FACES IN THE CROWD Mayo fans Joey and Ben Holmes are pictured with Lucas and Martin Kennedy from Westport outside MacHale Park, Castlebar last Saturday. Pic Conor McKeown
WHEN the accusing ghosts of semi-final smugness were finally swept away, a trace of the Mayo to which we had become accustomed came into view.
Not the scintillating Mayo that might have been expected in the semi-final, and not before it had taken its toll of our nerves, but an outline all the same of a return to good sense ... a release from the clinch of three week’s misgivings.
In unfamiliar circumstances, it was always going to be an anxious return to MacHale Park on Saturday. And at half-time, when they trailed by six points, the vague possibility of a calamity had not failed to cross our minds.
Fermanagh had been doing what we thought they would: trample on Mayo’s sensitivities, ruffling them, foiling, getting inside their heads and disrupting their plans. They had a high wind in their favour and moving the ball confidently allowed a tentative Mayo very little room to try banishing their demons.
And when Mayo did hit them with the first goal of the game, they did not collapse as some thought they might. Within minutes they got a goal of their own, and in the final stretch of the half unleashed a flurry of points that went ominously unchallenged.
Mayo began with one change in the side announced earlier, Alan Freeman replacing Jason Doherty in the forward line. The selectors also placed faith in their controversial semi-final format, with Keith Higgins again swapping places with Kevin McLoughlin, and the performances of each vindicated management’s faith in their exchanged roles.
Higgins’ electrifying thrusts in the first half against the wind gave the Fermanagh defence more than Aidan O’Shea to think about. And when he moved into a defensive role after the break he made room for the creativity of McLoughlin to manifest itself.
But you wonder whether Mayo benefits to any greater degree from those changes. Does the end fully justify the means?
It was a delivery from the keen-eyed Knockmore man that led to the penalty from which Cillian O’Connor scored Mayo’s second goal and which finally changed the trend of the game.
That came some six minutes from the end of normal time, a penalty swathed in doubt and controversy over which Fermanagh boss Pete McGrath ranted after the game. Remarkably, he was silent about the one his side got away with a few minutes earlier.
How referee Joe McQuillan could justify his decision to rule against the felling of Cillian O’Connor in the box a few minutes earlier is mystifying. Maybe in granting the dodgy call to Aidan O’Shea he was making amends.
Cleverly, Andy Moran shaped up to take the penalty attracting all the sledging Fermanagh defenders could dish out to unnerve him. When the referee had quietened the angry protesters, Cillian, cool as a breeze, slotted the ball into the roof of the net.
It was the first real sign that Mayo had belatedly rediscovered their composure. In pressing forward in the second half and relentlessly challenging their kick-outs and clearances, Fermanagh’s half-time lead had steadily diminished. But they were still holding on, still sending shivers down the spines of Mayo supporters.
Big Barry breathed new life into revival
THE timely introduction of Barry Moran augmented Mayo’s recovery. He came in for the tiring Stephen Coen, by no means outperformed at midfield, but in that central position where Moran could breathe new and more effective life.
And it was a joy to watch the Castlebar Mitchels man, so long on the periphery of the team, perform superbly not only in the centre but back in defence, where his timely interceptions foiled Fermanagh’s brave last-minute rally.
Partnering Moran and Coen at midfield, Seamus O’Shea had one of his best games for Mayo. Against two mighty Ulstermen he fielded securely, and distributed wisely, providing Mayo with a steady platform from which to launch their recovery.
We harboured no doubts at first about the selection of Alan Freeman in place of Jason Doherty. But in hindsight, against the fast, rugged defensive tactics employed by Fermanagh, Doherty might have been a wiser choice.
In fairness, Freeman did record Mayo’s first goal after an early spell of Erneside dominance. Evan Regan initiated the move for Keith Higgins to unleash a powerful shot that was stopped by Christopher Snow in the Fermanagh goal. But Freeman picked up the rebound and directed the ball through a forest of legs into the net.
It looked like an early breakthrough for a Mayo side struggling for redemption after their semi-final flop. But within minutes, Fermanagh bored a hole in those muses with a goal too easily conceded.
Colm Boyle was pushed off the ball by the barrel-chested John Quigley in the full glare of the referee and, unchallenged, the full-forward squeezed the ball beyond the reach of David Clarke.
Kevin Keane has big shoes to fill and he wore them well on Saturday. Faced as he was by Fermanagh’s best forward, Tomás Corrigan, Brendan Harrison at corner back continues to grow in stature. And if in being replaced by Donal Vaughan, Patrick Durcan was a little off colour, his potential is not in doubt.
With customary willpower Colm Boyle and Lee Keegan guided much of Mayo’s recovery from the half-back line, Keegan landing two valuable points, and the Davitts man scoring outrageously with his left foot from the left wing.
Unsurprisingly, Aidan O’Shea was the main focus of Fermanagh attention. As ever he was a marked man, attracting defenders like moths round a light. They confined him to a single point, but were not able to dilute his influence or his mobility.
With a total of 1-5 Cillian O’Connor was again Mayo’s chief marksman and, having been so long absent through injury, is slowly re-sharpening his cutting edge.
His brother Diarmuid also ground out a rounded performance and club man Alan Dillon, 13 years on from his last championship appearance against Fermanagh, celebrated his call from the bench with a couple of crucial points.
David Clarke’s assurance between the posts was of a man rejuvenated. He is also of that squad of 2004 and his man-of-the-match control of the goalmouth area is an indication of his resilience in surviving all those turbulent years of Mayo football.
So, this hesitant re-entry into the championship was nothing really to write home about. It was an improvement on the Connacht semi-final, but only in the final minutes did Mayo rediscover their old form.
Kildare provides the next challenge next weekend. When they last met in the league at MacHale Park, three years ago, the Lilywhites won by a point.
Let’s hope for further improvement at the weekend, for a return to a more assured Mayo performance, for more of the storming football that was so much part of the squad over the last five years.