Our inability to start matches strongly has been a bugbear for us for some time but with a lead of 1-4 to no score on the board after just ten minutes, we certainly didn’t have that complaint tonight against Armagh up in the Cathedral city. That was the foundation for what in the end was a decisive six-point win but it took plenty of hard graft after that bright opening before we finally sealed the deal.
Armagh is a hell of a trip from the home county but it was an easy one for us up from the capital earlier this evening. We didn’t leave my place until about half five and we still managed to get seats in the stand of the nice, compact Athletic Grounds before the ball was thrown in at seven.
Once it was thrown in, we grabbed the game by the throat and three quick points by Alan Freeman, the first from play, put us in the ascendency right from the start. Then Andy Moran pounced on a loose ball after David Clarke’s booming ’50 didn’t make the distance and the Ballaghadereen man drove it first time to the net. An Enda Varley point from play then stretched our lead to seven with just ten minutes gone.
We should, of course, have pushed on from there and put the issue beyond doubt before the break but it was perhaps understandable that we’d pause at that stage to admire our handiwork for a bit. As well as that, the Armagh lads obviously would have felt that it was time to give their own supporters something to shout about having put up with enough funny-sounding roaring out of us in that frenetic opening period.
Two frees got them going and then a complete screw-up from a short kick-out by David Clarke – where we found ourselves under intense pressure inside our own 21-metre line – ended up with the Orchard County getting their first from play. Another free for them cut the gap to three.
A free from Conor Mortimer – who had been a virtual bystander during that opening fusillade – got us going again and another free from him re-established some clear daylight between the sides. Two points by Aidan Forker, the first from a free, cut our lead back to three but Alan Freeman had the last say before the break, as he landed his fourth point of the night, from another placed ball.
Armagh really needed to come out after the break and hit us with everything they had. As a few of the local lads explained to me, however, as I queued for tea under the stand – the rain, which had started to fall shortly before the break, now spilling down, illuminated by the lights – they were missing five of the Cross lads as well as Stevie Mac so it was questionable what exactly they had to hit us with. That said, they had come back from seven down in the second half against Cork in their opening league match last month and the eye-opening win down in Tralee marked them down as a side capable of doing damage to us so I was happy to agree with the locals that the match was far from over at that stage.
We quickly moved to make Armagh’s task all that harder with Mort notching the opening score of the half from a free. He responded to the barracking he’d got in the run-up by cupping his ear in the direction of the stand after he’d popped the score over. One of the locals sitting near us chuckled that Conor may not perhaps have been as quick to do so if the suspended Ciaran McKeever was on the field.
Mort followed that up with an excellent point from play from well out and then Enda Varley ended a flowing move with another well-taken point. Lee Keegan stormed forward and lamped over another confident score from play shortly after that. At that stage, with an eight-point cushion, we were really cruising.
With five minutes left on the clock, though, our cruising had taken on more than a passing resemblance to that of the ill-fated Costa Concordia. Armagh were only three down now and were pouring forward repeatedly, coming perilously close as they did so to notching the goal that would surely have edged the contest for them.
Colm Boyle, who came on as a second half sub for Kevin Keane, was the man who made the vital intervention in a move that seemed destined to end in a goal for them. When Malachy Mackin hacked a close-in free badly wide soon after that the tide at last turned back in our favour and, our confidence visibly increasing once more, we sealed the win with a flurry of late scores.
So what happened to make us lose our grip on the game? I’m not wholly sure but the contest turned sharply in their favour around about the time Barry Moran was replaced by Seamus O’Shea in the middle. I don’t think Seamus can be blamed too much for the game’s turning but we definitely lost our hold around the middle from then until five minutes from the end, when Pat Harte’s late introduction finally settled us again.
Donal Vaughan had been booked in the first half and so was obviously somewhat constrained in terms of how hard he could go into the tackle in that period. Armagh perhaps sensed this as they drove through the middle repeatedly, taking the ball time and again into the danger zone. As well as this, Maurice Deegan – who was an annoying, pernickity presence all evening – was also doing the old GAA ref trick of giving the losing team the benefit of the doubt every time.
I’m not sure how long that scoreless period was for us but whatever about its duration it was one in which Armagh registered five points without reply, three from frees. That period culminated in the near-miss for a goal for them but somehow we managed to hold firm and then rouse ourselves to claim the spoils.
Alan Freeman – who had an excellent match, finishing with five points – claimed a brilliant catch from a long ball and when he was hauled down the Aghamore man simply picked himself up and fired over the resultant free. Enda Varley – who also had a bright evening – followed this up with a trademark screamer from thirty or so yards out which curled deliciously over. Shortly after he was barreling in one-on-one with the keeper from a defence-splitting pass by Richie Feeney and although I was screaming at him to bury it, I could see that the option he took – casually palming it over – was the more sensible one. It was also the closing score of what in the end was a very satisfactory night for us.
We had several strong performers tonight. The backs as a whole played well, in particular Keith Higgins, Richie Feeney and Lee Keegan. The latter, in particular, is visibly improving with every game and looks to have nailed down his place at wing back for later in the year. Ger Cafferkey, Kevin Keane and sub Colm Boyle all battled hard in the sector too and Donie Vaughan drove us forward repeatedly, though he found the going tough enough as Armagh drove right through his sector in that difficult second half period.
Barry Moran and Aidan O’Shea did well at midfield too as they made short work of all that pre-match babble about Vernon and Mackin being the best midfield in the country at the minute. Aidan put himself about in the middle all evening and really imposed himself on the game. The arrival of his big brother into the sector upset our rhythm in the second half but I think it’s fair to say that we knew before now that two O’Sheas at midfield isn’t ever going to be the best way we can use the Breaffy brothers’ talents.
Alan Freeman – what a great pair of hands he has – and Enda Varley were our two most dangerous forwards tonight while Andy Moran’s goal was obviously a big factor in our securing the win. Alan Dillon and Jason Doherty did plenty behind the scenes and while Conor had one of his quieter games, he still ended up with four points (three from frees) to his name.
Overall, it was a very satisfactory performance and a good win secured due to an extremely hard-working and committed performance. If we keep playing like this over the coming five weekends, we’re not going to be far off that place in the play-offs that James Horan has identified as his target for this year’s league campaign.
PS: Two big thank-yous are due – the first to The Brother for doing the driving, enabling me to complete the match report on the laptop on the journey back home and the second to Mayo Mick for his photos which accompany this report. Thanks to both.
MAYO: David Clarke; Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Richie Feeney, Donal Vaughan, Lee Keegan (0-1); Aidan O’Shea, Barry Moran; Alan Freeman (0-5, four frees), Alan Dillon, Jason Doherty; Conor Mortimer (0-4, three frees), Andy Moran (1-0), Enda Varley (0-4). Subs: Seamus O’Shea for Barry Moran, Colm Boyle for Keane, Pat Harte for Andy Moran.