At the end of the day, it’s the little lad I feel sorry for the most. Having seen his beloved Dubs getting hammered by the dastardly Kerrymen last Monday, he gamely pitched up at HQ today (with his two older sisters also in tow) to shout for his ould fella’s county. He’d even practised his roaring on the way up to the local shops this morning, already decked out in his Mayo jersey. When Aidan O’Shea palmed the ball into the net to send us four clear with just under twenty minutes to go, he went as mental as the rest of us but, after that barrage of Meath points in the final ten minutes, he came over and buried his face in my lap. Even he knew at that stage that the game was up for us and, in truth, so did I.
Fuck it anyway: no matter how you parse this one, you have to concede that we were well beaten today. True, the ref was a tool (just like he was in Salthill back in 2007) and a succession of poor decisions by Joe McQuillan and his officials (like missing the double-hop before Meath’s first goal, like the incredibly soft award of the penalty for the second, like Meath’s goalie getting away with taking the ball over the line in the first half) probably turned the game against us but that’s not really the point. Just like what happened against Tyrone this time last year, we had the game in our grasp with fifteen minutes to go but then went on to concede a half-dozen scores without reply. Tyrone blew us away late in the game last year and Meath did exactly the same to us today.
I read somewhere in the lead-in to the match that trainer Jim Kilty claimed this was one of the best prepared teams he’d ever worked with. Well, they didn’t look like it over that final twenty minutes today. David Heaney looked completely dead on his feet at that stage and all over the pitch our lads were rooted to the spot as Meath, sensing weakness in their opponent’s ranks, went for the kill. And we let them do it – every single one of those six unanswered points could have been prevented but, on every occasion, it was a Meathman who was first to the ball and who made things happen with it.
In one sense, I still can’t believe we lost that game today. For the first fifteen minutes, we were in complete control in terms of gaining possession and driving forward but the concern those of us in the Lower Cusack were voicing was that we weren’t racking up enough on the board. Tom Parsons, who’d started instead of the still-injured Barry Moran, never functioned at full-forward and so the policy of raining high ball in never got going properly.
Aidan Kilcoyne started brightly – with a point from an Alan Dillon feed after just 40 seconds – and two frees from Dillon (here’s one of them), sandwiching an excellent point from play by Andy Moran, put us four clear before a Cian Ward ‘45’ got Meath off the mark on 16 minutes. David Bray and Aidan O’Shea then exchanged points before Meath’s first goal, which, when it came, completely nullified all the good work we’d done in that opening twenty minutes. It should never have been allowed, as Bray hopped the ball twice before shooting past Kenneth O’Malley but where the fuck was Keith Higgins when that ball from Joe Sheridan was hoofed in?
Cian Ward then dived into Trevor Howley and fell in a heap, an incident which resulted in Trevor getting a completely unjustified yellow card but at least there was some justice when Ward then screwed the resultant free wide. Meath were now coming into the game and we were slipping and sliding all over the place, with the pitch surface reminiscent of the godawful state it had been in back in 2006. (Remember that incident when Keith ended up on his hole as Gooch scored Kerry’s third goal in that year’s final? It looked as bad as that again today.)
Trevor got a good point from an Aidan O’Shea assist, which was soon cancelled out by a point from Joe Sheridan and the same player levelled again after Killer had got his second of the day from a Pat Harte knockdown. Brian Farrell then picked an opportune moment to get his first of the day to edge the Royals one in front at half-time.
Changes were obviously needed within our ranks and it was no surprise to see Conor coming on for the ineffective Tom Parsons for the second half. Tom had drifted out the field after having got little change at full-forward early on (for much of that opening half, we’d played with the two Aidans inside and Pat Harte in the hole between them and a two-man half-forward line of Trevor and Alan) but he did little or nothing to aid the cause out around the middle either so he was the obvious man to come off.
Meath got the opening score of the half from a free which was awarded after one of our lads had been pushed in the back when the ball came in but Killer knocked over our opening point of the half soon after and then Trevor, after a superb upfield run from Keith Higgins, pulled us level. But then Killer got injured, having twice shoulder-challenged his opponent and forced him to cough up the ball, and his departure – with an injury that was later confirmed as a broken collarbone – robbed us of much of our attacking potency.
Brian Farrell, who spent most of the second half either pulling, pushing or swinging out of the Mayo backs (it didn’t seem to matter what he did, the ref took bugger all notice about whatever he was up to), then gave Donal Vaughan a hefty push, took off with the ball and overcarried before shooting Meath back in front. We were soon level, when Mort pointed, but The Thriller was in a one-on-one situation with the Meath goalie and should surely have rounded him and rolled the ball home instead of blazing it heedlessly over the bar.
Sheridan then rugby-tackled Liam O’Malley (who had replaced Donal Vaughan in one of the game’s odder substitutions) and, hearing no whistle, drove on to reclaim the lead for the Royals. At the other end, Keith Higgins went on another mazy run and this time he pointed himself before this free from Alan Dillon put us a point ahead with twenty minutes to go.
Then came the goal that should have sent us on our way. Conor won the ball, fell over (Conor did a lot of falling over in that second half) but managed to offload it to Trevor who looked like he was going for the point from out on the right. He might well have been but the ball hung beautifully in the air and was met by the inrushing Aidan O’Shea who gleefully palmed it into the net. Four up once again with nineteen minutes to go – surely we’d now kick for home.
Within two minutes, however, that goal was cancelled out, and in controversial circumstances too. There was a sideline ball to us which was given to them and from this the ball was drilled in to (I think) Bray, whose shot came back off the upright. Liam O’Malley was adjudged to have fouled him and, having seen it again on TV, it seemed to be an incredibly harsh decision by the ref who hails from a county that borders Meath. Cian Ward fairly thumped the penalty home and so it was game on once again.
Joe Sheridan was then allowed an unbelievable amount of time and space by the Mayo backs to make acres of ground into the danger area and his offload was fed back to David Bray whose point tied the game up. At this point, I was wondering aloud about our ability to win the match for a third time, having already twice lost four-point leads, with fifteen minutes now left on the clock.
I didn’t have to wait long for my answer on that score: although Conor did edge us back in front one more time with a free on 57 minutes, that man Sheridan – with a punched effort that could as easily have ended up in the net – levelled matters five minutes later. The remaining eight minutes of normal time was car-crash stuff, which all started from a bone-headed clearance by Kenneth O’Malley who inexplicably opted to punch the ball out to nobody in particular when he could just as easily have fielded it and given a pass to a nearby colleague. Instead, one of their lot got it and knocked it over to put them one clear.
Crawford then waltzed through the middle without as much as a glove being laid on him and pointed to send the Royals two up. Now the alarms bells were really starting to go off. We looked static, dead on our feet and with an injured AOS having given way to BJP, our second Twin Tower was no more. Not that the ball was getting anywhere near our forward line as instead Meath came at us with the confidence of a team that could see the winning line in sight.
Farrell burst through and and looked certain to score Meath’s third goal of the afternoon but Kenneth O’Malley was down quickly to deflect it over the bar. Bray then lamped over Meath’s fifth point on the spin and they went five clear when a ball destined for Andy Moran was intercepted (I’m not sure by who) and walloped over from almost fifty yards out. Our goose was now well and truly cooked and two late points from Mort did nothing more than reduce our margin of defeat to a slightly more palatable but still hugely dispiriting three points.
I don’t have the heart, nor indeed the inclination, at this stage to go through any kind of detailed assessment of the whys and wherefores and how individual players did in today’s game. On that latter one, it’s actually easier to point to those players who did well today: only Keith Higgins (although we got further proof today that he shouldn’t be operating at corner-back – his man bagged 1-2 from play), Andy Moran, Ronan McGarrity, Aidan O’Shea and Aidan Kilcoyne played anywhere near the level that was required in a contest such as this. Seen in this light, the fact that the latter two went off injured while the game was still there to be won obviously had a significant bearing on the outcome.
The most disappointing thing, I guess, (apart from the cretinous refereeing but, God knows, we’re used to that at this stage) was our failure to compete for loose ball in the middle third. In this respect, we learned absolutely nothing from our shortcomings in this area in the Connacht final. Meath were smart enough to realise that they could profit from our looseness in this facet of the game and they also had the forwards to exploit the chances created by claiming so many of these 50:50 balls.
The bottom line, shite ref or no shite ref, is that we deserved to lose today. Both of Meath’s goals may have been questionable and it looked like we had another that wasn’t given when the Meath goalie carried the ball over his goal-line but Meath themselves suffered a broadly similar fate two years ago against Dublin and they still managed to claim a draw in that game. Despite all the calls that had gone against us, the match was still there to be won as the game entered its final ten minutes but we simply didn’t have it within us to grind out the victory.
Fair play to Meath, they did have the balls to do so and I for one wish them well against the Kerrymen in three weeks time. Kerry will, of course, be huge favourites but that won’t bother Meath one iota; it might even egg them on. I’m planning to be in Croker that day (the Combo tickets, remember?) as our minors will feature in the curtain-raiser and I’m expecting to see a bit of a contest between this year’s backdoor kings.
Meanwhile, it’s back into the shadows for us, back to thinking about what might have been and how long it’ll be before the action starts again in the New Year. Some Mayo inter-county careers ended at Croke Park today but next year will be, as it always is, a new beginning for others. We made some progress this year, but we didn’t make enough; we looked, at least for a while, like a team going somewhere but we didn’t get far enough; we seemed to be building towards something good but today showed we just weren’t good enough. Roll on 2010 and all it may hold for us.
MAYO: Kenneth O’Malley; Donal Vaughan, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins (0-1); Peadar Gardiner, Trevor Howley, Andy Moran (0-1); David Heaney, Ronan McGarritty; Pat Harte, Trevor Mortimer (0-2), Alan Dillon (0-3, frees); Aidan Kilcoyne (0-3), Tom Parsons, Aidan O’Shea (1-1). Subs: Conor Mortimer (0-4, two frees) for Parsons, Mark Ronaldson for Kilcoyne, Liam O’Malley for Vaughan, Billy Joe Padden for O’Shea, Tom Parsons for Heaney.