades with a storming performance, one garlanded with four great points from play. In the Connacht final four years ago, his older brother announced his arrival as a serious inter-county performer and today on the same pitch Diarmuid did likewise.
Despite the enormous margin of victory, it wasn’t in any sense a complete performance and there’s been plenty of comment in the hours since about our continuing inability to deal effectively with goal threats. Today this problem continued unabated, with pandemonium breaking out virtually every time a high ball was lofted towards our square on a day that saw us cough up another two more goals that shouldn’t have happened.
It’s an issue, for sure, but one that I’d say (merely repeating what Jim McGuinness observed some weeks back) is more to do with the lack of an effective defensive structure than it is the players we’re fielding at the back. It’s a problem that’s screaming out to be sorted, however, and it’s something we simply have to work on before we get to Croke Park.
In the meantime, there’s a short while for us to celebrate our 46th Connacht title and our first provincial five-in-a-row since (despite what the record books may say) we last completed the feat back in 1910. And, of course, there’s also that Round 4B qualifier tie between Donegal and Galway, to be played at some point over the August Bank Holiday weekend, to watch out for as it’s likely (though not 100% certain – Tyrone could be in the mix too) that it’ll be the winner of that one that we’ll be facing at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage the weekend after that.
Mayo: David Clarke; Ger Cafferkey, Donal Vaughan (0-2), Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan (1-0), Tom Cunniffe, Colm Boyle; Seamus O’Shea (1-0), Tom Parsons; Diarmuid O’Connor (0-4), Aidan O’Shea (3-4), Kevin McLoughlin; Andy Moran, Cillian O’Connor (1-7, four frees and a ‘45), Jason Doherty (0-2). Subs: Barry Moran (0-1), Alan Dillon (0-1) for Andy Moran, Brendan Harrison for Cafferkey, Mark Ronaldson (0-2) for McLoughlin, Patrick Durcan (0-1) for Keegan, Chris Barrett for Boyle.