he Mayo hurlers caused one of the shocks of the year on Saturday last in Westport GAA Grounds, as they dumped early season favourites Westmeath out of the Christy Ring Cup for 2009. Westmeath came into the tie as 1/7 on favourites, but the bookies got it all wrong as Mayo kept their championship aspirations alive thanks to a dogged display of power and skill.
Mayo's platform for victory was set in a minutes hurling during the opening quarter, as a brace of goals rocked the travelling Westmeath outfit. The first came in the 10th minute as Derek McDonnell was first to pounce on a loose ball from close range, while a minute later Tooreen's Martin Devaney justified his selection by goaling high into the Westmeath net after some neat approach play by Pierse Higgins. This left the score at 2-2 to 0-3 to the homeside - with all of Westmeath's early points coming from Andrew Mithell long-range free's.
Mayo's dominance continued with further points from Adrian Freeman, as he tormented the Westmeath defence from frees and from play, while Eoghan Madigan and Brian Higgins both toasted their home crowd with peaches of long-range points also. But it was the Higgins' brothers at midfield - Pierse and Keith - who were pulling the strings all through the tie, with Pierse in fine form providing some quality ball to the Mayo attack.
Westmeath finally steadied their ship coming towards half time as points from Robbie Jackson (2 ) and Ciaran Curley kept their side in touch, but Keith Higgins had the final say of the opening half as he converted a long range free from his own half to leave the score at 2-8 to 0-6 in favour of Mayo at the interval.
Westmeath had it all to do in the second half and threw caution to the wind by introducing both Derek McNicholas and Darren Kilcoyne to the fray. McNicholas didn't wait long for a piece of the action, as he pointed from close range within a minute when a goal seemed on. Minutes later Westmeath were dealt another hammer-blow as wing-back and former Christy Ring All-Star Darren McCormack received his marching orders for a second yellow card, after an incident with Mayo's Eoghan Madigan. Westmeath - now reduced to 14 players - faced the mammoth task of overturning eight point deficit, while the resulting Pierse Higgins point put nine between the sides with 30 minutes remaining.
Westmeath's decision to persist in going for the onion-sack at this stage didn't reap any rewards as Brendan Murtagh, Andrew Mitchell and Derek McNicholas all found Mayo goalkeeper in excellent form, as he kept his goal at bay. Westmeath had to be content with white flags during this spell, with Mitchell, McNicholas and Conor Jordan all registering scores.
The extra space provided to the Mayo attack in the absence of Darren McCormack was capitalised on further, as Mayo points began to flow from Keith Higgins (4 ) and Martin Devaney (2 ), while Stephen Broderick also converted a brace of points on his home soil. The final quarter was also notable for the introduction of Tooreen underage hurling star Cathal Freeman, who made his long awaited championship debut after replacing Eoghan Madigan at wing forward. In the end it was Mayo's day, with many of the tightly packed crowd in Westport surprised at the ease of Mayo's victory at the final whistle.
After the game, Mayo manager Martin Brennan was asked for his reaction to his sides performance. "It was a one-hundred percent committed performance from each player who took the field for Mayo today. We had huge work-rate throughout and we knew what it would take. Westmeath are a good side, having won two of the last three Christy Ring titles, but the lads closed them down in every position on the field today". It was also a memorable day for all the Westport contingent involved and Brennan agreed with the fact; "It was a hugely proud day for myself as a Westport native to have the game in Westport, and to see the support from all involved with the Westport Hurling Club was tremendous. Conor Ryan was awesome again today on his home pitch, and Brian Higgins and Eoghan Madigan gave us proud performances also. That pitch holds many memories for me, but today was one of my proudest memories involved in GAA in Westport", replied the Covie publican.
Westmeath now face Wicklow in a relegation play-off decider next weekend, while Mayo take on Kildare in a quarter-final joust. Another epic performance will be needed for Mayo to advance further, but Brennan knows all too well after last years semi-final exit to Carlow, that anything short of a visit to Croke Park this year won't be remembered. "If we don't take it on one step further this year and get to the final and win it - this day will be forgotten about very soon. We have to get down to brass tax and keep working and repeat that performance next week against Kildare" was the judgement of the experienced manager.
Westmeath: P Burke; E Price, P Greville, G Gavin; A Price, A Mitchell (0-6,6f ), R Jackson (0-2 ); C Jordan (0-1 ), B Connaughton; J Shaw, B Murtagh (0-1,f ), K Cosgrove; D McCormack, C Curley (0-1 ), A Devine. Subs: D McNicholas (0-3 ) for Shaw, D Kilcoyne (0-1 ) for Connaughton.
Mayo: M Walsh; D Walsh, A Connolly, P Hunt; B Higgins (0-1 ), P Barrett, C Ryan; P Higgins (0-1 ), Keith Higgins (0-5,3f ); E Madigan (0-1 ), D McDonnell (1-0 ), Derek McConn (0-1 ); A Freeman (0-7,4f ), D Dowling, M Devaney (1-2 ). Subs: S Broderick (0-2 ) for Dowling, K McGrath for McDonnell (Temp ), C Freeman for Madigan, C Hynes for McDonnell, S Hoban for Devaney.
Ref: Tony Carroll (Offaly )