When the history books on Stephen Rochford’s tenure in charge of Mayo are written, this game will be a brief footnote in the overall analysis of his term as Mayo senior manager, but it will be a winning footnote. He started just one third of the side that last were in competitive action for Mayo last September and gave debuts to a handful of hopefuls, while a number of probables and returning faces were also given starts in the first game of the 2016 adventure.
Of the new faces in the defence Padraig O’Hora and Shane Nalley were picked in defence, with Knockmore duo Keith Ruttledge and Darren McHale along with Conor Loftus getting the nod in attack. Of the newcomers, Shane Nally made an impressive start to a Mayo senior career that for many years looked might evade him, after he failed to make the break through to the senior set up alongside his fellow 2008 minor graduating class that included the likes of Aidan O’Shea, Robbie Hennelly and Kevin Keane who have all gone on to become regulars in the top grade of football.
Mayo were made work for this win and they only managed to pick it up thanks to two late pointed frees one from Kevin McLoughlin, who also showed fantastic awareness when bagging Mayo’s goal and the other an injury time long range effort from Robbie Hennelly.
The students started the game brightest and raced into a 0-3 to 0-0 lead inside the opening six minutes. Former Mayo sharpshooter, Maurice Sheridan included three Mayo players in his starting 15, with Conor O’Shea, Adam Gallagher and Eoin O’Donoghue all lining out in maroon and white and Gallagher did his chances of being involved with Mayo later on down the line no harm scoring 1-4 over the 55 minutes he was on the field. The opening three points came from the boots of Owen Finnerty, Michael Daly and Criostor Davey as the new look Mayo defence took time to settle into their rhythm.
Mayo’s first score of the Rochford era came from one of the new guns when Conor Loftus swept the ball over the bar from close range, just five seconds before eight minutes had elapsed on the referee’s watch. He followed that up with a second point this time from a free after Keith Ruttledge was fouled out on the MacHale Road side of the ground. Ruttledge himself had a chance to level the game up not long after, but his snatched effort tailed badly high and wide on the near side. Just after the quarter of an hour mark, Mayo were level thanks to another pointed free this time from Kevin McLoughlin and four minutes later the Knockmore man had put Mayo into the lead for the first time from another pointed free. Nine minutes before the break, Conor Loftus looked like he had weaved some magic to get in on goal, but a brilliant block from Kevin McDonnell saw him block the ball down and back off Loftus’ boot and send it wide and away to safety.
Darren McHale stretched Mayo’s lead out to two points on 24 minutes after he cut in from the right hand side and fisted the ball over the bar with the aid of the post. Adam Gallagher cut the gap back to just one score a minute later with a great score from out the country on the McHale Road side into the Bacon Factory end of the ground. Mayo responded quickly and Jason Doherty coaxed the ball over the bar after some neat interplay by Knockmore trio of McLoughlin, Ruttledge and McHale in the build up to leave the score at 0-6 to 0-4 in favour of the inter-county outfit.
The final few minutes of the first half belonged completely to the students and they reeled of three unanswered points to go in leading by one at the turn around. Adam Gallagher possibly bettered his first score when when turned Brendan Harrsion inside out to create some space to shoot over from a tight angle after being found by Conor O’Shea. Peter Cooke then let fly from one well out the park and sent it sailing over Robbie Hennelly’s bar with plenty to spare. Gallagher had the final say on the scoreboard in the half when he clipped over a free after full back Dave Cunnane was hauled down by Jason Doherty after the NUIG number three made a lung bursting run to get in behind the Mayo cover and pick up the ball in the danger area. That score sent the students in leading by 0-7 to 0-6 at the short whistle.
The Mayo Gaels man was once again on the scoreboard five minutes into the second half when he slotted over another free to stretch his sides lead out to two. Kevin McLoughlin cut the gap back to just a single score with another pointed free after Brendan Harrision was fouled close to goal after meandering his way into the Mayo attack from his corner back position. Just before the 40 minute mark Mark Ronladson levelled the game up with a snap shot as he fell that sailed just over the bar and Mayo were about to hit a purple patch that would see them score 1-2 in four minutes.
First up, McLoughlin found the back of the net intercepting a stray pass from the students as they tried to work it out of defence. McLoughlin showed plenty of calmness and composure to beat the advancing Donal O’Sullivan in the NUIG goal on his near side. Colm Boyle drove the ball over the bar from the resulting kick-out and Mayo were four to the good. A free from Loftus two minutes later and the gap was out to five and it looked like Mayo were home and hosed.
But credit to NUIG they didn’t throw in the towel and Conor O’Shea fired a point over the head of his clubmate Robbie Hennelly to cut the gap back to four and on 48 minutes Peter Cooke arced a free just inside the far post with an effort off the deck. With nine minutes left on the clock Michael Daly was upended and referee Barry Judge hand no hesitation in spreading his arms and signalling the penalty. Up stepped Gallagher who showed his calmness and composure in beating Hennelly low to the bottom right hand corner with a great spot kick and the game was all tied up again.
The closing stages were a messy affair with neither side really creating a chance to go back into the lead until, Jason Doherty intercepted a NUIG pass and played in Ronaldson who was hauled the ground 35m out from goal. Up stepped McLoughlin who made no mistake with his placed ball, the final punctuation mark on the game was applied by Hennelly who drove the ball over the bar from beyond the 45m line from a free and the Rochford era was up and running with a winning result.
All roads lead to Ballina next Sunday, where IT Sligo will take on Mayo in round two of the FBD League at 2pm.
Mayo: K McLoughlin (1-4, 4f ), C Loftus (0-3, 2f ), C Boyle (0-1 ), M Ronaldson (0-1 ), D McHale (0-1 ), J Doherty (0-1 ), R Hennelly (0-1, 1f )
NUIG: A Gallgher (1-4, 1-0 P, 2f ), P Cooke (0-2, 1f ), C Davey (0-1 ), M Daly (0-1 ), O Finnerty (0-1 ), C O’Shea (0-1 )
Mayo: R Hennelly; B Harrison, K Keane, P O’Hora; C Boyle, S McHale, S Nally; J Gibbons, T Parsons; K McLoughlin, M Ronaldson, D McHale; K Ruttledge, J Doherty , C Loftus. Subs: M Sweeney for K Ruttledge, K Higgins for S McHale, C Crowe for J Gibbons, G Cafferkey for P O’Hora
NUIG: D O’Sullivan; K McDonnell, D Cunnane, D Murray; J McManus, L Cullen, A Nolan; C O’Shea; E O’Donoghue, M Daly, A Gallagher; K Finn, O Finnerty, C Davey. Subs: S Moran for E O’Donoghue, E Boland for A Nolan, E Lavin for A Gallagher, A McCormack for C O’Shea
Ref: B Judge (Sligo )