We were poor but we found a way – Horan

Mayo manager praises the character of his players and insists their 'hardest grind' will stand to them

Sean Cavanagh in action against Alan Freeman and Lee Keegan

Colm Keys

To appreciate the scale of Mayo's recovery in that critical period towards the end of the first half, it is perhaps best to sift through the moments that, for character alone, elevate this above any other performance in the James Horan era.

Before Chris Barrett twice and Lee Keegan had punched forward to cut a four-point deficit to just one in the lead-up to the interval, a catalogue of errors and setbacks had diverted them down the road towards potential implosion.

First there were the margins of referee Maurice Deegan's 25th-minute call to halt play for a free after Alan Freeman had prodded a fine goal from an unlikely angle. Had Deegan gone too soon for an apparent foul by Conor Gormley on Freeman?

James Horan had no issue, acknowledging how he had caught sight of the signal that stopped Joe McMahon in his tracks as he moved in to close down Freeman's space. But in a tight game where they trailed by three points (0-6 to 0-3), it shaped like a potential game-changer.

It got worse. With much of the 65,345 crowd still debating that decision, Kevin McLoughlin snatched the subsequent 13-metre free, almost straight in front of the posts, wide on his near side.

McLoughlin held his head in his hands and smiled with incredulity, James Horan took the cap off his head and pushed his hands through his hair with frustration.

Was he watching a team going from boom to bust in three weeks? Were not these the moments and mishaps that Mayo had consigned to history?

Nothing in the next five minutes suggested otherwise. Enda Varley, on the field for the injured Cillian O'Connor, missed another free, Aidan O'Shea picked up a yellow card for a rather harmless push on Colm Cavanagh and, in the haze of anxiety, gave the ball away to Dermot Carlin at the other end as Tyrone substitute Ronan O'Neill fired over for a 0-7 to 0-3 lead.

The edgy, nervous demeanour of the opening quarter had spiralled into something that would be difficult to reverse. They were everything they hadn't been in their previous four games and the challenge of working a way through it, without their chief marksman, was bearing down heavily on them.

Tyrone had established the platform to play the game on their own terms, just where they wanted it. The obvious question lurked. Had the pressure of real favouritism, the public's overwhelming certainty they would win, impacted?

Horan disputed that perception, taking comfort in the fact that they had been favourites for each one of their previous four games, while his captain Andy Moran blamed other factors afterwards.

"I suppose there was a small bit of nerves, but I think poor shot selection was really the thing," Moran said.

But the swell of expectancy in the county over the last three weeks since their demolition of Donegal was palpable on the streets around Croke Park beforehand.


This Mayo team has made it their business to embrace that expectation and deal with it. Their recovery in last year's All-Ireland final suggested they had something that set them apart from every other team in the previous 60 odd years. But when O'Neill kicked that seventh Tyrone point, it represented their most significant challenge on a climb to the top that now appears relentless.

Their response in the subsequent six minutes to the interval and their early second-half surge said everything about their character though.

"We made every mistake you could possibly make," reflected Horan. "To figure out what was wrong and adjust and come through, kick on and take control of the game and win by six was very pleasing."

It had been a "grind", something to which they had become wholly unaccustomed.

"We looked very poor and we were very heavy-legged, we were making poor decisions. We were taking the ball into contact and turning the wrong way and losing all the 50-50 balls. We started taking crazy shot decisions and missed a couple of 14-yard frees so there was a lot of stuff that went wrong. But we just kept playing and grinding it out and kept trying to figure it out.

"The last 10 minutes of the first half I thought was very impressive. We had Lee (Keegan) and Chrissy Barrett kicking vital scores to bring us to within a point at half-time. We built on that momentum at the start of the second half. In the first six or seven kick-outs of the second half we won them all and scored 1-3 or 1-4 and won the game from there.

"It was the hardest grind we had, particularly in that first half. We were playing poor stuff but we kept going, we kept battling. We missed six of the easiest shots. We missed two 14-yard frees, lost our free-taker, had a goal disallowed. But it didn't matter. We just kept playing and eventually came through. I think today was good for us and we'll take a lot from it."

Those trio of points from Barrett and Keegan took the tally for the season from Mayo defenders to 2-16 (Keegan's second point later on making it 2-17) and it's that desire to break from deep, smash through tackles and offload at a high tempo which has set them apart.

Tyrone's defensive orientation took the sting from them, Aidan O'Shea admitted. It had been a difficult day for Mayo's midfield enforcer, so dominant three weeks ago, but like the team he too managed to find a way.

"Because they got so many men behind the ball we struggled. Trying to adjust to it at the very start, we were a bit giddy trying to get it inside. Just towards half-time we tried to increase the tempo a bit and it opened up a bit more," he reflected.

"We regrouped at half-time and just focused on getting a bit of composure in our forwards and that really was the difference in the second half."

By the end, they had Tyrone at arm's length. They had risen admirably to the challenge of adversity. There really is only one box to tick for this team now.