I sent a text to a Dublin friend of mine at half time during Mayo’s match against Down last Saturday telling him that, for the first time ever while following Mayo teams in Croke Park, I was going to sit back, relax, and enjoy the second half safe in the knowledge that we had almost definitely secured our place in the last four.
Mayo were, simply, in total control of proceedings and unless the sky fell down on Croke Park, I felt Mayo were home and hosed. Right from the throw-in Mayo got down to business and literally tore the feeble Down challenge to shreds with a great display of energetic football. Like many others coming into Croke Park, I was unsure what to expect from Mayo.
Neither of Mayo’s displays in the Connacht Championship inspired great confidence in the team’s ability to compete with the big boys, but in hindsight we should not have doubted Mayo. I met a number of the players at their Dublin base after the game on Sunday morning as they made their way to the swimming pool for a recovery session. They were in gunslinger mood and most had a look of deserved satisfaction with a job that was well done the previous evening. They were not overly excited as they are wise and smart enough to realise that this match was simply a pathway into the semis… nothing else.
Moran and O’Shea are as good a pairing as is left in the championship
After last Saturday we now realise that Mayo, on their day, are as good as there is around. The real platform for this victory was undoubtedly midfield. It is just so crucial to gain a foothold around the middle of the park. If a team is winning primary possession here, the opposition is immediately on the back foot. For the third game in succession Barry Moran was terrific, and he along with the fit again Aidan O’Shea can now be considered as good a pairing as there is in this championship.
The big Breaffy man will benefit enormously from this outing and with four weeks of quality training under his belt before the Dublin clash, he will be even better. What impressed me more than anything was the execution of our goal chances. Apparently a lot of time is spent at training in converting goal opportunities and this was clearly evident in the manner in which all three chances were put away with such utter conviction. I chatted briefly with Michael Conroy on Sunday morning and, unsurprisingly, he wore a smile as wide as the main street in Ballindine. The Davitts man had a magnificent game for Mayo on Saturday. But then so many aspects of Mayo’s game looked good. The defence proved itself again with one or two small exceptions.
Defence stands tough
Every opposition will have its moments and Down had theirs early in the first half. A quick interchange between Benny Coulter and the diminutive Conor Laverty created the goal opportunity for Kalum King. Minutes earlier Laverty fly kicked a ball at the Mayo goal when he might have been wiser to have gathered the ball before shooting. Either way David Clarke was equal to the shot and with the exception of these two efforts, Down were living off scraps for most of the game. You may recall the hugely impressive and influential Keith Higgins making one of his trademark bursts the length of the field early in the first half which resulted in a fantastic score for Andy Moran. Conor Laverty was in hot pursuit of the Mayo corner back, but could not get near him. That burst was a real statement of intent. More than anything else it suggested to all and sundry that Mayo were up for the contest.
Incidentally it also quietened Laverty for about 15 minutes.
Another noticeable feature was the collective work ethic of the entire team. Mayo have great pace throughout the field and from the first minute you could see that they had the ability to carve open the Down defence with ease. Martin McHugh on RTE’s Take your Point suggested that you could drive a truck load of hay through the heart of the Down defence without a Down shirt getting anywhere near the truck. Yes, they were very average in defence and Mayo, I am sure, could hardly believe their luck at the relative ease with which they were able to create opportunities. Notwithstanding the fact that Down were very poor, Mayo can only beat what is put in front of them. On the evidence of what we witnessed last weekend, if Mayo can reproduce anything like this form, then they should fear no one.
The one down side
Unfortunately the result came at a huge cost with the unfortunate injury to Andy Moran. He has a torn ACL (cruciate ligament ) which is a serious injury. Moran was playing brilliantly, and before his injury last Saturday he was involved in everything that was positive about Mayo’s performance. There is a huge amount of goodwill out there for the Mayo captain and I can only wish him well and hope that he makes a speedy recovery from this latest set back.
Minors make a statement
Weren’t our minors brilliant? I must have heard it mentioned a thousand times that we didn’t see that one coming. I didn’t hold out much hope for our young footballers beating the reigning All Ireland champions, but they did and in so doing have given us great hope for the future. We have a great chance of making it to a minor All- Ireland final as Mayo have got the easier side of the draw and now play Meath. I saw the Leinster minor final, where a hugely impressive Dublin team beat these Meath boys comprehensively.