Five-in-a-row. I know the five Nestors on the spin didn’t rock everyone’s boat but five successive wins at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage is definitely an achievement to be proud of. And not any quarter-final wins either – two each over Cork and Donegal, one each when they were defending All-Ireland champions.
All of these wins have been thrilling, all worthy of celebration, but I think (and it’s not only the drink talking here) that today’s emphatic 2-13 to 0-11 victory over Donegal might well be the most satisfactory of the lot. Why? Because we took them on, overpowered them all over the field and then made damn sure they weren’t going to get close to breaking down our defensive shield in the final quarter. 2013 may have been champagne football, this one was – I dunno – some kind of special reserve single malt whiskey or something like that.
It was also the strangest match-day I’ve lived through since the site’s inception. I’ve missed loads of Mayo matches in the past – most of them due to living abroad – but never since I started the blog back in 2007 have I failed to get to an All-Ireland series match involving us. This year’s holiday plans made such an outcome unavoidable on this occasion but it still felt decidedly weird to be the best part of 3,000 miles away from Croke Park this evening as the lads took the field for one of the defining matches of the summer.
Still, I had a ringside seat at a bar round the corner from the hotel so I was able to watch every twist and turn of the game live on Sky. And I didn’t hold back in the vocal stakes either, as my poor kids – going increasingly scarlet at my verbal promptings – could no doubt confirm.
I’m not going to go into a detailed description of how the match played out – many of you were there today and so are in a better position to describe events. So instead I’ll just provide some broad-brush thoughts on the contest.
From what I could see, this was an act in roughly three parts. The first was the initial shadow-boxing phase, where we probed each other’s weaknesses looking for openings. This lasted most of the first half and for most of this time we had the upper hand, though not decidedly so. Three up at the half-hour mark, I thought then a goal was near but when Donegal got the next two points I was happy enough to see us go in at the break one in front.
But it was just before the half-time whistle sounded that Aidan O’Shea ushered in the start of Act II, which was where we hit the gas and left them for dead. The goal that looked for a good fifteen minutes like it was coming finally arrived when Aidan O’Shea superbly fielded a long ball in, turned and, with two or three Donegal lads hanging out of him, smashed it to the net to give us a four-point half-time lead.
The goal was a crucial game-changer. Donegal were now forced to come out of their shell and attack us, which was exactly what we wanted them to do as this opened up space in their half for us.
And, boy, did we exploit it. Our next score was another goal, with Lee Keegan – who’d already banged over two superb first half points – sent in a shot that curled viciously into the corner of Durcan’s net. Was he going for a point or a goal? Really, who cares? The end result was what mattered.
What it meant was that Donegal were now seven behind, a gap that widened to eight soon after when Cillian O’Connor knocked over a free. Eight points was still the gap at the end so we can take it that, following Cillian’s point, Act III began. This segment was all about keeping Donegal at bay, restricting them to the odd point here and there while nicking a few at the other end ourselves, while all the while making damn bloody sure that no goals would be conceded.
In that, we succeeded admirably. Once they broke through for a shot that was always blazing over but, that apart, they never came close to scoring either of the two goals they would have needed to reel us back in.
It wasn’t pretty and I felt that, in shutting up shop the way we did, we maybe passed up on the chance to give them a right hiding. Had we kept the pedal to the floor after Lee’s goal I think we could have easily doubled our winning margin but I can see that we reckoned then that we had enough in the bank at that stage and so all we needed to do was hold the line in order to get over the line. Which we did with a calm and ruthless efficiency.
It was the controlled and well-planned way that we went about choking the life out of Donegal’s challenge which made this win so deeply and enormously satisfying. The Horan years were one I’ll treasure for as long as I’m on this earth but so often big matches in those years were a seats-of-the pants experience. Today’s second half display looked, in contrast, like it had been war-gamed to destruction in advance.
All the lads knew exactly what they were doing and never once did we leave our full-back line exposed in the way we so often did in the past, in the way we did as recently as the Connacht final this year. At last, we’ve put in place our own bespoke defensive shield, one that today proved very effective.
A few things didn’t chime, like the four successive attempted points that we dropped short, like all the slipping and sliding on the greasy surface (was everyone wearing the right boots?), like Cillian O’Connor’s underwhelming return from placed balls, like the two kickouts punted out over the sideline, the first by David Clarke and the second by his half-time replacement Robbie Hennelly.
But today was only quarter-final day, one where you don’t necessarily want or expect everything to go right for you. To see a number of areas of obvious improvement while dispatching a battle-hardened outfit like Donegal with relative ease speaks volumes for where this team are now at.
The cards we picked up in the second half will be costly, though. Donal Vaughan’s merited black card was his second of this championship campaign so I’m almost sure that rules him out of the semi-final and if that is the case he’ll be a significant loss to us against a team like Dublin.
Hopefully Kevin Keane’s ludicrous straight red will be appealed. Of course he shouldn’t have retaliated but what a sad and pathetic creature Murphy was to instigate the incident and then appeal for Keane to be carded. I never had much time for Murphy before today, I’ve zero respect for him after this incident.
It’s difficult to pick out standout performers today, as in so many ways today was the epitome of a team performance. Everyone knew their role and everyone did what they needed to do and they all deserve immense credit for how they performed.
For my money, I thought Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Tom Parsons, Aidan O’Shea, Kevin McLoughlin, Barry Moran and Jason Doherty were all close to brilliant today, with Lee – so tigerish at the back, so full of running and lethal going forward, notching up 1-2 from play – the primus inter pares on the day.
And hats off too to Noel and Pat and their backroom team who today demonstrated beyond doubt their tactical acumen on the sideline and their ability to put in place a gameplan that the players executed so well in practice. If it can be said – and I think it can – that the team moved to a different level in how they performed today then equally so it needs to be acknowledged that Noel and Pat were central to this shift to what looks like higher ground tactically.
But, of course, we’ve won nothing yet. Now it’s onto the Dubs in three weeks time, with Croke Park packed to the rafters and everything once more on the line. This is what it means to be alive, this is what it means to support the team in these remarkable times that we now increasingly see as the norm. Can’t wait!
Mayo: David Clarke; Ger Cafferkey, Donal Vaughan, Keith Higgins (0-1); Lee Keegan (1-2), Tom Cunniffe, Colm Boyle; Seamus O’Shea, Tom Parsons; Diarmuid O’Connor, Aidan O’Shea (1-0), Kevin McLoughlin (0-2); Barry Moran, Cillian O’Connor (0-3, two frees), Jason Doherty (0-3). Subs: Chris Barrett for Cunniffe, Robbie Hennelly for Clarke, Patrick Durcan for Vaughan (black card), Andy Moran (0-1) for Barry Moran (blood), Alan Freeman (0-1) for Seamus O’Shea, Kevin Keane for Cafferkey.