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All roads to Limerick after an epic stalemate


Cillian O'Connor, Mayo. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Cillian O'Connor, Mayo. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Cillian O'Connor, Mayo. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

FINALLY, with September almost upon us, we have lift-off for this year's senior football championship. Not that it felt like that at half-time, with Mayo four points adrift and a man down to Kerry; with James Horan's four-year reign seemingly on its last legs and with Kerry all set to amble into an All-Ireland final without their mettle being fully tested.

What happened next was epic from Mayo: the numerically challenged Connacht champions turned a five-point deficit (soon after half-time) into a five-point lead just half-an-hour later.

But then, what happened next from Kerry was almost as gutsy. Eamonn Fitzmaurice's team-in-transition could have slinked away from Croke Park yesterday, feeling sorry for themselves and ruing their callowness; but somehow they summoned a 1-2 riposte in the home straight.

If any team was going to sneak victory at the death, it was a re-emboldened Kerry ... but James O'Donoghue, of all people, saw his point attempt deflect off an upright and wide; and then Bryan Sheehan, from the outer reaches of his prodigious range, dropped a 60m free short.

If the Munster champions had pilfered the prize, it would have been classic Kerry but it also would have been cruel-beyond-belief on Mayo. They have enjoyed some standout victories in their eternal quest for the elusive grail, but yesterday - surely - would have topped the lot.

Still, as the dust settles on a heart-stopping second half and thoughts turn to next Saturday's 5pm semi-final sequel at the Limerick Gaelic Grounds (don't get us started!) it's fair to surmise that both managers will be happy with this unexpected turn of events.

First up, Kerry. Notwithstanding their late counter-surge inspired by a high-fielding renaissance man (Kieran Donaghy rolling back the years), Fitzmaurice will know that they got out of jail. Are they capable of capitalising on their good fortune? Debatable but, if they do, an extra 70 minutes could prove ideal All-Ireland preparation.


Now Mayo. The good news for James Horan is that he got his first half tactics (overly negative, and most un-Mayo-like) badly wrong and now he knows that it not the way to beat Kerry.

Potentially even better news is the quirk of fate this replay has bestowed on Lee Keegan. If Mayo had held on here, the Westport man would be left kicking his heels in frustration (instead of trying to kick Johnny Buckley) come the All-Ireland final on September 21. Barring a successful appeal, that is.

Keegan will still press ahead with a CHC challenge this week but, even if the one-match ban holds and he misses the replay, the prospect of appearing in a third consecutive All-Ireland remains a live possibility.

Put it this way, finishing off Kerry without their two-time All Star could prove problematic; but to win an All-Ireland without him - if Dublin are the opposition? That could be a bridge too far.

We're getting ahead of ourselves. You could argue the merits of Keegan's 34th minute red card all night long - technically, David Coldrick's huge call could be deemed correct because he did attempt to kick Buckley, who had grappled with Mayo's No 5 after the latter won a free.

But while the retaliatory lash-back was certainly petulant, it was such a harmless action (so much so that he seemed to miss his intended target) that no one would have batted an eyelid if Coldrick flashed yellow instead.

Yet, bizarrely, that nightmare outcome was the making of Mayo who trailed by three points at the time. Perilous circumstance dictated that they ditch the sweeper and also push their deep-lying half-forwards further up the field. Instead of trying merely to contain Kerry and nullify O'Donoghue's goal threat, tactics flew out the window as Mayo went for broke.

And it worked, spectacularly, even if Kerry points either side of half-time extended the gap to five and augured ominously.


Mayo's subsequent charge was inspired by heroes all over the field. Colm Boyle, their best player as they struggled, now continued to lead the defensive charge. Aidan O'Shea was a colossus around the middle, dragging his team back into contention even as Kerrymen dragged out of him. Alan Dillon sniped a brace of uplifting points in that third quarter; fellow veteran Andy Moran came on and did likewise.

But Cillian O'Connor epitomised Mayo's new resolve, not just with his now-flawless execution (after four first half wides) but his turnovers.

Mayo were already level when Donal Vaughan (another second half hero) marauded down on goal only to be clearly fouled by Peter Crowley. O'Connor's 59th minute penalty was unstoppable; so too, now it seemed, were Mayo as two more O'Connor points pushed them five clear.

That remained the margin when Donaghy, Kerry's seemingly forgotten former Footballer of the Year, reignited the Kingdom with a soaring catch that led to a pointed Sheehan free; and then another big catch (from David Moran's delivery) and instant lay-off for O'Donoghue to bury a 68th minute goal. One down became level when Kieran O'Leary calmly pointed, midway through the three minutes of injury-time.

That completed the scoring. Roll on the Gaelic Grounds - don't get us started!