Sunday 23 September 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: This Mayo team are destined to never reach Holy Grail

Johnny Heaney buries the ball to the net under pressure from Keith Higgins for the crucial goal in Galway’s victory over Mayo. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Johnny Heaney buries the ball to the net under pressure from Keith Higgins for the crucial goal in Galway’s victory over Mayo. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Alas poor Mayo we knew them well, a team of infinite bravery and most excellent character. Or to quote Jim Morrison rather than William Shakespeare, "This is the end, beautiful friend."

Not the literal end. Mayo are still good enough to scrap their way into the 'Super 8s' and even nab one of the semi-final places on offer there. But the ultimate goal of this team, that moment when the Sam Maguire comes into Castlebar on an open-top bus, won't be achieved. Their destiny is to become the best team never to win an All-Ireland.

Losing to Galway means Mayo will need to play nine games before making it to the All-Ireland final. Dublin will probably need just six games and Kerry five. Mayo almost overcame an identically arduous schedule last year but another such odyssey seems a bridge too far.

The tragedy for Mayo is that for the third year in a row their Connacht championship exit seemed unnecessary.

It's like they're determined to create their own sporting Croagh Patrick, a stony reek of qualifier matches to be painfully ascended.

It's striking how similar yesterday's match was to the previous two Galway-Mayo meetings. It even ended with the same scoreline as the 2016 tie. Complacency undid Mayo that year. Last year indiscipline was their Achilles heel and this year they again shot the arrow into their own foot. 12 months ago Keith Higgins was sent off in the 26th minute, this year Diarmuid O'Connor lasted four minutes longer.

Medics attend to Tom Parsons after the Mayo man suffered a serious knee injury. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Medics attend to Tom Parsons after the Mayo man suffered a serious knee injury. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

O'Connor's elbow on Paul Conroy was a cheap, nasty shot but what made it inexcusable was that he'd also got a red card in the league meeting against the same opposition. His moment of madness probably cost Mayo victory as Higgins' did last year and Donal Vaughan's needless red prevented triumph in last year's All-Ireland final.

Mayo have paid a heavy price for an apparent attitude that a sending off in a game of Gaelic football is no great shame. It's a strange anomaly in such an honest team. You can't 'leave it all on the pitch' if you're sitting in the stands.

We expected this game to provide a definitive statement about both teams. The presumption was that a Galway victory would mark their coming of age as a serious championship force. It didn't quite turn out like that.

Their win was eked out in a poor game against a Mayo team which was not only a man short for more than half of the contest but was also missing Lee Keegan, could only bring on Cillian O'Connor as a second-half sub and saw Tom Parsons carried off on a stretcher after suffering a serious injury.

The loss which Parsons represents was underlined by his inspirational point to give Mayo the lead a few minutes earlier.

Without him the team look banjaxed in midfield where the O'Shea brothers failed to shine yesterday and the most influential performer was Galway's Ciaran Duggan who decorated an industrious performance with two excellent points.

Duggan is just 23, a promising young player rising to the biggest occasion of his footballing life. That's the kind of performance Mayo need but aren't getting.

Their best performers yesterday were the old reliables, Keith Higgins, Kevin McLoughlin, Andy Moran, Colm Boyle; players who might have expected that by now some neophytes would have emerged to share the burden.

Mayo's failure to develop new talent in successive underwhelming league campaigns smacks of carelessness.

So does the imposition of free-taking duties on McLoughlin. The otherwise excellent Knockmore man missed two scorable frees and his lack of dead-ball confidence was obvious when he opted to go short from another and the ball ended up back near halfway.

McLoughlin has struggled with this task before, entrusting him with it once again suggested a surprising it'll be all right on the day attitude.

Mayo deserve better. Higgins was majestic yesterday, cutting out pass after pass, always using possession wisely and surging forward in the second half to score a point, whose simplicity of conception and accuracy of execution put almost everything else in the game to shame. That such a player will end his career without an All-Ireland winner's medal seems an awful injustice.

In the spring Higgins chose hurling over football, something most neutrals will sympathise with after yesterday.

The difference between the games in Parnell Park and Castlebar makes a strong case for RTÉ to never again show a football match after a hurling match. The contrast is just too cruel.

If hurling is the fastest field game in the world, much of the second half in McHale Park resembled the outcome of a masochistic effort to create the most boring one.

Both teams in turn retreated en masse to their own half while the opposition jogged forward at half-pace, listlessly exchanging handpasses before either losing the ball or kicking it to a defender, into the goalkeeper's hands or wide while under no great pressure. It seemed interminable.

We're told games like this are an example of football's evolution. It'd make a Creationist out of you.

In the end Johnny Heaney got the winning goal just when it looked like the players had their hearts set on the draw. Galway fans won't care about the quality, they'll just feel the win.

And Mayo? This might not be 'Apocalypse Now' but you can still imagine Stephen Rochford sitting in the dark and pondering the schedule awaiting his team. "The horror, the horror," he murmurs.

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