This probably won’t go down in the record books as one of the worst ever days in Mayo’s footballing history but it won’t, perhaps, be too far off it either. On a perfect evening for championship football, we produced a staggeringly insipid performance and once we let Sligo back into a match we should have wrapped up before the end of the first half, we simply let them walk all over us. They beat us in the end by four points and they did so with ease. Good luck to them – they richly deserved this win and I hope they now go on to bigger and better things this summer. For us, by contrast, it’s difficult to see us getting past the first round of the qualifiers.
I remember coming out of Croke Park in the rain after the league final thinking that the display I’d just seen was the true worth of where we stood in footballing terms right now. In the weeks since then, however, I’d kinda forgotten that searing epiphany but, hunched over the laptop as I am barreling along the N4 back to Dublin (The Brother’s at the wheel for this return leg), any delusions that I might have had about our place in the greater scheme of things have been well and truly shattered by that awful, awful display we put on at Markievicz Park this evening.
1-8 in a championship match. Against Sligo. That shows how far down the pecking order we now reside and, while the back door still affords us – as it does for everyone else who ends up being forced to take this route – a shot at redemption, I think we all know now where that route is going to lead us. It’s all over for us in 2010, bar one or two more shite performances, and that’s not the only thing that needs to end either.
Johnno still has the chance to do something for us in the qualifiers but this really is last chance saloon for both him and a number of his players. The overwhelming evidence now is that the only direction he’s leading us in is backwards and unless he can radically transform our fortunes in the qualifiers, he simply has to do the decent thing and step aside to allow someone else to have a shot at the job. Whoever that person is will then be able to decide for himself which of the current cohort of players he keeps and which he wants to jettison. On today’s performance, a number fall into the latter category.
Ten minutes into today’s match, you would have got generous odds on such a calamitous outcome for Mayo, as we led by 1-1 to 0-0 and looked set to blow Sligo out of the water before half-time. Alan Freeman, whose performance was one of the few positives for us in the shadow of Ben Bulbin today, fielded cleanly and smashed over the day’s opening score from way out on the left inside the first minute. The Aghamore man caught the next ball that was pumped in too and this time he was hauled down inside the square. He got up and thumped home the resultant penalty to send us four clear.
Sligo needed to do something to counter our Route One approach and what they did was shift Eamonn O’Hara back as sweeper. They also needed to get some scores and their opener came following a soft free award, with Colm McGee raising the first white flag of the day for the Magpies.
Conor got one from play to restore our four-point lead but Enda Varley then blazed wide a glorious chance to put us further ahead. A McGee point from play and a Breheny free reduced the gap to two and, with our long ball tactics now being neutralised by O’Hara’s positioning in the backs, we found ourselves treading water. Davey was allowed to saunter through to land another point for them and when Conor countered with his second from play for us, it was our first score for close on 20 minutes. Breheny and Conor then traded frees (here’s Mort’s one) to leave it 1-4 to 0-5 in our favour at the break.
You could see by then that we were in bother. Our failure to sink the knife in when given the chance meant that confidence was now beginning to build in the home ranks and it was obvious that we were being sucked into a battle we might not win. Even at this stage, the portents didn’t look too good.
A few changes wouldn’t have gone amiss at that stage and the pedestrian Tom Parsons – who spent the first half arsing aimlessly around the middle as the game completely passed him by – would surely have been at the top of most Mayo supporters’ lists. Incredibly, though, Tom was left to wander cluelessly around the pitch until Barry Moran replaced him with less than ten minutes to go.
We had a few chances early in the second half to extend our lead but failed to do so. Kevin McLoughlin put a half-hearted effort wide, Enda Varley went for a goal when he should have taken the point and instead saw his shot blocked down, Andy Moran dropped an attempt at a point into the keeper’s arms and then Conor sent a free – taken, unusually, from the ground a bit more than 30 yards out – risibly well wide.
Sligo made us pay heavily for this profligacy when, five minutes into the half, they started to motor. Breheny, from another soft free award (ref Jimmy White was benevolent enough to the home side all evening, I thought), reduced the gap to one and when Peadar Gardiner was pulled up for a foul handpass soon after, Breheny lamped over the free to square things up. An Alan Freeman point edged us back in front but we were now clearly in the kind of dogfight we never wanted to find ourselves in and for which we looked anything but prepared.
BJP for Seamus O’Shea wouldn’t have been everyone’s chosen switch at that stage but that, bewilderingly, was Johnno’s first tactical move of the second half. Why Seamus wasn’t moved to midfield with Parsons being taken off is anyone’s guess and how Johnno thought pitching BJ in at 11 was going to be a master-stroke is beyond me. But that’s what we got.
And it was then that Sligo really began to cut loose. Kelly got his first of the day and then Taylor’s thumper from way out produced an earthy home town roar as Sligo edged in front for the first time. This was followed by a McGee free and the Magpies were two to the good with twenty minutes to play.
There was still no need to panic but we simply had to get possession of the ball, hold onto it and do some damage with it. As those dispiriting twenty minutes played out, though, we showed in no uncertain terms that we were unable to do any of these three things.
Alan Freeman did manage to cut the deficit to one but two minutes later Gilmartin banged over another long-range point for them. Aidan O’Shea had replaced the ineffective Varley at this stage but he never managed to get into the game at all. Sligo could now sense it was going to be their day and when ex-Mayo player Alan Costello waltzed through to bang over their twelfth point of the day to send them three clear, you could see that our lads had accepted this outcome too.
Andy Moran became only our third player to get on the scoresheet when he pointed from play with eight minutes to go and our final score of the day came from another Alan Freeman free but Sligo’s confident, exuberant closing scores contrasted with our frantic, fruitless efforts to get the goal that might give us another chance. It never came and, in truth, it never deserved to come and Sligo were fully deserving of their four-point winning margin at the end. They celebrated their win wildly and they were right to do so. Their hungry, committed team had done them proud.
Few Mayo players emerged from this evening’s debacle with their reputations intact. Andy Moran was one – he worked his ass off, won loads of ball and repeatedly tried to drive us forward. As the second half progressed, he was the only man in the forwards who seemed capable of doing anything positive for us. Debutant Alan Freeman also had a good day, scoring 1-4 and showing more than once his ability to cause havoc in the air. He faded after his bright opening but it was still an impressive first championship outing for the Aghamore man.
At the back, Kevin McLoughlin did okay, Ger Cafferkey, Donal Vaughan and Keith Higgins showed occasional flashes of what they can do and Peadar Gardiner (who started in place of the ill Chris Barrett) wasn’t the worst either.
Tom Cunniffe was, though, a major disappointment at centre-back. He never looked in control of his area, he spilled the ball repeatedly and he rarely seemed sure of what he was meant to be doing.
Tom Parsons was as poor as he was in the league final and how he managed to stay on for as long as he did is a complete mystery. It’s truly sad to see such a talented player fail to play to his potential in this way and unless his attitude changes in a serious way, it’s hard to see how he can hope to start for the county again after today’s wretched performance.
Ronan was a disappointment too and I gather that the TV replays of a first-half incident could mean that he may now be in hot water on the disciplinary front. If that’s the case, we could be looking at an entirely new midfield pairing for the first round of the qualifiers.
Apart from Andy and Alan, the forwards weren’t hectic either. Trevor had yet another miserable afternoon and, like Tom Parsons, you’d have to wonder how many bad performances it takes for a player to be dropped. Conor started brightly enough but he disimproved sharply as the day went on, his afternoon’s contribution summed up by that horrendous wide he shot from less than 10 yards out close to the end.
It sure feels like the end right now and there’s some serious wound-licking to be done over the next few days. I’m not sure how many weeks it is until the first round of the qualifiers and at the moment I really couldn’t give a flying fuck. But the qualifiers are there and they do offer a chance for Johnno and his squad of players to prove that they’re not as bad as Sligo made them look this evening. After this latest abject failure to perform, I think it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see any meaningful response from Johnno and his team in the qualifiers but it’s now up to them to prove everyone who shares this view wrong.
MAYO: David Clarke; Peadar Gardiner, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Donal Vaughan, Tom Cunniffe, Kevin McLoughlin; Tom Parsons, Ronan McGarrity; Andy Moran (0-1), Seamus O’Shea, Trevor Mortimer; Conor Mortimer (0-3, one free), Alan Freeman (1-4, penalty goal and two frees), Enda Varley. Subs: BJ Padden for Seamus O’Shea, Aidan O’Shea for Varley, Mark Ronaldson for Trevor Mortimer, Barry Moran for Parsons, Kieran Conroy for McGarrity.