Monday 26 February 2018

Martin Breheny: Mayo save the day but did risky ploy by Rochford cost them final place?

Mayo 2-14 Kerry 2-14: All-Ireland SFC semi-final

Kieran Donaghy of Kerry in action against Aidan O'Shea of Mayo during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Kerry and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Kieran Donaghy of Kerry in action against Aidan O'Shea of Mayo during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Kerry and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It had the look of a draw from a long way out and it kept its word, replicating the 2014 semi-final, which went to a replay before swaying Kerry's way in extra-time.

Yesterday's splendid contest leaned in either direction at various stages as if testing to see who best deserved to book a place in the final, but, in the end, no conclusion was reached.

Jason Doherty of Mayo in action against Mark Griffin of Kerry during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Kerry and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Jason Doherty of Mayo in action against Mark Griffin of Kerry during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Kerry and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

And so it's back to Croke Park next Saturday for another instalment in a rivalry which is certainly doing its bit to enrich football, at a time when there's growing concern over the extent of standard differentials around the country.

The quality may have been suspect at times - with the difficult conditions a contributing factor - but that was more than compensated for by the sheer endeavour of both sides.

It was never more in evidence than in stoppage-time, as Mayo battled desperately for an equaliser, which duly arrived off Paddy Durcan's boot, before Kerry availed of a breakaway to give themselves a chance to kick the winner off a long-range free.

Surprise

Darran O'Sullivan of Kerry tangles with Donal Vaughan of Mayo as Jason Doherty of Mayo looks on. Photo: Sportsfile
Darran O'Sullivan of Kerry tangles with Donal Vaughan of Mayo as Jason Doherty of Mayo looks on. Photo: Sportsfile

Sub Bryan Sheehan, who has pointed from further out in the past, lined up a 55-metre free into the Hill 16 goal, but had neither the distance nor the accuracy, allowing Aidan O'Shea to make the catch in what was the last action of the day.

It was no surprise to see O'Shea so close to his own goal at that stage, but then he had been there all of the afternoon except at the throw-in for both halves.

Stephen Rochford's decision to assign him the full-back role, with special responsibility for marking Kieran Donaghy, provided the biggest talking point and will continue to do so in the run-up to the replay.

While it wasn't quite in the same league of surprises as changing goalkeepers for last year's All-Ireland final replay, it certainly demonstrated Rochford's willingness to back his conviction with decisions that carry a high risk factor.

Donaghy's demolition of Galway in the quarter-final obviously convinced Rochford of the need to put a big, powerful man alongside Kerry's rejuvenated No 14.

He opted for O'Shea, presumably on the basis that he would be the perfect antidote to Kerry's aerial bombardment. As it happened, Kerry didn't hoist many high balls in Donaghy's direction, probably due to being under immense pressure around midfield.

That might have been expected to limit Donaghy's influence, but it didn't. He was excellent in the ground wars, subjecting O'Shea to a different type of challenge than he anticipated.

In fairness to O'Shea he did his best, but there's a whole lot more to solving a full-back problem than merely placing a very good footballer in an unfamiliar position and hoping his skills will see him right.

Donaghy was involved in a lot of Kerry's more positive play, including setting up the first goal for Stephen O'Brien in the 13th minute, and while O'Shea worked extremely hard, his lack of experience in such a specialist position left him vulnerable.

There was another dimension, too, as O'Shea's defensive assignment had a negative impact on Mayo elsewhere. His fielding ability and power would have caused major problems for a Kerry defence that was under fierce pressure all day.

They buckled on occasions, including three times in the opening 23 minutes, when Mayo scored two goals and should have had a third. The first was fired home by Andy Moran in the fourth minute, the second finished expertly by Colm Boyle in the 20th. A few minutes later, it took a series of desperate blocks to stop Moran bagging his second goal, before his effort was deflected over the bar.

If O'Shea was working with Moran, Jason Doherty, Kevin McLoughlin and Cillian O'Connor in that period, Mayo's haul would surely have been much higher than 2-5 by half-time.

Repair

They failed to score in the final 16 minutes of the half, during which Kerry kicked to 0-4, taking their total to 1-8 and parity. They would have been quite happy with that, if not with the level of their performance.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice had begun repair work as early as the 22nd minute, sending Jack Savage in for Michael Geaney, and made two more changes at half-time, bringing Jack Barry and Jonathan Lyne in for Anthony Maher and Mark Griffin respectively.

Such a sizeable overhaul underlined how rattled Kerry were by a Mayo team and their tormentor in chief Andy Moran. He finished on 1-5 - all from play - in what was one of his best performances in a championship career that extends back to 2004.

Mayo moved a goal clear (2-9 to 1-9) after 42 minutes, but were quickly hauled back when Johnny Buckley scored Kerry's second goal, after Mayo had needlessly conceded a line ball.

There was never more than a point between the sides from there on.

Paul Murphy put Kerry ahead in the 69th minute, leaving Mayo chasing down an equaliser which looked like it might elude them when Chris Barrett and David Drake kicked wides, before Durcan angled over the equaliser.

It was the fourth time in this year's championship that Mayo finished level (their qualifier ties with Derry and Cork went to extra-time and they needed a replay to get past Roscommon in the quarter-final), a result that leaves them facing their ninth game of the campaign next Saturday.

There has certainly been no reduction in their ambition levels; nor has their energy sagged, despite being involved in another gruelling summer schedule.

There are other less flattering similarities that remain. They should have made more of their dominance in the first-half, but as well as wasting some good chances, they made a number of errors which allowed Kerry to stay in touch, despite not being at anything like their best.

How much that was down to finding it difficult to raise their game after not being fully tested for more than four months is debatable.

Clare, Cork and Galway were a notch below what they encountered yesterday. There were signs in all three games that the Kerry defence could be unhinged, but missed goal chances undermined opposition that looked as if they didn't really believe they could win.

Resolve

Mayo are different. Their lengthy spell in the school of hard knocks may have left them with painful memories, but it has also hardened their resolve.

They have accumulated such a vast reservoir of experience that they can use to survive against the elite - although beating them is proving a trickier proposition.

The side that equalises at the end generally feels better about itself after a draw, but when Mayo fully analyse yesterday's game, they will surely feel they let it slip.

Now Rochford faces a big decision on whether to retain O'Shea as Donaghy's 'minder' or release him into Mayo's attacking half. The latter appears the more sensible option.

It would be different if the experiment worked, but it didn't, as Donaghy was a major influence, whereas O'Shea was not.

Fitzmaurice also has some choices to make. Being forced to make three changes before the start of the second-half raises questions about the original selection, which clearly didn't function as expected.

One ploy that did work well for him was assigning Paul Murphy to mark Lee Keegan, who is so often one of Mayo's prime movers. Not yesterday, as Murphy's terrier-tight marking seriously disrupted his flow.

Scorers - Mayo: A Moran 1-5, C O'Connor 0-4 (1f), C Boyle 1-0, T Parsons 0-2, J Doherty, D Vaughan, P Durcan 0-1 each. Kerry: P Geaney 0-7 (4f), S O'Brien, J Buckley 1-0 each, J O'Donoghue 0-3 (2f), K Young, BJ Keane, P Murphy. K Donaghy 0-1 each.

Mayo: D Clarke; C Barrett, A O'Shea, B Harrison; C Boyle, D Vaughan, K Higgins; S O'Shea, T Parsons; K McLoughlin, L Keegan, D O'Connor; J Doherty, C O'Connor, A Moran. Subs: P Durcan for Boyle (43), S Coen for S O'Shea (59), D Drake for D O'Connor (67), C Loftus for Doherty (73).

Kerry: B Kelly; S Enright, M Griffin, K Young; P Crowley, T Morley, P Murphy; S Moran, A Maher; M Geaney, J Buckley, S O'Brien; P Geaney, K Donaghy, J O'Donoghue. Subs: J Savage for M Geaney (22), J Barry for Maher (ht), J Lyne for Griffin (ht), D O'Sullivan for Buckley (55), BJ Keane for O'Donoghue (62), B Sheehan for Donaghy (72).

Ref - M Deegan (Laois)

Irish Independent

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