We had nothing left to give
IT was a semi-final like no other. And Mayo lost it like no other, fighting to the bitter end to rescue a dream that had begun to fade in the final ten minutes of extra time on a pitch on which they had been shamefully forced to play.
But foreign territory was not the villain of their defeat. Nor was it due to any lessening of the new burning commitment that James Horan has ignited in the Mayo character over the past four years.
The simple answer is that their legs gave up. All over the field, players fell like casualties in a war zone, their muscles knotted in cramp, unable to respond to a defiant mindset, unable to stagger to the line in those fierce final minutes of extra time.
Inconceivably, Kerry won the endurance battle. When the two were locked inextricably at the end of normal time, the Munster champions had the greatest resources of power to steer the game home.
They also had the benefit of some woefully harsh decisions against Mayo by a referee hopelessly incompetent to handle a game of this importance.
We had expected Mayo to win the stamina element of the contest. And it looked good when Cillian O’Connor and Kevin McLoughlin kicked them into a two-point lead at the start of extra time. But those two points were Mayo’s last scores of the entire game.
Kerry, shored up by an immeasurably stronger bench, had the reserves to extend their power to thunder home. And you would have imagined they had never won one of their 36 titles so feverishly did their following greet their three-points win.
Sadly, that defeat has brought the four-year reign of James Horan to an end. And Mayo have reason to be grateful to a man who took the team from the humiliation of defeat in Longford to a level of strength and conditioning unparalleled in the county ... and to within an ace of the All-Ireland glory his side deserved.
Last year might have been it ... when they were at the peak of fitness, having stormed the championship, leaving an extraordinary trail of buoyancy and power and self-assurance.
After that one-point defeat by Dublin, the possibility existed that the wear and tear of two successive All-Ireland defeats would deaden their responses.
And though the experts claimed they showed greater promise and maturity this season in extricating themselves from the jaws of defeat against Roscommon and Cork, the hard evidence suggested otherwise, that in fact they had not reached the intensity of their performances last season.
It was no coincidence that they had begun to concede leads in a number of tests, against Dublin and Derry in the league and against Cork and Kerry in the championship. On Sunday they struggled in a number of positions that had been the cornerstone of some wonderful victories in the past.
They lost midfield, and more significantly their half-back line, the essence of their general renaissance, and which drove their spectacular recovery in the second half of the drawn match, was stalled by Kerry’s countering thrusts.
More pressure was thus exerted on the full-back line, which itself had buckled on a few occasions during the season. And the absurdity of it all is that Mayo’s best performer, Keith Higgins, was a member of that back line and came face-to-face with one of Kerry’s best performers, James O’Donoghue.
Higgins was quite magnificent in reading the game and in executing the task with which he was confronted. And while the Kerry man ended with a total of 2-6, the goals came from penalties and two of the points from frees.
Kerry dominated the first quarter until Cillian O’Connor stirred Mayo with a goal from the penalty spot, having collected a wildly hit shot by Aidan O’Shea before being brought down in the square.
The Ballintubber man scored the penalty, but Shane Enright who fouled him and who had already received a yellow card should have been given a black card and thus a red.
Justice was not done.
O’Connor, although tightly marked, was irrepressible, and Andy Moran, Jason Doherty, Alan Dillon (early on) and indeed Aidan O’Shea strove mightily all through without the midfield support to which they were accustomed.
Nothing Mayo did in that sector, despite some good work by Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons, could match the magnificence of Kerry’s giant David Moran. On him and Kieran Donaghy, Kerry’s victory was firmly rooted.
A clash of heads between O’Connor and Aidan O’Shea, which forced the two to the sideline for urgent running repairs, did adversely affect Mayo’s normal rhythm. But to the eternal credit of the team as a whole, they set new standards of will power and courage in Mayo football. We’ll remember those last four years.
Referee’s ineptitude a huge factor in defeat
IT is a constant theme of this column that Mayo have got to regard referees as the extra man for the opposition, that your side has got to be good enough not only to beat their opponents, but to beat the middle man too.
That reasoning is not intended to be a censure of all officials, but a warning not to expect a referee to be so impartial that he will not inadvertently make a mistake that could decide a game.
Referees are human. Listen to the conflicting arguments surrounding any decision and you get an idea of their difficulties in handling games.
That said, no team ought to have to suffer the stewardship of Meath’s Cormac Reilly, who took charge of this semi-final replay. The two frees he awarded Kerry near the end were only the tip of a succession of wrong decisions against Mayo, culminating in the frustration that led to Cillian O’Connor’s dismissal near the end.
The referee’s ineptitude was a huge factor in the outcome, and together with the decision of the GAA’s CCCC, headed by a Kerryman, to have the game played outside Croke Park was the work of an administration that refuses to listen to honest debate.
All of that is water under the bridge now. It can’t be undone. It’s a new game, a new manager, a new blackboard, a new dream. For four years the players have sacrificed much in pursuit of that one ambition, to be the best. It’s not easy. Some day, though, when least expected, a Mayo team will get there. It’s a dream buried in their DNA, a work in progress.
Just a thought
DUBLIN’S defeat by Donegal ought to end forever the argument that any team, however good, is invincible. Sustained on a new pedestal by their own press, Dublin clearly believed everything written about them. How the mighty have fallen!