'Mayo are only getting started' - Men from the west send warning to Dublin
Mayo 2-17 Kildare 0-14
Diarmuid O’Connor must seem like a one-man cavalry riding over the hill to some of the grizzled veterans of Mayo campaigns that have fallen so agonisingly short in recent years.
Just when the spirits may be wilting at the challenge of returning to the drawing board, the young Ballintubber man is providing this group with a reason to pick up and go again.
As long as he stays fit and well, not just this season but in future seasons too, Mayo will maintain a strong connection to the game’s elite.
At 21 he already has a senior portfolio in the Mayo cabinet and his performance here in front of an adoring home contingent in the 14,557 crowd will have invigorated his colleagues. Responsibility comes easily to him. That he didn’t start against Galway explains a lot, something manager Stephen Rochford referenced afterwards in discussing his importance.
He scored 1-5 on a night when Mayo rediscovered some of their old drive and ruthlessness. Not for long enough mind, but enough to point them in the right direction.
A power surge in a seven-minute spell leading up to half-time that yielded 2-2 did the damage to Kildare in MacHale Park.
Either side of that the visitors can extract some comfort but when Mayo squeezed in that period the grip was suffocating as their superiority in contact and swiftness in counterattacking overwhelmed the visitors.
“The second quarter killed us, literally,” reflected manager Cian O’Neill.
“Turnovers cost us in a big way, 15 in the first half, which is disappointing, but they punished us off eight of those so it’s as good as saying we handed them eight scores, two of them goals.”
Those goals, courtesy of Evan Regan and O’Connor, who was allowed to coast in through heavy traffic from 50 metres off a rare Kildare kick-out loss, gave Mayo the luxury of playing a containment game in the second half against the wind, which they did comfortably.
But it won’t be lost on them that for long spells they were outplayed at midfield, especially from kick-outs, the majority of which went long as both sides pushed up.
It cried out for Barry Moran’s introduction much earlier to upset the pattern of Kildare winning so many breaks.
Kevin Feely, back with Kildare after five years playing professional soccer, hurt them most, first at midfield and then at full-forward in the second half where he threatened as a target man.
Kevin Keane’s 41st-minute withdrawal with a shoulder injury prompted Aidan O’Shea to be switched back to provide security around Feely, which raises concerns about the depth of the Mayo squad with Ger Cafferkey out for the season.
“It was quite clear Kildare were looking to put the ball in the square,” said Rochford.
“We’re running out of full-back options. Aidan going in there allowed us to create a bit of a barrier, we weren’t making it as easy when it’s someone of his height or stature in there. It worked fine, but against better teams you might get a different challenge in two weeks.”
Mayo conceded a lot of territory in the second half but Kildare didn’t have the penetrating players to upset them inside.
Kevin McLoughlin really bedded down well in his defensive role while Colm Boyle, prior to his black card in the 51st minute for hauling down Fergal Conway, was immense, memorably diving in to win possession on his own end-line in the 39th minute to begin the move that led to a O’Connor’s fourth point and a 2-11 to 0-7 lead.
From the moment the reigning Young Footballer of the Year sliced over the opening point you sensed the influence he was going to have. By the seventh minute he had a third point scored and Mayo were quickly four points clear.
O’Neill was pleased with the response but knows the metrics involved in playing a top team. They’ve just come from a season in Division 3 and it can show.
“We’re a bit off it. You meet a top tier team playing as well as they did at times – it is a different league,” he said.
“Mayo are in year six of that process, 90pc of the same panel. They have developed and nurtured. But what was disappointing was we brought a lot of ball into contact. They’re the hardest-tackling team in the country, in terms of their forwards.”
Kildare can count themselves a little unlucky to concede the first goal on 30 minutes after David Hyland got an initial block on Andy Moran before Evan Regan poked home.
But the concession of the second goal will haunt them, stoking memories of the Kerry quarter-final last year. O’Connor might have opted for a point but he gambled and continued on his path, ghosting through three or four defenders to stab home.
Regan, now with the wind in his sails, scored points on either side of that second goal as the turnovers further outfield kept coming.
By the break they were 10 points clear but Kildare ‘won’ the second half by a point, a source of satisfaction for O’Neill as substitute Fionn Dowling scored three points.
“For a young team that has had a lot of hits along the way, that’s important for us and, if we didn’t go down to 14 men for the last 10 minutes (Keith Cribbin retired with an injury after the six substitutes had been used) it could have been five or six.”
But Mayo were already looking to the next round by then, their recovery remaining on the right track and at the right pace.
“Mayo are only getting started, believe me, they’re improving every single game,” warned O’Neill, a former coach during James Horan’s reign.
Scorers – Mayo: D O’Connor 1-5, E Regan 1-4 (0-1f), C O’Connor (2fs) J Doherty 0-2 each, K Higgins, P Durcan, A Freeman, C O’Shea 0-1 each. Kildare: N Flynn 0-5 (2fs, 1 45), F Dowling 0-3, M O’Flaherty 0-2, J Byrne, C McNally, A Smith (f), K Cribbin all 0-1 each.
Mayo – D Clarke 7; B Harrison 6, K Keane 6, P Durcan 7; L Keegan 7, K McLoughlin 7, C Boyle 8; S O’Shea 7, D Vaughan 6; K Higgins 8, A O’Shea 6, D O’Connor 9; E Regan 7, A Moran 7, C O’Connor 6. Subs: S Coen 6 for Keane (41), A Dillon 5 for Moran (48), B Moran 5 for C Boyle BC (52), J Doherty 8 for Harrison (62), A Freeman for Regan (65), C O’Shea for D O’Connor (68).
Kildare – M Donnellan 7; O Lyons 7, D Hyland 6, C Fitzpatrick 5; E Bolton 6, E Doyle 6, J Byrne 7; T Moolick 7, K Feely 8; M O’Flaherty 6, F Conway 6, E O’Flaherty 5; C McNally 6, N Kelly 6, N Flynn 6. Subs: K Cribbin 6 for M O’Flaherty (ht), F Dowling 8 for Bolton (ht), A Smith 6 for E O’Flaherty ((44), E Callaghan 5 for McNally (49), P Kelly 5 for Fitzpatrick (52). C Healy for Flynn (64).
Ref – D O’Mahony (Tipperary).