There is only ever one question before big games

The man of moment: Conor Mortimer celebrates his goal against Galway in the Connacht final. Photo:Sportsfile

The man of moment: Conor Mortimer celebrates his goal against Galway in the Connacht final. Photo:Sportsfile

I paid a visit to Anthony Finnerty’s hostelry in lower Salthill before the game last Sunday. There was a great buzz about the place with plenty of Mayo supporters popping in for the crack and banter before the short hop over to Pearse Stadium. One of the first people I met on arrival was PJ Kelly from Moygownagh. He is a great passionate football man and was eagerly seeking everyone’s opinion as to who they thought would win the game. “Would we win it? Are we good enough to win it”? I got the impression that PJ was happy with the answers coming from the gathering and would have left for the stadium pretty confident that Mayo would win their first provincial title since 1967 at the city venue. If I am to be perfectly honest here I have to admit that I found it very difficult to predict the outcome in advance of Sunday’s game. I know from experience that Galway v Mayo encounters take on a life of their own and the form book goes out the window when these two sides meet. Irrespective of form coming into a championship encounter, there is rarely more than a point or two separating these two great rivals. Galway looked so ordinary against Sligo a few weeks ago that punters could have been forgiven for believing that this would be a relatively ‘handy’ match for the Mayo boys. Mayo, on the other hand, looking hugely impressive when carrying out a demolition job on Roscommon in the semi-final. I suggested, prior to the game, that our poor run of results in Pearse Stadium in recent decades would be a factor. Because of that I felt we would have to be five or six points a better team than Galway to beat them in a venue where we hadn’t won a provincial championship since 1967.

Hitting the target from the off

The day was almost perfect for football at the Salthill venue and I can’t ever remember seeing the place looking so well. I assume that Mayo won the toss and elected to play into the wind-assisted ‘town’ goal in the first half. It is so crucial for a visiting team at any venue to avail of whatever advantage is going early and Mayo were quickly out of their blocks looking confident and eager. Unlike last year, the Mayo players played in the positions in which they had been selected and it was the Galway boys who were chopping and changing from their selected positions, creating an element of confusion for us viewers. Mayo looked particularly sharp and fit and it was very obvious from early on that they were really up for this one. After an opening exchange of points, Mayo got a huge break early in the first half when they scored a rather fortuitous goal. A long punt in the direction of the ‘twin towers’, Barry Moran and Aidan O’Shea, carried a little further than anticipated in the wind and Moran managed somehow to get a flick on it, steering it past the Galway keeper. It wasn’t a classic goal, but I didn’t notice a single Mayo person apologising for it. It was crucial to build a significant lead in the first half and when you have David Heaney, who incidentally had a storming game for 45 minutes, popping over two points, the chances are Mayo were going to have one of those days. For the remainder of the first half the forwards were really on their game, with the work and industry of the half forward line in particular being exceptional. Mayo’s midfield chipped in with three great points and the defence was completely on top, with one exception, however. Liam O’Malley clearly wasn’t match fit after a number of weeks out through injury and in hindsight it was probably a mistake to have started him. He was playing exceptional football before his injury and I have to say I was sorry to see him struggling. I have no doubt he will recover and have lots to offer over the coming weeks. Still Mayo hit the half-time break with a five-point lead but for some reason I still wasn’t absolutely certain that it would be enough, such was the strength of the wind. On the other hand Mayo were playing by far the better football and for the first time in ages they looked assured and oozed

confidence.

Keeping it up after the restart

Psychologically the first score of the second half is crucial and that score against the breeze came from substitute Conor (MJ Mort ) Mortimer, a player who appeared to be intent on leaving his mark on proceedings. That score nudged Mayo six points clear. With provincial championship debutant Donal Vaughan also introduced at the half-time break and looking lively, I genuinely felt we could sit back and relax from that point to the finish. Every Mayo defender was winning his personal duel at this stage, with the half back line in particular playing like men possessed. Andy Moran and Peadar Gardiner were enormously impressive and Trevor Howley at centre half rarely gave Galway’s big gun, Padraig Joyce, a sniff over the 70 minutes. With Galway now living off scraps I felt that Mayo would really turn the screw and finish the job, with perhaps John O’Mahony having the luxury of running his bench in the final quarter just to keep a few lads sweet! Galway refused to bend, however, and managed to kick a few points to reduce the margin to four. However, when Trevor Mortimer bullied Galway’s full back, Finian Hanley, off the ball about 40 metres from the Galway goal, drove forward and then unselfishly laid off the perfect pass to give his brother Conor the easy task of lobbing the ball over the goalkeeper’s head, the dancing in the stand started. It was vintage stuff by this stage.

It’s not over until the final whistle

Then the inexplicable happened. Mayo somehow managed to cough up a seven-point lead in the closing minutes that led to an incredible finish. This is obviously an issue that has left green and red followers both perplexed and somewhat perturbed. With the momentum swung in Galway’s favour in the closing minutes one feared the worst. Thankfully, from a Mayo perspective, the ball ended up in the hands of Andy Moran who, when fouled, had the presence of mind to dictate the next move that ensured a thrilling Mayo victory. The final score from Peadar Gardiner was an incredible score and sent the travelling Mayo supporters into wild scenes of delirium.

So how good are Mayo and what are their chances of making it to an All-Ireland final day? There is no doubt but we are capable of overcoming any of the four qualifiers that will eventually provide the opposition for the provincial champions. I acknowledge that Kerry will more than likely be one of the aforementioned four that will enter the Drum next Sunday evening, but they appear to be somewhat in disarray at the moment. While I am sure John O’Mahony and his management team would rather avoid Kerry in a quarter-final I firmly believe we are capable of progressing to an All-Ireland semi-final. With our record against both Dublin and Tyrone in recent years there is perhaps only one team that could be cause for real concern. Cork, despite their poor form in the Munster final, are a formidable outfit and unfortunately Mayo’s record against them in the championship isn’t great. A member of the Mayo management suggested this week that this present Mayo team is capable of winning an All-Ireland title. Could this possibly be the year?

Minors need improvement

I was disappointed with the minor match on Sunday last. I had seen the Mayo minors literally blow Galway away with a classy performance in the semi-final a few weeks ago but last Sunday there was little evidence of the fluent, smart, intelligent football I had seen in Markievicz Park. The game, as we know, ended in a draw and in a way Mayo were quite lucky to get another crack at Roscommon next Sunday evening.

P.S. I overheard the following during the week:

Jermaine Jackson has told website TMZ.com that, following Mayo man Conor Mortimer’s emotional goal-scoring tribute to his late great brother Michael (not Micheal ) he has got in touch with the Shrule/Glencorrib man and offered him a contract with the Neverland Magic Dragons!

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