Well, fog that for a lark. It’s one thing having to hare across the country in an increasing frantic race against time to make it down to McHale Park ahead of throw-in but it’s quite another, having done so, to end up seeing only half a match. Mind you, such was the ineptitude we displayed over the course over that 35 minutes – which was only matched by an equally ham-fisted performance by ref Marty Duffy – that maybe it was as well we only had to sit through half the evening’s scheduled entertainment.
The fog, which eventually did for the game at the interval, wasn’t an issue at all for the first ten or so minutes of the match. We’d seen plenty of fog – wispy banks of the stuff blanketing parts of the country – on the journey down from Dublin but the most noteworthy aspect we saw as we barreled along those final miles towards Castlebar on the N5 was the fiery red sunset facing us away to the west, with the squat bulk of Nephin brooding away at the other end of this vista.
Despite the traffic we got parked up handily enough close to the ground, collected our Cáirde Mhaigheo season tickets outside the gate and had almost got seats in the well-filled stand by the time the ball was thrown in. I’m not sure what the official attendance was tonight – someone mentioned 12,000 though I don’t know if that’s correct – but it was certainly a sizeable crowd, bigger I’d say than that which turned up for the Connacht semi with Galway last June.
We were well on top in the opening exchanges and had eased two points in front – frees from Cillian O’Connor and Conor Mortimer – before the visitors got going at all. Barry Moran and Aidan O’Shea both started strongly at midfield and we were mopping up nicely in the half-back line and moving the ball forward fluently. It was when we got it into the forward line, though, that things were breaking down and soon they began to break down badly.
It took Dublin the best part of ten minutes or so to get motoring but when they did, they did so with purpose. Over a 15-minute spell, they hit us for seven points on the trot and with each successive score we looked more and more at sea. The contrast between our use of the ball and what they did with it in this period was pretty stark. We were ponderous, sloppy, indecisive, unsure and generally inaccurate in what we did whereas they were slick, decisive, direct and pretty efficient with their use of the ball.
The only surprise was that they didn’t hit us for more in that period as Connolly, McManamon and Quinn tore holes through our increasingly beleagured backline. Instead we finally managed to add to our tally at the other end – Enda Varley pouncing on a rebound to fire over – but then Stephen Cluxton did a reprise of his All-Ireland winning point by nonchalently knocking over this free over into the Bacon Factory end:
Marty Duffy was being his annoying Mother Superior self while all this was going on – you know the crack: whistling up for all manner of minor stuff while missing the more serious infractions – but after little more than 20 minutes came his major howler of the evening when he ordered off Dublin’s wing-back James McCarthy for an elbow hit on Alan Freeman. McCarthy did lead with the elbow but from my vantage point the hit looked completely accidental and the straight red (does it stand with the game abandoned?) harsh in the extreme.
We perked up after the sending off and started playing with a bit more purpose but our next score, a point from Enda Varley, was one of the most bizarre I’ve ever seen awarded to us. Varley hit a screamer that smashed at an angle off the crossbar and careered several feet wide but, with the thickening fog making it ever harder to make out what was going on – as this clip of our next score, a free from Mort, illustrates – the umpire bewilderingly raised the white flag.
That Mort point turned out to be the final score of the evening with the fog descending rapidly as the half-time whistle approached. As the teams trooped off the pitch at the break, it became increasingly difficult to see anything out there in the gathering gloom, with the far side of the pitch and then the goalposts disappearing behind the murky veil of fog. It was no surprise when the logical decision – arguably Marty Duffy’s first correct one of the evening – was taken to call a halt to proceedings at that stage.
It’s hard to know how the second half would have gone but I guess there’s little point in engaging in too much conjecture on that point. Would we have made sufficient use of the extra man to turn the match back in our favour? Would Marty Duffy have taken the opportunity to even the match up at fourteen each? Who knows?
What we can say for sure is that our first half performance tonight was a fairly rude awakening for those of us (including myself) who might think that we’re on some kind of remorseless upward curve at the moment. Our backline was repeatedly cut to pieces tonight – with Keith Higgins’ strong performance the main bright spot here, along with the showings of Lee Keegan and Richie Feeney (who replaced the injured Peadar Gardiner) – and although Barry and Aidan did well at midfield too, our forward play was little short of abysmal all evening.
Alan Dillon was probably the chief culprit in this respect. Virtually every time he got the ball, the first thing he did was check back and slow things up, allowing Dublin to funnel back more cover. More than once he compounded this by lamping the ball aimlessly inside where it was hoovered up and cleared away by the grateful Dublin backline. He capped off a miserable night by one of those excrutiating girleen shots from twenty yards which I think actually bounced before Cluxton gathered it. On nights like this, you really do wonder will Alan make the first fifteen come summer.
Conor had a poor night too, though tonight’s downer comes on the back of a great start to the year for him. His handling was poor tonight and he repeatedly got caught in possession or allowed the ball to squirm out of his grasp. Alan Freeman, too, dropped a shocking amount of ball and the handling of the forwards as a whole contrasted greatly with what was happening at the other end, where the likes of Diarmuid Connolly and others were able to claim clean possession and do damage with it.
Cillian did okay, though, in his first start of the year and Enda got well stuck in too but as a unit the forward line misfired badly. It’s worth recalling that they weren’t much cop either down in O’Moore Park last weekend until we got that major slice of luck for the goal to help us on our way. Tonight it was providence that dispensed a different slice of luck but this kind of fortune isn’t going to last forever. A rude awakening could well be lurking around the corner for us, I fear.
Mayo: David Clarke; Kevin Keane, Eoghan Reilly, Keith Higgins; Peadar Gardiner, Donal Vaughan, Lee Keegan; Barry Moran, Aidan O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin, Cillian O’Connor (0-1, free), Alan Dillon; Conor Mortimer (0-2, frees), Alan Freeman, Enda Varley (0-2). Sub: Richie Feeney for Gardiner.