James Horan's charges stay one step ahead
Mayo 3-14 Galway 0-16 - CONNACHT SFC FINAL
For once the bigger picture must be set aside and the smaller picture acknowledged for what it is.
A fourth successive Connacht title for this Mayo football team represents quite a historic and commendable milestone in itself, the first time they have done it since 1951.
Of course that Mayo team landed back-to-back All-Ireland titles but for the present bunch to keep consistently rebounding from setbacks on the biggest of days in Croke Park to win their province the following year is the mark of strong character. They haven't taken their eye off the ball once when the inclination might have been to do so.
For sure the standard in the province hasn't been high for some of those four years with Galway's dip the most alarming feature. But for James Horan to oversee 11 straight victories in Connacht since taking charge for the 2011 championship represents quite a personal achievement too.
Perhaps it will mean nothing in the greater scheme of things. This Mayo team has put themselves in a position where their judgment will ultimately be the success or otherwise of their pursuit of an All-Ireland title.
And judgment day has moved that bit closer with a controlled Connacht final win in McHale Park over a Galway team that swung plenty of punches but never really landed a telling blow.
Once Mayo established an early platform, backed by a decent wind, they never really lost a grip.
Galway won a few battles here and there but there was never a question of where the spoils of war would go.
They didn't cave in or collapse like Salthill 14 months earlier but the distance that still exists between these two western rivals will be a source of frustration for them. They have improved but not by nearly enough.
The first obvious difference was physical and was underlined perfectly by Colm Boyle. Boyle has a reputation for hitting hard and his crunching challenge on the promising Damien Comer after only four minutes said everything about the respective stage of development either team is at.
Referee Rory Hickey awarded Comer a free. If he felt the challenge was worthy of a free then surely a yellow card should have followed. But Comer never recovered and was gone by the 23rd minute. It was a reflection for how other battles panned out around the field.
Galway put much stock on their ability to win clean possession off kick-outs in the middle through their successful Fiontan O Curraoin/ThomasFlynn axis who had dominated against Sligo. And with that in mind Manus Breathnach drove the ball consistently up the middle in the first half but to so little effect where Mayo punished them on the floor, claiming possession from 10 of their opponents' 16 kick-outs in that period. That ratio did improve for Galway after the break.
Aidan O'Shea was a key influence in Mayo's control of the middle third with his ability to get on so many breaks, justifying the decision to give him a different emphasis from centre forward.
"It mightn't always be associated with him but he's a very clever player," said Horan afterwards. "He got into the right positions today and pulled what was meant to be a defensive structure asunder a little bit."
With O'Shea so involved, his brother Seamus also enjoying a good start and Keith Higgins in an advanced position the game was quickly moving Mayo's way and Cillian O'Connor was at the core and at the end of so many of their more productive moves.
Mayo get consistently nailed for their absence of a 'marquee' forward but they have improvised impressively in other ways. In O'Connor however they have an intelligent and forceful inside forward who was really on his game here, scoring three of his eight points from play.
But his involvement for two of the goals perhaps best encapsulates the player he is. His vision and perfectly weighted pass for Lee Keegan's palmed goal on 23 minutes was arguably the most sublime moment of the match (he joked afterwards that Keegan's "high-pitched" scream had drawn his awareness to it) while his strength to come from behind to win a ball and set up Barry Moran who combined with Lee Keegan before Moran's touch for a third Mayo goal on 55 minutes, opening a 3-13 to 0-13 lead, radiated another aspect of his game.
Keegan's ability to get in behind an opposition is well known but dealing with it is a different matter.
He got the goal, set up another for Moran, could have had a penalty in the 40th minute and struck the crossbar with a rasping shot that went over for their 12th point on 47 minutes, all from within 20 metres.
That a half-back could be so destructive – he could have had a hat trick – is something for Alan Mulholland to reflect on and for every other manager to really focus on in the weeks ahead.
Galway defended deep with Danny Cummins often the solitary player up front. Cummins was busy and courageous to keep showing and keep shooting but eventually his toll of wides –four in all – told and he was replaced by the more economic Sean Armstrong.
With Galway using a more orthodox attacking structure in the second half, Shane Walsh and particularly Paul Conroy thrived. Conroy brought his total to four points and was fouled for two frees that Walsh converted.
Walsh cannoned a shot off the crossbar from the throw-in after Moran lost possession and in a four-minute period they had launched five successive attacks to reduce the 1-9 to 0-5 interval deficit by three points. But the failure to convert either of the goal chances in that sequence cost them.
Mayo had stretched their lead to six points again when Seamus O'Shea broke through a James Kavanagh tackle to set up Jason Doherty for a second goal and a nine point lead, 2-12 to 0-9, on 48 minutes.
To their credit Galway kept coming and shaved three more points off Mayo's cushion but Moran's goal involving Higgins, substitute Mickey Conroy and Keegan in the build up, killed it.
When Barry Moran dragged down Conroy for a penalty, picking up a black card in the process on 59 minutes, Galway had a faint lifeline but Rob Hennelly dived low to save superbly from Walsh's shot. Mulholland could still draw positives from the day.
"Take the scoreline alone. There is a bit of improvement there. But generally the feeling in the camp is that we are moving in the right direction," he said.
"There was a small bit of wariness or nervousness in the first half and we didn't take the game to Mayo. Once they realised, 'look, we are able for this in the second half', we showed that we can match them. But they are seasoned campaigners and we need to do this for 70 minutes and that's the trick.
"It was 16 scores to 17 scores at the end," he continued. "It showed that we had a decent portion of the play and if it wasn't for some missed chances, hitting the underside of the bar after half-time, missing the penalty, we would have been closer."
On a broader scale Mayo have issues to address ahead of their return to Croke Park in three weeks' time and whether to twist or stick with Andy Moran and Alan Dillon is top of the pile. But that's for another day. The last word should be left to Horan on the occasion that's in it.
"Regardless of anything else,"he said, "winning four on the trot, beating every team on every occasion over the last four years, is something we're extremely proud of."
Scorers – Mayo: C O'Connor 0-8 (5fs), L Keegan, J Doherty 1-1 each, K McLoughlin 0-3, B Moran 1-0, A Dillon 0-1. Galway: S Walsh 0-7 (5fs), P Conroy 0-4, S Armstrong 0-2, G Bradshaw, M Lundy, D Cummins all 0-1 each.
Mayo – R Hennelly 8; C Barrett 6, G Cafferkey 6, K Higgins 7; L Keegan 8, C Boyle 8, D Vaughan 7; S O'Shea 7, B Moran 6; K McLoughlin 7, A O'Shea 8, J Doherty 7; C O'Connor 9, A Moran 6, A Dillon 5. Subs: M Conroy 6 for Dillon (43), A Freeman 5 for A Moran (52), J Gibbons for B Moran (60 BC), K Keane for Boyle (68), D O'Connor for Doherty (69), M Sweeney for A O'Shea (71).
Galway – M Breathnach 7; A Tierney 5, F Hanley 7, D O'Neill 7; G Bradshaw 7, G O'Donnell 6, P Varley 7; F O Curraoin 6, T Flynn 6; M Lundy 6, S Walsh 8, D Comer 5; P Conroy 8, E Hoare 5, D Cummins 6. Subs: J Kavanagh 5 for Comer (23), D Burke 6 for Tierney (43), S Armstrong 7 for Cummins (43), G Higgins 5 for Hoare (55), J O'Brien for Lundy (61).
Ref – R Hickey (Clare).