TENUOUS dreams hung precariously at half-time in Mayo’s relegation battle at MacHale Park. Trailing by three points and facing a strong wind left little room for optimism. None of their Omagh form had ignited this performance. It was Cavan all over again. The drop was imminent.
Only when Aidan O’Shea entered the fray ten minutes into the second half did the danger recede. With his considerable possessions of mental strength and coolness, the big man – in the face of the usual provocation – spurred Mayo to rekindle the fire that has been the hallmark of their history over the past six or seven years.
Although only two points separated them in the end, Donegal (who had looked so competent early on) were suddenly overwhelmed. Mayo, on fire and against the wind, had confined them to a total of two points. Relief in the county was unconfined.
But let not their latter dominance paper over Mayo’s ineptitude throughout much of the first half. The blanket defence pioneered by Donegal was as impenetrable as ever. Reverting to futile lateral passing in their efforts to find a chink in the wall left supporters bothered and restless. Other than the occasional burst by Paddy Durcan, Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle, breaks at pace were eschewed.
For a couple of fleeting minutes, it did appear as if the spirit of their well-earned victory over Tyrone had begun to drive them. That brief period commenced with their first score in the fifth minute, a penalty tucked away competently by Cillian O’Connor.
The Mayo ace had been felled in the box by goalkeeper Mark Anthony McGinley, and despite a hail of protests from Donegal defenders, referee Cormac Reilly correctly awarded the spot kick.
Donegal had already two points on the scoreboard, but the penalty conversion stung Mayo into action and points followed from Andy Moran, Cillian and Danny Kirby. At last they had taken charge and were now ready to motor on.
Only that did not happen. Michael Murphy and Ciaran Thompson were engineering Donegal’s response from midfield. Supported by an industrious half-back line, they had Mayo stretched in all directions, their forwards cutting through at will. In those circumstances, Mayo’s performance was not worthy of survival.
Unlikely scores against the wind buoyed Donegal’s hopes of a place in the final. Michael Murphy was imperious, running strongly, passing accurately and tossing the ball over the bar with ease from long dead-ball situations. How much more powerful he would be with the wind guiding his shots?
By half-time and leading by three points Donegal seemed destined for that final place. And while Mayo restarted brightly – with Lee Keegan manufacturing a point after running onto a fine pass from Kevin McLoughlin – Donegal’s ominous response was a brace of the same by winger Cian Mulligan.
Mayo looked helpless, and for a couple of uneasy moments, thoughts of survival hinged on the news emanating from Hyde Park that Roscommon were towering over Cavan. Maybe in some small way that was communicated to the players and would also have jolted Mayo into action – the irony of the notion that this rare win by Roscommon could be Mayo’s deliverance.
Maybe. But the advent of Aidan O’Shea was the real catalyst. Straight into the action the big man was engulfed in a melee as Donegal tried unsuccessfully to crowd him out in whatever way they could.
Cool as a breeze, O’Shea stood tall and strong, mentally and physically, exercising to the full his motivating gifts of power and skill. For striking the Breaffy man Eamonn Doherty was dismissed. Suddenly Donegal fell apart and Mayo were unbridled.
Although he replaced Kirby in the middle of the field, most of O’Shea’s work was initiated from a defensive position in which he looked very much at ease. Food for thought for Mayo boss Stephen Rochford.
Green shoots of hope for summer
KEITH Higgins also played a big part in Mayo’s recovery. His jinking run through the centre and determined point painted the right mood for the rest of his colleagues immediately after O’Shea’s arrival.
It has not gone unnoticed that three Mayo backs figured on the score-sheet, Colm Boyle in the first half when they were under pressure, Higgins and a couple by Keegan, one from his left foot curved in sweetly with help from the wind.
Cillian O’Connor reaped the biggest harvest with a total of 1-5 despite the fact that his free-taking in general was not flawless. But the Ballintubber man has the facility not to allow the occasional wayward shot to interfere with his composure.
Stephen Coen replaced Boyle at half-time and Diarmuid O’Connor took over from Fergal Boland, and both added to Mayo’s strength after the break.
The police work of Brendan Harrison, Chris Barrett and Paddy Durcan on Hugh McFadden, Jamie Brennan and Frank McGlynn was fully effective all through and reflected in the fact that, for once, David Clarke was not called on to relieve dangerous situations.
The battling performances of Shane Nally, Kevin McLoughlin and sub Jason Doherty added considerably to the depth of Mayo’s play in the last quarter, and Andy Moran did cause some stir when in possession.
So now that they have survived, it might be asked what was all the fuss about. Why all the concern when Mayo had it within themselves to pull clear from any crisis? Have we lost faith in our heroes?
It’s not as easy as that. Mayo did reach crisis points against Dublin, Monaghan and Cavan ... Cavan who had emerged from MacHale Park with such high hopes after beating Mayo and to have had them dashed so unexpectedly by Roscommon, slipping with them into the lower division.
There is no doubt Mayo walked a perilous tightrope throughout the league, and will look forward to the breather before their championship opener against either Sligo or New York on May 21.
There’s a lot to be done. Just now Mayo look less fresh and more jaded than other teams who have completed the competition. Time is creeping up on them. There’s a lot of planning and serious soul-searching to be done if they are to stand together for one more massive effort to confront any corrosive evidence of fatigue and decline.
They have been prowling the higher planes for so long that you wonder how they have managed to maintain the sacrifices that success demands those last couple of years.
They can’t be expected to go on forever. But having come so close so often, who would want to quit now? The turbulence of the change in management will have eased, but the tag of being perpetual gallant losers will wear thin and national sympathy for their cause will weaken.
Still there is hope. As surely as spring paints its mood on the hills and trees and hedgerows of the countryside, we look anew again to the green shoots of hope for a side whose intrepid efforts against the tide of history have been nothing short of magnificent.