Mayo ride luck but big issues are 'fixable'
Mayo 1-16 Down 1-11
Ultimately, experience told, as a team shaped by innumerable situations like this pitted themselves against a largely new-look Down outfit, who still left their manager Paddy Tally proud despite exiting the Championship in Newry on Saturday night.
"We knew tonight there was an opportunity to really go at it," Tally said after the game. "There may have been a certain vulnerability in the Mayo team that we tried to expose, but it came down to not being clinical enough."
No argument there. Down were wasteful, shooting six wides in each half, four more than Mayo, dropping a couple short, and also squandering goal chances. In the second-half Conor Francis was denied with a last-ditch block in a crowded Mayo goalmouth, while Caolan Mooney ran through the middle and blazed over the bar with the goal exposed.
Mayo did a good containment job on Down's talented inside forwards Donal O'Hare and Connaire Harrison, limiting them to three points from play, but as manager James Horan admitted, they rode their luck as times.
"It was great to come up here and get the win. It was a tough game and we made a good few mistakes, but we did just enough to get through," he said.
"We rode our luck a good bit in the second-half. I thought we did well in the first-half, and once we got the goal we just stood off them a little bit and they caused us problems.
"We struggled with their running at times. They got a good few goal chances in the second-half, but thankfully our last-ditch defending was strong.
"We gave the ball away at critical times, some of the decision making, the goal chances, some missed tackles up the field and letting runners through... but all very simple and fixable things."
In the 58th minute O'Hare gathered a beautifully judged delivery from Kevin McKernan behind Brendan Harrison and while the Mayoman attempted to smother the danger, O'Hare still managed to turn and hit a snap-shot off the ground, which David Clarke did well to get down and stop.
A goal at that point would have reduced Mayo's advantage to just two points and put them under pressure. Down's first-half goal, in the eighth minute, came from a brilliant piece of individual play by Mooney, who made a darting run through the heart of Mayo's defence and then finished past Clarke to put Down 1-1 to 0-2 in front.
However, from there to the interval Mayo outscored Down 0-8 to 0-2.
Tally admitted Down's poor return from placed balls had been crippling.
"Yeah, it was a big issue. I think we missed five 45s. It's disappointing because all along the year Donal (O'Hare) has been excellent on his free-kicks, it didn't happen for him tonight. Rory Burns has been putting his 45s over the bar, it didn't happen tonight. I wouldn't really apportion blame on anybody, it's just one of those areas they need to improve on."
Down rotated the free-taking duties, to no avail, but Mayo, having had similar difficulties when losing to Roscommon, had a better outcome.
Conor Loftus, taking his kicks from the hand, was unlucky to have had most of his attempts on the right of goal, which does not suit a right-footed kicker. He handled the responsibility well, one poor miss aside, and also got the team's goal.
Loftus netted seven minutes after the break, opening a six-point lead after Mayo had taken a 0-10 to 1-4 lead to the interval. A minute earlier Jason Doherty blazed a goal-scoring opportunity against the upright, but he made amends soon afterwards when fouled, electing to take a quick free to the unmarked Loftus who hit the net.
Down kept pegging away, but the goal allowed Mayo breathing space and in the second-half the excellent Lee Keegan scored three points from sallies up the field.
Fionn McDonagh made his first Championship appearance after a promising league and settled in right away, scoring two first-half points. But Darren Coen, who starred against Roscommon, lasted only 13 minutes after picking up a black card.
Mayo started Andy Moran and he justified the call with two vital scores - yet Keegan still scored more from play than any of the Mayo starting attack.
There was no sign of Cillian O'Connor, who made a recent return to club football after injury, though Horan hinted that he may play a part in next weekend's third round qualifier.
"He just got a bad injury and he's working with the medical crew who are trying to get him back, but it's hard to get back to the fitness levels these guys are at. He was out for a number of months... he's pushing, he is getting very close."
In the absence of the injured Matthew Ruane, Aidan O'Shea helped give Mayo midfield dominance in the first-half as they recovered well from the early goal setback.
Down, in a phase of rampant transition, depart with hope.
"At the start of the year they were getting their first opportunity to play league football, now they have played Championship football as well and they looked different men altogether," said Tally.
Scorers - Mayo: C Loftus 1-4 (3f); L Keegan 0-3; F McDonagh, A Moran 0-2 each; K McLoughlin, C Barrett, A O'Shea, D O'Connor, C Treacy 0-1 each. Down: C Mooney 1-1; D O'Hare 0-3 (2f); C Harrison, C Quinn 0-2 each, P Havern, O McCabe, J Johnston 0-1 each.
Mayo - D Clarke 8; C Barrett 8, B Harrison 7, K Higgins 7; L Keegan 9, C Boyle 8, P Durcan 7; D O'Connor 7, A O'Shea 8; F McDonagh 8, C Loftus 8, J Doherty 7; K McLoughlin 7, D Coen 7, A Moran 7. Subs: E Regan 7 for Coen (b/c 13 mins); F Boland 7 for Doherty (52); M Murray 7 for McDonagh (61); C Treacy 7 for McLoughlin (66); M Plunkett 7 for Moran (72); J McCormack 7 for O'Connor (75).
Down - R Burns 7; D O'Hagan 7, B McArdle 7, G Collins 8; R McAleenan 7, K McKernan 7, P Laverty 7; O McCabe 8, C Mooney 9; C Francis 7, D Guinness 7, C Poland 7; P Havern 7, D O'Hare 7, C Harrison 7. Subs: J Guinness 7 for Laverty (41 mins); J Johnston 7 for D Guinness (47); C Quinn 8 for Haverty (inj 51); B O'Hagan 7 for McCabe (inj 55); P Devlin 7 for O'Hagan (b/c 61).
Ref - F Kelly (Longford).