A wet and windy January night isn’t ever going to produce champagne football and that was certainly the case at McHale Park this evening where the James Horan era got underway under the floodlights at the Castlebar venue. What we got was a typical FBD match with loads of moves that almost came off, plenty of handling errors and a bag of wides but also a few performances to make the journey down from the capital well worthwhile. Of the latter, it was the shift put in by debutant Cillian O’Connor that stood out, that and his hefty contribution of 1-6 to the winning total.
We had three changes to the starting fifteen named in advance. James Burke – who had an excellent game, especially in the first half – replaced Trevor Howley, James Moran started instead of the injured Barry Moran (what now – tripped over a toadstool?) and Cillian O’Connor was on instead of Brian Benson. Within five minutes, we had another change when Kevin Dolan suffered what was later confirmed to be a bad jaw break as a result of an accidental collision. Enda Varley – who was busy throughout but failed to make the scoresheet – replaced the unfortunate Tourmakeady debutant.
We were against the wind in the first half and within ten minutes we had four or five wides clocked up already. We had most of the ball but GMIT took the lead from a free and they soon had a goal as well when a ball from another free came dipping in and David Clarke (blinded by the light?) failed to hold it, enabling a loitering student to sweep it home.
The goal prompted our lads into action and while we spent most of what was left in the half in their territory, all of the three points we got came from close-in frees from Cillian O’Connor.
We went in a point in arrears but with the strong wind with us in the second half, you had the feeling (well, I did at any rate) that our dominance in terms of possession would tell. It did.
A fourth Cillian O’Connor free brought us level and then a lovely long range point from Ronan McGarrity – who enjoyed a very productive second half after a fairly disinterested first half performance – edged us in front for the first time.
They pulled level from a free but this was cancelled out by another Cillian O’Connor free and then the Ballintubber youngster shot us clear when he gathered the rebound from an Aidan Campbell shot that had hit an upright and he smashed it to the net.
After another free for them, Cillian brought his haul for the night to 1-6 with an eye-catching point from play and an easy win for our lads was secured when Aidan Campbell won a soft penalty which was emphatically despatched by sub Mark Ronaldson. Our final point of the night was a real peach of a one from way out from Ronan to complete a six-point win for us to get the James Horan era off and running.
FBD games are never about the result – last year’s success in the tournament didn’t do us much good, did it? – and the inclement conditions, as well as the soft going underfoot, meant that there was a large element of hit-and-miss about the game. But there were a few notable performances tonight which should give some encouragement for the future.
I thought we were good defensively. Every time GMIT broke forward, we harried them and the fact that the only score they got from play all night was the rather fortuitous first half goal was the proof of this particular pudding. Cathal Hallinan enjoyed an impressive debut in the corner while both James Burke and Chris Barrett at wing back put in strong displays. Further forward, Ronan McGarrity had a great second half, Aidan Campbell and Enda Varley were always busy and Mark Ronaldson made a positive difference when he came on. The star of the show, though, was Cillian O’Connor and he could hardly have hoped for a better senior county debut.
McHale Park also looked really well on the night and the decision to use this fixture as a dry run for the Down game was obviously a sound one. There was a crowd of about 2,000 there tonight and I’d say there could be four or five times that number when the Mournemen pitch up in early February. A prior commitment for then will unfortunately keep me in Dublin for that one but I’m glad I made it down tonight to see the first ever piece of after-dark action at McHale Park and to see too the start of what we all hope could be a bright new departure for the county team.
MAYO: David Clarke; Cathal Hallinan, Ger Cafferkey, Alan Feeney; James Burke, Mike Nestor, Chris Barrett; Ronan McGarrity (0-2), James Moran; Aidan Campbell, Austin O’Malley, Aidan Kilcoyne; Kevin Dolan, Andy Moran, Cillian O’Connor (1-6, five frees). Subs: Enda Varley for Dolan (inj.), Mark Ronaldson (1-0, penalty) for O’Malley, David Killeen for Cafferkey, Ruaidhri O’Connor for Barrett, Lee Keegan for Feeney.