I got a text last Sunday morning suggesting that Sunday’s result would be dictated by the free takers on either side because of the atrocious conditions. After our failure in this particular department in our two opening games of this year’s championship, I wasn’t exactly buzzing with confidence that we would win the match if it was to be decided in this way. But ultimately it was a very significant reason why Mayo were crowned champions last weekend. Mayo management passed the responsibility of free taking onto the young shoulders of Cillian O’ Connor. He was coolness personified throughout as he kicked eight out of nine frees in the match. Donie Shine on the other hand missed two crucial ones that could possibly have seen his team over the line.
There was one other significant turning point in the match. With Mayo leading by a single point entering the final five minutes of the game, Mayo goalkeeper, Robert Hennelly stretched every sinew in his body to pluck a ball that was sailing at least six inches over the crossbar and which would have brought the teams level. Contrast that with Peadar Gardiner’s point in the seventieth minute. Roscommon goalkeeper, Geoffrey Claffey failed to hold the ball that was about four inches under the bar. He took the safe option and palmed the ball over the bar which gave Mayo the lead for the first time in the match. Someone once famously remarked that football is a game of inches!
Winning was all that mattered
I recall some inter-county manager a few years ago remark that there is no obligation on management or players to entertain the public. He suggested that it is their responsibility to win by whatever means is available to them. I am sure ‘entertainment’ wasn’t mentioned in any team meeting prior to last Sunday’s match by either manager. As it transpired the entertainment value was fairly negligible. Of course there have been more exciting contests between these two in the past but on this occasion winning the contest was all that mattered. From a Mayo point of view it was hugely important to distance themselves from last year’s championship defeats to Sligo and Longford.
Winning the Connacht championship, albeit without ever really enhancing our reputation as serious contenders for anything other than a Connacht title was crucial this year. The terrible weather meant it was going to be an awful day for football. The ball was like a bar of soap all afternoon and the underfoot conditions made it nigh on impossible to secure footing. For those reasons we were never going to be treated to a classic Connacht final, but what we did get was an honest hardworking performance from Mayo that ultimately was the difference between winning and losing. Mayo was the better team and had better footballers in most positions than Roscommon. However in such conditions the best team isn’t guaranteed success.
Victory is earned
You have to work hard to earn your victory and when the game required a few leaders to step up to the mark, Mayo did just that. Keith Higgins laid down a marker from the first minute of the game with an awesome display particularly over the opening twenty minutes. He was superb in driving forward at every opportunity in that period. This guy rarely has an off day but last Sunday he was inspirational. Tom Cunniffe and Richard Feeney were two others who caught the eye with their resolute defensive qualities. Trevor Mortimer is another who is beginning to win back his fan base after a poor enough season last year. He is injury-free this year and the couple of months away from the game seem to have whetted his appetite for action. He is beginning to look quite comfortable as a wing back. He would have polished off a great day if Alan Freeman hadn’t overcooked his pass when he found himself with only the keeper to beat with time almost up. It would have ensured an easier final few minutes for those sweating on the sideline hoping that we wouldn’t have drama similar to that at the end of another game which gave Roscommon victory over Mayo in 2001. On that occasion, you may recall they scored a very late goal with practically the last kick of the ball to deny Mayo the victory. There was to be no fairytale end for the Rossies, however, in this encounter as Mayo’s Enda Varley and the aforementioned Gardiner kicked the two points in the last five minutes which ensured we ended up with the biggest winning margin in a Connacht final in five years.
Roscommon were very poor. I thought the game plan they deployed was totally unsuited to the conditions. The deployment of the very slight Conor Devanney as a ball carrier from their defence, particularly when playing with the wind in the first half, was a poor decision. It ensured that the Mayo defence had ample opportunity to shore up any gaps in front of their big two men in the full forward line. It also meant that Mayo had the luxury of playing their ‘extra’ man in front of Donie Shine and Senan Kilbride. It was a luxury that a full back line relishes and ensured that Roscommon were practically living off scraps for most of the afternoon. The talismanic qualities of Kilbride never shone once in this game and he looked a forlorn figure when he was hauled off towards the end. Cathal Cregg, the one forward who could have driven at the Mayo rearguard and prised an opening, was spotted taking free kicks deep in his defence late in the game when he should have been used in a more forward role. Roscommon’s bench was also quite weak as evidenced by some of the subs used.
Everything from here on in is a bonus
All in all I assume that the Mayo management will consider anything else from this year’s championship a bonus. They deserve great credit for the year’s work to date. Survival in Division 1 has become crucial in recent years. Mayo did that with a couple of very good performances earlier this year and to cap it off with the Nestor Cup is probably as much as we could hope for. We are simply not good enough right now to challenge any of the big teams left for further honours in 2011, but we are advancing in the right direction. That said, a favourable draw against the winners of Wexford or Limerick could potentially leave us with a chance of progressing to a semi final. Now that would not have seemed possible with five minutes to go in Ruislip a few short weeks ago!
In last week’s edition of this paper, the GAA County Board PRO, Mr. Mc Loughlin had a letter printed in response to my article of the previous week. I invite Mr McLoughlin to re-read my column and note this time that at no point did I make the inference that the County Board had failed to notify any club regarding a particular fixture. So what was he on about I wonder?