A lot done, a lot more to do for Mayo

So near, yet so far away: Cillian O'Connor and Barry Moran protest to Joe McQuillan at the final whistle in this years All Ireland final.

So near, yet so far away: Cillian O'Connor and Barry Moran protest to Joe McQuillan at the final whistle in this years All Ireland final.

Now that 2013 has almost gone to the history books it is time to reflect on the year that nearly was. The Mayo senior team played their first game against Leitrim in the FBD league on January 13. Little did we know back then what the year was about to unfold. Mayo’s National League campaign was not of the consistent variety and after a convincing win at home to Kerry on February 3 we became expectant again. That was followed by four consecutive losses to Tyrone, Dublin, Down, and Kildare. The Tyrone game was a crushing defeat, Stephen O’Neill’s last gasp penalty winning for the red hand. Mayo were given a taste of Stephen Cluxton’s ability in the league game in Croke Park in March, the Dubs convincing winners; Bernard Brogan was unmarkable the same night. Worrying for Mayo were the losses to Down and Kildare, two games they should have won. Mayo were now in real danger of being relegated and had to beat All- Ireland Champions Donegal in Castlebar and then travel away to Cork to try to complete a miraculous escape. What was of great concern was the lack of goal chances and goals, Keith Higgins’ goal against Tyrone the only attempt to hit the net in five matches. Michael Conroy bettered that stat with a soccer-style finish against Donegal in a game in which Barry Moran was in superb form. Mayo well and truly ground out a result in Cork, winning by the slimmest of Margins 0-11 to 0-10 to achieve their goal of staying in division one of the league. It was a complete bonus that they sneaked into a league semi-final and had another big game in Croker against the Dubs. Confidence may not have been too high after Dublin easily won the league semi-final by 2-16 to 0-16. Bernard Brogan was untouchable in the first league encounter, Paul Mannion the star of the semi-final scoring 1-04. It really was amazing Mayo got to a league semi final despite losing four games on the spin while staring relegation in the face. Two goals in eight matches had to be a very worrying stat for James Horan and his management.

In the middle of the National League the Mayo u21s travelled to Tuam to take on Galway in what turned out to be a dour affair. Despite Mayo having a full forward line with senior inter county experience, they flattered to deceive. Darren Coen, Conor O’Shea and Cillian o Connor will rue a lot of missed chances; Galway weren’t much better and sneaked home by two points the final score been 0-09 to 0-07. To say I was shocked that Galway went on to win the All-Ireland U21 title is an understatement. Who knows what might have been if Mayo took their chances.

Championship fun in Connacht

On Sunday, May 19 we travelled to Salthill for the start of the championship, more in hope than expectation, a game yours truly thought could go either way. It was an unbelievable game; Mayo blitzed their old enemy scoring goals for fun, finishing with a tally of 4-16. The panel obviously practised goal getting after the National League. Some calamitous Galway defending helped in no uncertain terms. The most stand out feature of this game was Mayo’s far superior physical shape. It was like watching boys against men.

It was Connacht semi-final time on Sunday, June 16, the Rossies travelled to McHale Park to try to cause an upset. This game was competitive for all of nine minutes, Mayo’s power eventually breaking the Roscommon resistance. One critique, no goals against a very porous defence with 0-21 points to 0-09 the final score. Late July saw London’s first appearance in the provincial decider. The only thing you can say about this game is that it was a novel pairing. London never had a chance against Mayo in McHale Park but they still got their day out, Mayo bagging another five goals and finishing with 5-11. The great concern for supporters and pundits alike was the fact that Mayo had won the easiest Connaught title in history; surely it would be of no use to them against Donegal in Croke Park?

Back in the big time in Croker

The August Bank Holiday weekend was going to be a real test of how far Mayo had come when pitted against All-Ireland champions Donegal. Would the easy passage through Connacht be a help or a hindrance? This was, no question, Mayo’s best performance under James Horan, maybe ever. Hammering the All-Ireland Champions by 16 points is a real statement of intent, Aidan O Shea majestic and Cillian O’Connor grabbing his second hat trick in a row. This was one of the best days I experienced at Croker.

Late August had us back in the semi final again against Tyrone, a team that had claimed three Sam McGuires in the 10 previous seasons. The bookies had written Tyrone off, Mayo were going to win at a canter or would they? The first 28 minutes of this game had every Mayo supporter breathless, the same old story. Tyrone went hammer and tongs and immediately for the jugular. I am convinced only for Chris Barrett and Lee Keegan’s scores at the end of the first half Mayo would have lost this game. The second half Mayo showed their true ability and won comfortably by six points. Seamie O’Shea did a fine job nullifying the threat of Sean Cavanagh. It has to be a first, leaving a semi-final after winning by six points and complaining about the display.

The big day came around again on September 22 and the Green and Red were back in the final for the second year in a row against, this time, the Dubs, a team that had beaten Mayo comprehensively twice in The National League a few months previously. Had we learnt about Stephen Cluxton’s kick outs? Mayo quite simply didn’t perform and we will wonder forever where the performances from earlier on in the summer went to. You could count on one hand the number of players who would have left the field satisfied. Before the All- Ireland all the talk was about Cillian O’Connor and his injury, after it was all about Richie Feeney and Alan Freeman. The hardest thing for me to take is the fact that Mayo played so poorly and yet only lost by a single point. Joe McQuillan and Cillian O’Connor’s conversation at the end, now an infamous story in Mayo GAA history.

Next week John will be looking back at our magnificent minors and the club action in Mayo over the past year.

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