O'Connor kicks on to fire Mayo raiding party to semi-final
JAMES Horan rarely betrays his football emotions but the Mayo manager simply couldn't stop grinning at the madness that surrounded him in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
At half-time, trailing by three points, his team looked destined for relegation, and even though they battled back to beat the defending three-in-a-row league champions, at the final whistle their destiny still remained unknown for five nailbiting minutes as they waited on the result from Ballybofey.
With steam rising not just from the sodden players but from a profusion of overworked smart-phones and pocket-radios, word, worryingly, came through that Donegal were still leading.
Then came the news that the All-Ireland champions had drawn, confirming Mayo's place in the Division 1 semi-finals – and the excitement that generated among some of their supporters was akin to winning the competition outright. Horan, as always, stood calmly at a distance but even he couldn't hide his satisfaction when the news came through.
"We're delighted, just delighted. It was tight and I'm sure it was exciting for the people who were watching too," he said. "You could hear it in the support today, you knew there was an extra pinch of spice in how the crowd were reacting, so we just kept plugging away, and getting the chance to play Dublin in a semi-final is just great."
Two-thirds of the tiny 2,012 crowd seemed to be raucous Mayo supporters who really acted like a 16th man while their team bravely clawed their way to safety.
Cillian O'Connor kicked the two sensational line-balls from opposite sidelines in the final five minutes that finally got them over the line and goalkeeper David Clarke made a vital save when Fintan Goold tried to nutmeg him after 48 minutes. Yet it was ultimately Mayo's fighting spirit, on the field and in the stands, that helped them defy the odds.
With two late changes before throw-in – Kevin Keane and Donal Vaughan replacing Chris Barrett and Tom Cunniffe in defence – they struggled badly against the huge first-half wind and horrendous conditions.
Cork took wind advantage to race into a 0-7 to 0-1 lead, keeping their visitors scoreless for a 25-minute spell in the first half.
But a brilliant Mickey Conroy point in the 28th minute finally kick-started Mayo's attack, and points from Aidan O'Shea and Alan Freeman just before the break were equally vital.
"We were very sluggish in the first half and let Cork waltz through but for the last eight minutes (before half-time), that's where we won the game, that's what helped turn it around," Horan noted.
"We weren't working hard enough early on, were missing tackles, but there was an unbelievable breeze and to have played as badly as we did for 20 minutes and still go in three points down (0-8 to 0-5), we were happy."
Cork were certainly left to rue not making more hay after dominating for so long, with Aidan Walsh, Paudie Kissane, Goold and Daniel Goulding leading the charge.
The signs were ominous when Vaughan floated in a terrific point immediately on the restart.
Within 10 minutes Goold failed to put away the great goal chance that Paul Kerrigan set up for him, and six wides and other wasted efforts in a second half when they only scored twice contributed to their downfall.
The defending champions have limped through the league with even more casualties than Mayo, especially in their ravaged attack. Former Antrim player James Loughrey, debuting off the bench, had a great chance to become a new Leeside hero in the dying minutes when he burst through but wasted a great chance.
Pearse O'Neill's arrival provided numerous opportunities for Cork to equalise in those dying minutes which many players, including Walsh, wasted but referee Maurice Deegan did them no favours by calling back Goold for a free when he was on a great run.
But selector Ronan McCarthy was in no mood for excuses.
"We're bitterly disappointed not to make it (the semi-finals). It was a difficult league, with trips to the north and so on, but we came down here with it in our own hands. If we got our job done, we were through, but we haven't and we won't be blaming anyone else for that," he stressed.
Two good scores from Kevin McLoughlin equalised it (0-9 apiece) on the hour but Goulding responded with a magnificent free from the right sideline.
But then O'Connor, the Young Player of the Year, replied by pointing an equally outrageous sideline ball and then repeated the feat to give Mayo their first lead since the first minute, and they hung on.
Yet again wing-back Colm Boyle was outstanding, Ger Cafferkey also stood out and McLoughlin's work rate was outstanding.
Man of the match: K McLoughlin (Mayo)
Scorers – Mayo: K McLoughlin 0-4 (2fs), C O'Connor 0-3 (1f, 2 s-ls), D Vaughan, A O'Shea, A Freeman, M Conroy 0-1 each. Cork: D Goulding 0-4 (3fs), F Goold 0-3, P Kissane, A Walsh, M Collins (f) 0-1 each.
Mayo – D Clarke 8; L Keegan 8, K Keane 7, G Cafferkey 8; S McHale 7, D Vaughan 6, C Boyle 8; J Gibbons 6, S O'Shea 6; K McLoughlin 8, A O'Shea 7, C Carolan 5; C O'Connor 7, A Freeman 5, M Conroy 6. Subs: E Varley 7 for Conroy (inj, 42), R Feeney 6 for Carolan (47), J Doherty 6 for Freeman (58), C Barrett 7 for McHale (63), E Regan for O'Connor (72).
Cork – K O'Halloran 7; J McLoughlin 7, J O'Sullivan 8, M Shields 7; P Kissane 8, N O'Leary 8, T Clancy 8; A Walsh 7, G Canty 8; A O'Sullivan 6, F Goold 7, M Collins 6; D Goulding 7, B O'Driscoll 6, P Kerrigan 7. Subs: P O'Neill 8 for A O'Sullivan (52), J Loughrey 7 for McLoughlin (53), L Shorten 6 for Kerrigan (67), D Crowley 6 for O'Driscoll (67).
Ref – M Deegan (Laois)