These are the days of our lives. We’ve known for a fair while what a special team this is but this year has proven the point beyond doubt. Today’s win over Kerry – a first championship win over the Kingdom in 21 long years – rams it home.
Going into today’s All-Ireland semi-final replay, I was full of the kind of apprehension I’d say most of you felt to some degree. We’d been the better team last Sunday but we hadn’t proved it on the scoreboard. Kerry would be more difficult to beat today – could we rise to the challenge?
But alongside this was the realisation that we’d never get a better chance to take down Kerry and, in doing so, break through that glass ceiling I mentioned earlier on today. Well, we did that in spades, yielding in the process one of the truly magical Mayo GAA days at Croke Park.
When the teams were announced twenty minutes before throw-in at a sun-kissed HQ this afternoon, I have to admit that my confidence levels soared. We went with the same fifteen that had started last Sunday but they made three changes – in addition to the one forced on them in the team they named last night – demonstrating in the process how much our display last Sunday must have spooked them.
Benched were Mark Griffin, Anthony Maher and James O’Donoghue, with Jonathan Lyne, Jack Barry and Tom O’Sullivan starting for them instead. This definitely felt like Round 1 to us.
A fear I had about today’s replay was the truism that the second day rarely plays out like the first. With that in mind, I was expecting Kerry to explode from the traps and go for us.
They went for us alright, but purely in the physical stakes. Tadhg Morley had wrestled Jason Doherty to the floor before the ball was thrown in and all day long they had the timber swinging. This thuggery produced the wonderful grace note deep in stoppage time when Donaghy got a straight red for landing a punch on Aidan O’Shea.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Aidan caught the ball from the throw-in and right from the off we went at them. Within a minute we were off the mark, Cillian pointing a free from roughly the same distance that he’d missed at the start of the drawn game.
Lyne equalised for them from play but a second Cillian free followed by one from play by Andy Moran got us settled into the game nicely.
As well as the weather, what was noticeable from early in today’s rematch was how differently it was being reffed. David Gough isn’t a man to ‘let it flow’ which meant that Kerry picked the wrong day and the wrong ref to roll out the rough stuff.
We got a number of early calls that I’m certain we’d never have got from Deegan. The crowd – 80% Mayo? – loved it. The players tore into Kerry with even more commitment. The first hint that today was going to be our day came floating across the warm late summer air.
But Kerry also showed they could play a bit. Three points on the spin – all from play – pushed them one up but that was the only time they’d lead all day.
The lead didn’t last long either. Another Cillian free levelled it up and then Kevin McLoughlin scissored the ball up in the air and I was still groaning at how he’d seemed to make a hash of the shot when the ball dropped just over Brian Kelly’s head and the crossbar.
Colm Boyle then came on a thunderous burst, the Kerry cover getting to him as he got his shot away. The shot went wide but the foul on Boyler was rightly penalised and Cillian popped over the 14-yard free.
Another Kerry foul, another Cillian free and now the gap was three points, a bit of daylight opening up between the teams. Geaney knocked over one for them to cut the gap to two.
Two minutes later, though, we struck for the game’s first goal, a score that really put us in the driving seat. Donie Vaughan had a pop at the posts but his effort didn’t have the distance. It fell tantalisingly in the square, however, and as it did the in-rushing Diarmuid O’Connor was there to palm it to the net.
Chris Barrett then raided forward to thump one over as we turned the screw. But we fluffed a few chances to ramp up the heat on them still further and instead Kerry cut the gap to five at the break.
The stats on the big screen showed we’d enjoyed over 60% possession in that first half but you didn’t really need numbers to understand that this was a contest in which we were in complete control. Kerry had fronted up physically and it had back-fired. We were literally beating them all over the field.
Two points of note from that first half. The first was David Clarke’s kick-outs, which Kerry pressurised as strongly as they’d done last Sunday. David got every restart away and I’m not sure we were turned over there once.
The second was how we played Donaghy. Donie went back on him early on, then Aidan drifted back, first to half-back, then right in on the Kerry full-forward. But this was a far more nuanced play by Aidan, as he competed for kick-outs and drifted back out the field, in the process dragging Donaghy to parts of the field he’d no desire to see.
We’d replaced Donie with Paddy Durcan just before half-time, due to what was later reported to be a hamstring strain. Let’s hope he’s okay for the final. On the restart, though, we made what was, by any measure, a ballsy switch, with Conor Loftus coming on for goalscorer Diarmuid O’Connor.
This was, for sure, a statement of intent. We were going for the jugular.
We didn’t hang around in doing so either. Keith played a long ball down the wing towards Conor, which a Kerry hand almost intercepted but crucially failed to control.
Conor grabbed possession and was off. The long, arcing pass he played into Andy was inch-perfect and Andy, with Cillian on his outside, bore down on the Kerry goal. A quick one-two with Cillian and Andy bundled the ball over the line.
Now we had them where we wanted them. Kerry’s woes were compounded when Darran O’Sullivan, a half-time sub for them, was ordered off on a black card.
A quick kill would have been truly delicious at that stage. One thing I’ll say about Kerry, though, is that they rarely lie down when the gauntlet is flung at them. Back they came at us.
Two points from Geaney cut the gap back to six but Jason Doherty calmed any hints of nervousness in our ranks by belting over a sweet one from play.
With twenty minutes left, we suffered a blow when Cillian walked on a black. Kerry were bursting through the middle, a three-pointer their clear aim, and while Cillian’s drag back probably wasn’t strictly speaking a black card offence, there was delicious unvarnished cynicism in the foul. He really took one for the team there. Conor O’Shea joined the fray to replace him.
Conor Loftus banged over a beaut from play but then two points at the other end cut the gap to four. Kerry were far from done yet and we were having to foul repeatedly to keep our goal-line intact.
I’m not sure when it occurred but there was a heart-stopping incident when Kerry had at least three shots on our goal, each block producing a louder roar from the Mayo faithful. Eventually they were penalised for touching the ball on the ground and the siege was lifted.
With Cillian gone, a pertinent question was who would take the frees. Jason’s first one was far from a gimme but he knocked it over with ease and this was a score we needed at that point.
Two points from O’Donoghue – who’d also come on at half-time – cut the gap to four. We were running the bench too at this stage, Seamus O’Shea giving way to Stephen Coen at this point.
Kerry then suffered a hammer blow, another one self-inflicted. Peter Crowley, on yellow since as early as the fifth minute, picked up a second yellow and Kerry were down to fourteen. Now they really had a mountain to climb.
Jason then blasted over a ’45, sinking the dagger still further and we followed it up in short order with two super points from play. Kevin Mc bagged the first and a roar like a thunderclap erupted around the stadium as Conor Loftus swung over his second of the day. Victory, now, was surely ours.
But back again came Kerry. We kept up our ¡No Pasaran! approach, coughing up two frees on the 21-yard line, both of which Geaney pointed.
Paddy Durcan got our final score of the afternoon as the match went into injury time. Paddy didn’t see out the game, though, as he walked on a second yellow soon after.
Kerry came hunting for the goals they needed but it was never going to happen. All they got for their efforts was another pointed free and their misery was completed when Donaghy punched Aidan in the face and got a straight red for his troubles. I have to admit I yelled “Who’ll mark you now?” as he trooped off.
Within a minute the game was over. We’d done it and we’d done it in fine style. Victories over Kerry in the championship are rare days indeed for us and the dam-burst of raw emotion and delight after the full-time whistle sounded was one that needed to be savoured to the full.
Because what we’d witnessed was one of the finest performances this current Mayo team have given. Lions on the field, cute as foxes on the sideline, this was a game won at both physical and cerebral levels. Fair play to all of them.
And so on this incredible odyssey goes, now all the way to the All-Ireland final. It’s taken us nine matches to get this far and our campaign is now set to equal in length the ten-game run Tyrone had to their win in 2005.
Who at this stage would bet against these warriors of ours going on to emulate that great Red Hand triumph? I wouldn’t and I doubt many of those who have travelled the road with the team this summer would either. Just one step away now. Up Mayo.
Mayo: David Clarke; Brendan Harrison, Donal Vaughan, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Chris Barrett (0-1), Colm Boyle; Tom Parsons, Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-2), Aidan O’Shea, Diarmuid O’Connor (1-0); Jason Doherty (0-3, one free and ac’45); Cillian O’Connor (0-4, frees), Andy Moran (1-1). Subs: Paddy Durcan for Vaughan, Conor Loftus (0-2) for Diarmuid O’Connor, Conor O’Shea for Cillian O’Connor (black card), Stephen Coen for Seamus O’Shea, Danny Kirby for Boyle, Ger Cafferkey for Barrett.
Who was our MOTM against Kerry?
- Colm Boyle (41%, 637 Votes)
- Jason Doherty (16%, 242 Votes)
- Keith Higgins (10%, 158 Votes)
- Andy Moran (8%, 131 Votes)
- David Clarke (7%, 112 Votes)
- Aidan O'Shea (6%, 95 Votes)
- Tom Parsons (2%, 38 Votes)
- Kevin McLoughlin (1%, 22 Votes)
- Chris Barrett (1%, 18 Votes)
- Seamus O'Shea (1%, 18 Votes)
- Brendan Harrison (1%, 15 Votes)
- Conor Loftus (1%, 10 Votes)
- Ger Cafferkey (1%, 9 Votes)
- Lee Keegan (1%, 9 Votes)
- Paddy Durcan (0%, 7 Votes)
- Diarmuid O'Connor (0%, 6 Votes)
- Danny Kirby (0%, 6 Votes)
- Cillian O'Connor (0%, 6 Votes)
- Stephen Coen (0%, 5 Votes)
- Donal Vaughan (0%, 2 Votes)
- Conor O'Shea (0%, 2 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,080