Perennial problem of inconsistency still haunts Mayo as Tyrone loom
Mayo 3-15 Westmeath 1-14
Published 01/08/2016 | 02:30
Two teams, two emotions. Only one result.
While Westmeath wearily rue the one that got away, Mayo may wryly view this as one they got away with.
Which is not to say the game didn't produce the winners it deserved; rather that, having booked passage to a sixth successive quarter-final, the uncertain westerners seem even further away from their cherished September idyll than ever.
This was less of a championship statement, more another stuttering stammer from the dethroned Connacht champions.
"The good with the bad," Stephen Rochford mutters, in a half-aside to captain Andy Moran. Meanwhile, Tom Cribbin could be forgiven for, well, cribbin'. "Yeah, they're gutted in there," he admits.
They return to Division Four football; Mayo move on to face Tyrone in an All-Ireland quarter-final; neither side seems well-suited to their respective environments.
Mayo, who always seem to have an identity crisis in their enduring quest for Sam, seem to be accumulating multiple flaws with each passing sunrise.
Roles for key players such as Keith Higgins, Kevin McLoughlin and Aidan O'Shea remain hazily defined while the entire collective seem incapable of sustaining any moderate level of excellence for more than a ten-minute spell.
Yet again, they were devastating in the second-quarter blitz which ultimately secured them their flattering margin of victory - powering from a 0-2 to 0-2 stalemate after a flat opening 15 minutes into a 2-10 to 0-4 lead in the next 15 minutes.
As they have done since ceding their Connacht crown, Mayo showed enough in small glimpses to convince a waning minority of their All-Ireland hopes; on the flip side, what they didn't show in even longer periods of the game will justify the increasing lack of faith in their title chances.
"At times during the Fermanagh and Kildare games, and again today, we played really, really well," says captain Andy Moran, whose speedy patter betrays a man trying to sound as convincing as possible. "And I would hope that in those moments is our real form."
"We know that against the Ulster champions, there is nobody naive to believe that this performance would be good enough," adds Rochford, whose constant references to video reviews suggested a camp slightly befuddled by their second-half meltdown.
And yet they were muddled in the first-half too; initially labouring as Westmeath's double sweeper confounded and slowed them - that Tyrone's sharply honed defensive system will be several levels above this indicates the stress levels which will rise out west all week.
They did manage to create a whirlwind of scoring chances - converting 22 of 37 for a seemingly comfortable 2-10 to 1-5 interval lead. A familiar Mayo pattern.
But then they coughed up 1-1 before the break - 0-4 straight after it - as Cribbin's men assumed orthodoxy, competing for and winning kick-outs (after losing eight to the pressing Mayo men before the break). Another familiar pattern. Rampant inconsistency.
Tyrone's game is predicated upon devastating, pace-fuelled counter-attack, a game that seemed foreign to Mayo on Saturday evening; had Westmeath been more accurate, they may have even got closer to the three-point lead Mayo were sweating upon as injury-time beckoned.
Mayo scored just four points in the latter half's regulation 35 minutes before a late 1-1 flourish; they will point to hitting the woodwork twice in that first-half.
For their part, Westmeath conceded a needless penalty for over-carrying by goalkeeper Darragh Quinn and Kieran Martin should have added to James Dolan's first-half goal, too.
"It's a problem, we're a bit like that," muses Cribbin.
"When things go wrong against us, the wheels can come off for a couple of minutes. And that couple of minutes against the wrong teams is enough to put you out of the game completely.
"When they got those, they went nine or ten up in the first half - it's too much to be giving a team of this quality, to try and pull them back."
The many imperfections of each side fuelled the resepctive self-doubts and drummed the heartbeats of the neutrals.
"Well, you could have had a different performance from Mayo if we had stepped up ours or if it had been far more competitive at half-time and a lot closer," Cribbin argues reasonably. "So, it's very unfair to judge them like that because they might have been able to step up too."
But judge them, one must; analyse them, Tyrone will. Ruthlessly. And Mickey Harte's men, as they do when they rumble south, will be even more attacking than they have been all summer.
The simple matter is Mayo require more than the fleeting brilliance seen here and elsewhere this season to stem the northerners; no evidence yet suggests that they are capable of doing so.
True, Diarmuid O'Connor will probably return after the dead leg sustained against Fermanagh suffered another jolt last weekend but they will have to markedly reduce their free concession rate - Westmeath converted seven of ten dead-ball chances.
"The teacher used to tell, you, you must do better," Rochford cautions. His side have had three headmasters in as many seasons yet still have buckets of learning to accomplish. We will look to improve and we have got another week to do that."
A week can be a long time in some disciplines; it may not be long enough for Mayo.
They still have the ability to beat any great team on their day. But three of them between now and the third week of September?
It remains a long shot. Ever thus for the green and red.
Scorers - Mayo: C O'Connor 1-5 (1-0 pen, 0-2f); J Doherty 1-1; A O'Shea 1-0; E Regan 0-3 (2f); A Moran 0-2; K McLoughlin, D Vaughan, P Durcan, K Higgins 0-1 each. Westmeath: J Heslin 0-10 (7f); J Dolan 1-1; K Martin 0-2; F Boyle 0-1.
Mayo: D Clarke; B Harrison, K Keane, K Higgins; L Keegan, C Boyle, P Durcan; S O'Shea, D Vaughan; K McLoughlin, A O'Shea, J Doherty; E Regan, A Moran, C O'Connor. Subs: B Moran for Boyle (52), A Dillon for Regan (54), C O'Shea for Doherty (59), A Freeman for A Moran (65), C Barrett for Keegan (67), T Parsons for S O'Shea (69)
Westmeath: D Quinn; K Maguire, F Boyle, K Daly; J Gonoud, D Lynch, J Dolan; A Stone, G Egan; J Egan, P Sharry, K Martin; C McCormack, J Heslin, J Connellan. Subs: D Corroon for Stone (21), D Daly for Lynch (31), D McNicholas for Connellan (52), D Conway for McCormack (65).
REF: R Hickey (Clare).