O'Neill hits spot for Red Hand
ALL THE drama in Castlebar was saved until the final 15 minutes when a late Mayo goal looked set to grab victory from the jaws of defeat only for Tyrone to snatch it back with a penalty deep into injury-time.
Most people agreed that, on the balance of play, the visitors probably deserved the victory, but the game swung so dramatically in the final minutes that there were squeaky bums on both sides – especially among Tyrone's impressively large travelling army.
After looking home and hosed with a four-point lead, helped by subs like Martin Penrose, the Red Hand almost had the two points thieved from their back-pocket when Mayo, struggling desperately to find scores despite all their midfield dominance, finally found some penetration and grabbed a 57th-minute goal.
It came after Barry Moran caught a Tyrone kick-out and found Jason Doherty, who laid off a timely pass to Keith Higgins and, in many ways, it was unsurprising that it was a corner-back who scored it as Mayo's forwards struggled for most of the game.
When Lee Keegan and Mickey Conroy combined to put substitute Donal Vaughan through immediately afterwards, he also could have gone for a goal but opted for the equaliser and suddenly the familiar refrain of 'Mayo, Mayo' rang out among their previously frustrated supporters.
With Aidan O'Shea, Moran and Keegan continuing to totally dominate the kick-outs, their tails were suddenly up and their late onslaught yielded two short frees, which Jason Doherty slotted to effect a six-point swing that put Mayo two points clear in the 72nd minute, with another minute of injury-time still to play.
Then, who else but veteran Stephen O'Neill, by then pulled deep to help out in midfield, provided the final game-changer.
First he delivered the big 'Hail Mary' pass into the Mayo square, where Mark Donnelly was taken down to earn the penalty.
And though young guns Ronan O'Neill and Darren McCurry both put their hands up to take it, up strolled Tyrone's 32-year-old leader to coolly slot it home in the 75th minute.
When the dust had settled, Mickey Harte looked understandably delighted.
His side lost Conor Gormley and Peter Harte to injury during this one, and young Conor Clarke had been ill beforehand, but two valuable away points kept their two-from-two record on their return to Division 1.
"It is good to have those points tucked away but we would still have to be very firm in our conviction to pick up some more because our ultimate goal is to stay in this division," Harte stressed.
"We've just played the All-Ireland finalists and next up is the All-Ireland champions, that is what this division is about, there are no easy games."
Mayo's hope of benefiting from home advantage in their first two games came unstuck – and last week's victory over Kerry was put into context in Killarney yesterday – but they could hardly quibble.
After playing some excellent early ball to lead by two points in the opening 13 minutes, they lost all their pace and penetration, despite completely dominating midfield throughout, where O'Shea's fielding was outstanding.
They should have trailed by more than two points at half-time (0-6 to 0-4) because Tyrone, whose goalkeeper Niall Morgan scored two 40-metre frees, had already squandered three good goal chances and shot seven wides.
But the problems in their own attack were summarised by their scoring just two points from play before they got that late goal.
As manager James Horan reflected: "We just didn't spark at all today. We were too slow moving ball forward, Tyrone were dropping back and we were playing right into their hands for a lot of that game.
"We could have snatched it and didn't, but you have to look at a game in its entirety," he reflected. "We needed to figure things out during the game and we didn't, so that's something for us to look at."
Alan Dillon made his seasonal return off the bench and they are hopeful that Andy Moran will be back by late March. They also have Cillian O'Connor to come back in and that can't happen soon enough as they found Tyrone's defence, with Mark Donnelly operating selflessly as sweeper, impossible to break down until those late dramatics.
Man of the Match: M Donnelly (Tyrone)
Scorers –Tyrone: S O'Neill 1-1 (1-0pen), S Cavanagh, P Harte, N Morgan (2f) 0-2 each, R McNamee, C McAlliskey,C McCarron, M Penrose, D McCurry (f) 0-1 each. Mayo: J Doherty 0-6 (5f), K Higgins 1-0, K McLoughlin 0-3 (3f), L Keegan, D Vaughan 0-1 each.
TYRONE – N Morgan 8; A McCrory 7, Justin McMahon 8, C Gormley (inj); R McKenna 8, Joe McMahon 6, R McNamee 6; C Clarke 5, S Cavanagh 6; P McNiece 5, P Harte 6, P Kane 5; C McAlliskey 6, S O'Neill 7, Mark Donnelly 8. Subs: C McCarron 7 for Gormley (14), M Penrose 7 for Kane (h-t), D McCurry 7 for Harte (inj, 45), J Lafferty 6 for McNiece (57), R O'Neill 7 for Clarke (59).
MAYO – D Clarke 8; K Keane 7, G Cafferkey 7, K Higgins 7; T Cunniffe 6, C Boyle 7, C Barrett 6; A O'Shea 8, S O'Shea 5; L Keegan 6, R Feeney 7, C Freeman 5; K McLoughlin 6, J Doherty 8, M Conroy 6. Subs: B Moran 7 for S O'Shea (h-t), A Dillon 6 for Barrett (54), E Varley 6 for Freeman (54), D Vaughan 7 for Boyle (62).
Ref– M Deegan (Laois).