The reality of playing Championship football at this time of the year was brought home clearly in the form of the rain-splattered pictures beamed into our living rooms from Páirc Seán MacDiarmada in Carrick-on-Shannon this afternoon. The day was wet and windy and it was obvious from early on that flowing summer football wouldn’t be in evidence.
Instead, what we got was a grim battle for survival in a knockout contest in which Leitrim fought hard and bravely against a team that always looked like a cut above them. No more so than Cillian O’Connor whose 1-9 contribution to Mayo’s tally did much to separate these two teams at the finish.
The heavy underfoot conditions set the tempo for this contest right from the throw-in. Páirc Seán was like a bog, with no bounce to the ball whatsoever. It had the look and feel of a game played in deepest winter, with the rain and driving wind not helping.
We made one change in advance of throw-in with Michael Plunkett starting at centre back instead of Rory Brickenden. Leitrim had the wind behind them in the first half and they made good use of it early on as they bagged the opening four scores of the day. Four shots, four points – admirable economy of effort, not least given the tough conditions.
We eventually opened our account on eleven minutes. Aidan O’Shea cleverly flicked the ball back to Bryan Walsh who marked his Championship debut with a point. From the restart we broke again, with Aidan getting dragged to the ground and the offender, Leitrim’s Mac Cafraigh, heading for the bin on a black card. Cillian popped over the free.
Ryan O’Donoghue saw his effort into the wind come up short but then as Leitrim ‘keeper Brendan Flynn tried to get his team moving he ended up fouling Jordan Flynn out on the right. The free wasn’t a gimme for Cillian but over it went and the gap was down to one at the first water break.
The home team, via a Beirne free, scored first on the resumption. Soon after, though, we had the ball in the net. Cillian played a quick free in before Leitrim could set their defence, Paddy Durcan collected it and fed Tommy Conroy, who finished coolly into the corner.
Tommy Conroy’s goal has helped Mayo recover from a slow start as they now lead in Carrick.— RTÉ GAA (@RTEgaa) November 1, 2020
Half-time: @LeitrimGAA 0-06 @MayoGAA 1-06
Watch the second half on @RTENewsNow and @TheSundayGame from 9.30pm on @RTE2 #rtegaa #sundaygame pic.twitter.com/Evf5HnpBBg
We were now getting into our stride. Our next score was Cillian’s first from play, Paddy recycling it after his shot had been blocked down and feeding the Ballintubber man who banged it over.
Cillian added a second from play soon after. We won a free, which was brought forward and Cillian did a neat one-two with Aidan before clipping it over.
Another bit of interplay, after we’d won a fifty which Cillian didn’t fancy into the wind, ended with the Ballintubber man getting pulled down. Up he got and converted the free to push us four clear.
Tommy Conroy had a chance to extend our lead further but his fisted effort came back off the upright. In the end it was Leitrim who had the final say on the scoreboard before half-time, McGloin’s point cutting the deficit to three at the break.
With the wind now at our backs, we might have been expected to take control decisively on the resumption. Instead, however, it was the home side who started the second half better, Beirne pointing a free after McGloin’s good run ended with a foul by Jordan Flynn.
We continued to play the ball through the hands, opting not to let the wind do the work for us. Cillian did, though, loft one in over the Leitrim ‘keeper who’d gifted the ball to our dangerman. When Cillian’s effort sailed wide of the unguarded Leitrim goal, it was the first wide of the afternoon.
Inevitably, it was the irrepressible Ballintubber man who got our next score. The ball was touched on the ground by a Leitrim player twenty yards from the posts and Cillian pointed the free with ease.
Another Beirne free, though, cut the gap back to two points. Ten minutes into the second half and this contest was still far from over.
In a flash, however, it soon was. Mattie Ruane, taking possession as we finally moved the ball down the field at pace, fired over and then Cillian bagged our second goal. There was some great interplay with Conor Loftus in the lead-up to the goal, the Crossmolina man playing Cillian in and he lifted the ball delicately over the ‘keeper and into the net.
We started to run the changes then. Ryan O’Donoghue and Bryan Walsh departed, with James Carr and Diarmuid O’Connor joining the fray. A great point from play for the home side from Dolan was replied to by the peerless O’Connor who drove the ball over off the ground from a fifty to leave us six up at the second water break.
From there it was just a question of seeing out the win with the minimum of fuss, while giving some game time to a few other players. Rory Brickenden got his first taste of Championship action as he replaced Stephen Coen for the final quarter, with Chris Barrett and Darren McHale also appearing before the finish. When the Knockmore man took the field that swelled to eight the number of players making their first appearance for us in the Championship in this game.
We had two decent goal chances early in the final quarter but on both occasions superb saves by Leitrim ‘keeper Flynn denied us. Cillian picked out James Carr with a lovely dinked pass but the ‘keeper was equal to the Ardagh man’s thunderous shot. A few minutes later the in-rushing Paddy Durcan looked certain to score but Flynn diverted his shot onto the crossbar and out for a ’45. Cillian drove that one over as well.
James Carr got onto the scoresheet in our next move, punching it cheekily over, volleyball-style, with his back to the goal. Aidan got his first score of the day by more orthodox means, flicking the ball up neatly before sashaying by his man and knocking it over to stretch our lead to nine.
Another Beirne free for them proved to be their final score of the day. Points from distance from Conor Loftus and a real peach from way out by Cillian followed for us. With the match now in injury time Aidan, fed by the tireless Cillian who’d executed a text-book turnover to gain possession, completed our tally as we won at the finish by eleven points.
Despite the horrendous playing conditions and the uncertain start we endured in this game, we can be fairly well pleased with how we did today. We never really looked in trouble in this contest and once we got motoring it was obvious we were going to win it handily enough. And getting the win was the first and most important objective today.
Our secondary aim of blooding a whole slew of Championship debutants was also successfully achieved this afternoon. Oisin Mullin, Eoghan McLaughlin, Bryan Walsh, Ryan O’Donoghue, Jordan Flynn and Tommy Conroy all started today’s game for us, with Rory Brickenden and Darren McHale getting game-time off the bench. The new lads did fine, all told, and the experience will stand them in good stead.
They’ll all certainly have learned from watching the master in action today. I’ve always maintained we’re simply a different team when Cillian O’Connor is on the pitch and the Ballintubber man fairly lit up a dank afternoon in Carrick today. His 1-9 tally included 1-3 from play but it was his enormous workrate that was even more noticeable, as he kept popping up all over the field, forever involved in the action. He was nothing short of immense for us today.
So that’s the first hurdle cleared in this year’s Championship. From here on the challenges we potentially face will be much tougher, with every match we get to play a chance to advance closer to the main prize but also one that could prove to be our final outing of this strangest of inter-county years.
Mayo: David Clarke; Oisin Mullin, Stephen Coen, Lee Keegan; Paddy Durcan, Michael Plunkett, Eoghan McLaughlin; Mattie Ruane (0-1), Conor Loftus (0-1); Bryan Walsh (0-1), Ryan O’Donoghue, Jordan Flynn; Tommy Conroy (1-0), Aidan O’Shea (0-2), Cillian O’Connor (1-9, four frees and two ‘45s). Subs: James Carr (0-1) for O’Donoghue, Diarmuid O’Connor for Walsh, Rory Brickenden for Coen, Chris Barrett for Plunkett, Darren McHale for Ruane.
Who was our Man of the Match against Leitrim? Pick your top three performers
- Cillian O'Connor (47%, 880 Votes)
- Oisin Mullin (14%, 270 Votes)
- Paddy Durcan (9%, 168 Votes)
- Tommy Conroy (8%, 155 Votes)
- Aidan O'Shea (8%, 142 Votes)
- Conor Loftus (3%, 48 Votes)
- Ryan O'Donoghue (2%, 38 Votes)
- Eoghan McLaughlin (1%, 26 Votes)
- Lee Keegan (1%, 25 Votes)
- Stephen Coen (1%, 22 Votes)
- Mattie Ruane (1%, 19 Votes)
- David Clarke (1%, 17 Votes)
- James Carr (1%, 14 Votes)
- Diarmuid O'Connor (1%, 14 Votes)
- Rory Brickenden (1%, 12 Votes)
- Jordan Flynn (1%, 11 Votes)
- Darren McHale (1%, 10 Votes)
- Bryan Walsh (0%, 8 Votes)
- Chris Barrett (0%, 8 Votes)
- Michael Plunkett (0%, 5 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,061