This was meant to be a tough one. Healy Park is always a venue where victories – if a visiting team is fortunate enough to come away with one – are hard-earned. Today’s nine-point triumph at Omagh for James Horan’s team was, though, as easy a win as we’ve had for a long time.
In retrospect, everything leading up to today’s game was undemanding. The drive up from Dublin was a breeze, there was loads of parking to be had at the Silver Birch Hotel – in whose lobby I’m bashing this piece out on the laptop before taking the road home – where we got fed and watered before strolling up the short distance to Healy Park.
There was plenty of space in the stand when we got there too, though we were admittedly in there close to an hour ahead of throw-in. Old habits die hard.
We made three switches before the start. Eoin O’Donoghue was replaced by Michael Plunkett, the Ballintubber man making his League debut in the process. But another putative full debutant, James McCormack, didn’t start, his place being taken by Stephen Coen. In the forwards another young starlet – Conor Diskin – also gave way, with 2017 Footballer of the Year Andy Moran starting instead.
Stephen Coen lined out in the full-back line, with Michael Plunkett taking up station at centre half-back, freeing Lee Keegan to revert to wing-back.
The first twenty minutes or so were cagey enough. They got the day’s first two scores – the first from a retaken free, the second a free shot arising from a forward mark – and we had nothing to show from those opening exchanges aside from a yellow card for Michael Plunkett for a high challenge after just two minutes.
Then Fionn McDonagh fired over smartly after Brian Reape had done well to win a long ball pumped in. Shortly afterwards, Ciaran Treacy similarly marked his debut with a score, this one supplied by Andy Moran who gathered the ball played in and offloaded on the turn.
Tyrone probed repeatedly with raking long balls in but these proved meat and drink to our backline, in particular Keith Higgins. With no more than fifteen minutes gone he had taken three interceptions, using the possession as the platform for breakout attacks.
They went back in front again on 21 minutes when Peter Harte drove right through the middle and pumped it over. But that was as good as it got for the home side – a further 21 minutes would pass before their next score and by then we had them more or less where we wanted them.
Our intent in this game was signaled by Ciaran Treacy, whose second point was a super long-range effort. Andy, hugely influential for us today, was once again the selfless provider following a delicious ball played in by Paddy Durcan.
Then Andy turned finisher, with two points in quick succession. The first was a bit of collector’s item, as he punted it over after claiming a forward mark, the first such score we’ve got in the League under the experimental rules. The second was a more regular score, with Andy fisting over, though with Jason Doherty lurking unmarked inside there was a hint that we might have made more from that chance.
Another goal chance appeared soon after. Aidan O’Shea picked Mattie Donnelly’s pocket beautifully well out the field and the resultant attack saw Andy play the ball to Brian Reape who opted to pick and shoot rather than palm it goalwards and Morgan saved. Robbie Hennelly, though, drilled the resultant ’45 between the posts and we led by three.
Brian Reape had another goal chance batted away by Morgan but soon afterwards we did have the ball in the net and from an unlikely source. Keith Higgins found himself in possession close to their goal, where he did that mazy, slaloming kind of run of his that’s almost impossible to stop and smashed the ball to the net. Now we were motoring.
Just before half-time Fionn McDonagh bagged his second score. Again, there was maybe a goal chance on offer – with Brian Reape unmarked inside – but the Westport player was probably right to take the point and it was a score that sent us in an improbable seven points to the good.
Sitting high up in the stand, in the company of the Club ’51 gang, I had failed to notice that the rain had begun to fall in earnest. Then I discovered that what I’d thought was an outsized queue for the jacks was actually hordes of perished souls seeking shelter from the rain that was now bucketing down.
A big concern I had at the break – in common with most of our supporters, I’d say – was how well we’d do in seeking to protect that lead. Once I’d got back from the jacks, though, I was happier as the wet conditions would mean the end of the free-flowing football. It would be tough, I now reasoned, to chase a game in that weather.
To the lads’ credit, though, it wasn’t a lead they sat on. We were out the traps first after the break, with Andy playing a quick free into Fionn McDonagh who stabbed it over.
The same two players were involved in our next score too. Fionn set off on a scorching run – and, boy, has this lad pace – and offloaded to Andy who fed Jason Doherty who hooked it over from distance.
Tyrone eventually claimed a point, another one from a forward mark, and they got the next one too, from sub Kyle Coney, as they sought to staunch the bleeding.
Another quick ball up the field from a free sent Jason Doherty away. The Burrishoole man made no mistake to ease us back eight clear.
They hit back with a point right from the restart but we replied a few minutes later. Diarmuid O’Connor’s surging run ended with a foul and from distance Robbie thumped it over the black spot from the resultant free. By now we’d made our first switch, Conor Diskin coming on for Brian Reape.
Jason Doherty, once more in the thick of things, was fouled as he sought to burst clear. He picked himself up and belted the free over.
Tyrone pulled one back but then the roof fell in on them. Yet another quick ball in from a free found Fionn McDonagh and the Westport man drove at the heart of the Tyrone defence before firing to the net.
From then to the finish it was simply a case of closing out the game. This, for a change, we did with no fuss at all. They added three further points to their tally, one from play from the madcap Morgan, we put on just one – a raking shot from distance from Paddy Durcan that fizzed over – but they never came close to breaching our goal and we won with ease at the finish.
This was a great performance at many levels. The winning margin was almost the inverse of the shellacking they inflicted on us down at MacHale Park last year and once we surged clear we made sure we stayed there.
It was a day when young lads and elder statesmen alike played well. Fionn McDonagh, Ciaran Treacy and Michael Plunkett will all – deservedly – get major plaudits for their displays today but at the other end of the age spectrum older hands like Andy Moran and Keith Higgins were superb as well.
Noteworthy again today was the strong work ethic we showed from start to finish. The lads were patient early on as Tyrone probed for openings, then they were ruthless when the opportunity to kill the game came their way.
So tonight we’re top of Division One, with four points in the bag and relegation already almost a topic we don’t have to discuss this spring. We’re not secure in the top tier just yet but a win over Cavan next Saturday night will mean we’re all but certain to stay up and it will also give us reason to start thinking a bit more expansively about how this League campaign might go for us. This is nice territory to be in after just two rounds.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly (0-2, a ’45 and a free), Michael Plunkett, Brendan Harrison, Keith Higgins (1-0); Stephen Coen, Lee Keegan, Paddy Durcan (0-1); Diarmuid O’Connor, Donal Vaughan; Fionn McDonagh (1-3), Aidan O’Shea, Ciaran Treacy (0-2); Andy Moran (0-2), Brian Reape, Jason Doherty (0-3, one free). Subs: Conor Diskin for Reape, James McCormack for Keegan, Kevin McLoughlin for Moran, David Drake for Coen, Matthew Ruane for Treacy.
Who was our Man of the Match against Tyrone? Pick your top three performers.
- Fionn McDonagh (40%, 793 Votes)
- Keith Higgins (21%, 410 Votes)
- Andy Moran (7%, 130 Votes)
- Aidan O'Shea (6%, 112 Votes)
- Ciaran Treacy (5%, 103 Votes)
- Diarmuid O'Connor (3%, 64 Votes)
- Paddy Durcan (3%, 59 Votes)
- Stephen Coen (2%, 49 Votes)
- Jason Doherty (2%, 48 Votes)
- Michael Plunkett (2%, 47 Votes)
- Robbie Hennelly (1%, 29 Votes)
- Lee Keegan (1%, 21 Votes)
- Brian Reape (1%, 19 Votes)
- Brendan Harrison (1%, 18 Votes)
- Donal Vaughan (1%, 15 Votes)
- Conor Diskin (1%, 12 Votes)
- Matthew Ruane (1%, 11 Votes)
- James McCormack (0%, 9 Votes)
- David Drake (0%, 9 Votes)
- Kevin McLoughlin (0%, 7 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,213