Friday 23 February 2018

Tribesmen load on the misery for struggling Mayo

Connacht SF Semi-final: Galway 0-15 Mayo 1-11

Johnny Heaney, left, and Damien Comer of Galway celebrate at the full time whistle after yesterday’s victory over Mayo in the Connacht SFC semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Heaney, left, and Damien Comer of Galway celebrate at the full time whistle after yesterday’s victory over Mayo in the Connacht SFC semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The margin was the very minimum, but it had maximum impact on the mindset of the respective supporters as they left a windy Pearse Stadium after witnessing an attritional battle that left a number of talking points.

Chief among them was the likely impact on Mayo of a second successive Connacht semi-final defeat by Galway. After dominating their neighbours between 2009 and 2015, Mayo could argue they were caught on the hop in Castlebar last year, but a similar explanation won't wash this time.

Tom Parsons of Mayo and Galway’s Michael Lundy battle for possession. Photo: Sportsfile
Tom Parsons of Mayo and Galway’s Michael Lundy battle for possession. Photo: Sportsfile

Galway's successful run through Division 2 - where they lost only one game - suggested that they were better than last year, so Mayo knew what to expect. They knew, too, that they would have to lift their game higher than what sufficed against Sligo in the quarter-final and while they achieved the latter late on, it lacked the structure to wear down a gritty home side.

Balance

It wasn't that Mayo didn't have chances to swing the balance their way, but a combination of missed chances and defensive heroics by Galway left them unable to rescue a game that appeared to be drifting irretrievably away from them when a pointed free by Gary Sice put Galway four points ahead coming up to the hour mark.

Mayo were playing with a strong wind, but had scored only three points since half-time, while not at all looking like a side that had come so close to winning last year's All-Ireland title.

Galway's Declan Kyne (left) keeps Mayo's Cillian O'Connor at bay. Photo: Sportsfile
Galway's Declan Kyne (left) keeps Mayo's Cillian O'Connor at bay. Photo: Sportsfile

The seriousness of the situation brought a positive response from Mayo on the run-in - which included over six minutes of stoppage time - and while they pared three points off Galway's lead, they just couldn't squeeze an equaliser.

Cillian O'Connor missed a long-range free and sub Evan Regan hoofed two wides in the closing minutes as Mayo surged forward in a desperate attempt to save the day.

Earlier, two great blocks by Johnny Heaney prevented a Mayo goal, while they had an Aidan O'Shea point ruled out by referee Joe McQuillan, who adjudged that the set-up pass from O'Connor was illegal.

Galway had serious difficulty with their kick-out strategies in the second half, but survived on this occasion. However, it will come under the 'things to do' heading before the Connacht final, as it left them under severe pressure on quite a few occasions.

Galway's Liam Silke (left) in action against Mayo's Diarmuid O'Connor. Photo: Sportsfile
Galway's Liam Silke (left) in action against Mayo's Diarmuid O'Connor. Photo: Sportsfile

Mayo's post-match debrief will be even more detailed as they attempt to reboot for the qualifier route. They will start it without Keith Higgins, who was sent off in the 26th minute for flattening Damien Comer as they waited for a kick-out.

It was ridiculously impetuous by a player of Higgins' experience and may well have cost Mayo the game, while sending their season on a completely different direction to what was planned.

Playing against the wind, they were only two points adrift at the time and looking quite comfortable as they sought to see out the half without carrying a sizeable deficit.

They achieved that (Galway led by 0-9 to 1-5 at the interval), but being short-handed for the second-half was always going to place an added burden on them.

Galway responded to playing against the elements by packing their defence even more than in the first-half and relied on breakouts to build their score; a tactic that worked exceptionally well for much of the second-half.

Mayo's Aidan O'Shea. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo's Aidan O'Shea. Photo: Sportsfile

The introduction of Eamonn Brannigan added energy to an attack where Comer caused a lot of problems for Mayo off limited ball. And while Sean Armstrong's place-kicking radar malfunctioned from two chances midway through the second-half, he had made a big contribution earlier on, slotting over three frees and three '45s'.

Galway scored the first two points of the second-half, which settled them into a solid routine while also throwing down a real challenge for Mayo.

Indeed, Galway would have been in a much better position except for an excellent save by David Clarke from Galway captain Gary O'Donnell, who drove forward in the 44th minute.

Momentum

Mayo, who started without Colm Boyle and Jason Doherty from the announced line-up, introduced Aidan O'Shea to the action in the 47th minute, replacing his brother Seamus.

The younger sibling helped Mayo increase momentum, but their capacity to find openings among the heavy traffic remained limited. Surprisingly, they took off Andy Moran, immediately after scoring a point, and Kevin McLoughlin, a double move which did not have the desired result.

McLoughlin, who scored Mayo's first point in the fifth minute, scored the only goal of the game a minute later when he reacted quickest after a shot by Lee Keegan thudded back off the upright.

It cancelled out Galway's early burst of enterprise, which yielded three points in three minutes, two of which came in the first 35 seconds. Despite playing with the wind, Galway maintained a safety-first policy throughout the first-half, often having only two forwards inside the Mayo '45'.

It was difficult to understand the reasoning behind that ploy as the Mayo full-back line had wobbled on a few occasions when long deliveries were hoisted in on top of them.

Higgins' dismissal was a huge boost for Galway, but they took a hit themselves shortly afterwards when Thomas Flynn was sent off on a black card. His size and mobility were missed, even if replacement Gary Sice did his best to make his experience count before being replaced late on by fellow Corofin man Michael Lundy.

Even without Higgins, Mayo would have been quite confident at half-time. However, they became the latest to discover that while a strong wind is a considerable asset when used properly, it won't win a game on its own.

Galway took their high energy into the second-half, when surprisingly Mayo were flat for a long time. They lost the first 25 minutes by 0-6 to 0-3, which summed up the disjointed nature of their game.

And while they finished strongly, it wasn't enough to take the contest back to Castlebar for a rematch next weekend.

Instead, they await the draw for the second round of qualifiers, which they will enter on July 1.

Having come through from the same stage last year to reach the All-Ireland final, the more optimistic wing of the Mayo support will believe it can be done again. They may be right, but it will take much-improved performances to stay on track for another summer.

The qualifier draw was kind to Mayo last year, handing them home ties against Fermanagh and Kildare, before taking on a Westmeath team that had been well beaten by Dublin.

It's unlikely that Mayo will enjoy as much luck again. There's also the psychological dimension attached to suffering another defeat in a close game.

Meanwhile, Galway head for another Connacht final for which they will be overwhelming favourites. They are certainly improving, but will need to be more adventurous if they are to develop into a squad with genuine All-Ireland potential.

That will probably come later. Yesterday was all about building on last year's success over Mayo, an assignment completed in the sweetest of circumstances.

Scorers

Galway: S Armstrong 0-6 (3f, 3 '45s), D Comer, G Sice (2f) 0-2 each, M Daly, S Walsh, G Bradshaw, J Heaney, E Brannigan 0-1 each.

Mayo: C O'Connor 0-6 (5f), K McLoughlin 1-1, F Boland, D O'Connor, A Moran, P Durcan 0-1 each.

Galway: R Lavelle 6; C Sweeney 7, D Kyne 5, D Wynne 6; G O'Donnell 7, G Bradshaw 7, L Silke 7; P Conroy 7, F O Curraoin 6; T Flynn 5, M Daly 7, J Heaney 8; S Walsh 7, D Comer 8, S Armstrong 7. Subs: G Sice 6 for Flynn (29 black card), E Brannigan 7 for Wynne (ht), D Cummins for Daly (69), M Lundy for Sice (72).

Mayo: D Clarke 7; C Barrett 6, G Cafferkey 5, K Higgins 4; D Vaughan 6, L Keegan 6, P Durcan 7; S O'Shea 6, T Parsons 6; F Boland 6, D O'Connor 7, S Coen 6; K McLoughlin 7, C O'Connor 7, A Moran 6. Subs: A O'Shea 6 for S O'Shea (48), D Kirby 6 for Moran (48), J Doherty 5 for McLoughlin (58), E Regan 5 for Boland (61), C Boyle for Vaughan (68), D Drake for D O'Connor (72).

Ref - J McQuillan (Cavan)

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