Tuesday, July 23, 2019

JOB DONE: Aidan O’Shea and Andy Moran after Mayo’s victory over Meath last Sunday. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

We can probably file that one away under the category marked “Jobs Done” and maybe not talk too much more about it. Mayo were sloppy and unconvincing for long tracts of Sunday’s 2-17 to 0-14 win over Meath but whenever this topsy-turvy season ends and we all reflect on the summer gone, nobody will spend too long dwelling on this encounter.

It was always likely to be a tricky game for Mayo to navigate; they were widely expected to win with a bit to spare, but coming in on the back of a humbling defeat in Killarney seven days earlier against a Meath team who had given Donegal their fill of it in Ballybofey, a straightforward victory never really seemed on the cards.

On top of that was Mayo’s poor championship record against Meath, a winless run stretching all the way back to 1951 that included some of the most painful days in Mayo’s modern footballing history. Nobody needs reminding what happened in ’51 though, which was, incidentally, also the last year that the Open Championship was hosted at Royal Portrush; such was the poverty of the fare for long periods here that plenty in the crowd spent more time watching Shane Lowry make his way to history on the North Antrim coast than they did following events on the field.

Mayo dominated many of the strands of the game but they weren’t able to make it count on the scoreboard until the closing 15 minutes. Up until that point, the inaccuracies that had scuppered their chances in Fitzgerald Stadium were in evidence again, with poor shooting choices, misplaced passes and generally bad decision-making allowing what was in truth a very average Meath side to hang right in contention.

It took the introduction of Andy Moran at half-time and another shoulder-to-the-wheel job from Colm Boyle – enjoying a summer to match any he has had over a long and distinguished Mayo career – to eventually get Mayo over the line. After Cillian O’Connor, Darren Coen and Kevin McLoughlin struggled to make an impact in Mayo’s full-forward line in the first period, Horan turned to Moran and the Ballagh’ man used all his cunning and nous to transform Mayo’s attack into a far more cohesive machine.

Within 17 minutes of being introduced he had teed up both Fergal Boland and O’Connor for scores and bagged one himself for good measure, selling an obscene dummy before swerving the ball over from an angle on the right, to draw the sides level at 0-12 apiece after Meath had saved their best football for the third quarter for the second Sunday in a row.

That Moran point was the first in an uninterrupted string of 1-4 between the 52nd and 65th minutes that effectively proved the winning of the game for Mayo. Boyle got up to take a pass from Lee Keegan and kick the next, substitute James Carr added another and then Kevin McLoughlin took advantage of an increasingly-ragged Meath defence to slide home the decisive goal.

In those 13 or so minutes Mayo looked like genuine contenders, ravenous in the breaks and attacking with purpose and pace. 13 good minutes won’t be nearly enough to get the better of Donegal on August 3 but Mayo can at least look forward to a weekend off before that all-or-nothing clash in MacHale Park.

Horan’s side have come out the end of their punishing run of five games over five consecutive weekends facing a scenario they would undoubtedly have accepted before they started; one must-win game that amounts to a knockout All-Ireland quarter-final, all talk of scoring permuations effectively negated by Donegal’s 1-20 apiece draw with Kerry in the second game yesterday afternoon.

MacHale Park should sell out for the first time since its redevelopment for the match, which should be a huge boost to the county town on the Bank Holiday weekend. Mayo’s scope for improvement over the next ten days is vast, but there is also the possibility of some or even all of the injured players returning to action in time for the decisive clash.

Horan was fairly cryptic in his response to questions on how many, if any, of Diarmuid O’Connor, Mattie Ruane and Paddy Durcan might be fit to play Donegal, saying only: “It’ll be tight, but it’s looking positive at the moment. A lot can happen in two weeks.”

How much can be read into that is anyone’s guess, but it would represent an enormous boost to a Mayo side that has shown the signs of stretching in recent weeks to have any of those players back available for selection on Saturday week. Horan has mixed and matched and plugged the holes as well as could be expected over the last few weeks but you suspect that nothing less than a Mayo team at absolute full tilt will be good enough to take down Declan Bonner’s men, especially considering the insider knowledge offered to the Tir Chonaill brains trust by one Stephen Rochford.

None of this is to say that there weren’t some positives to take from yesterday; a nine-point win is a nine-point win, at the end of the day, and the way Mayo got down to work in that decisive second-half patch was encouraging, a timely demonstration of the resilience that will be the very last thing to leave this group of players.

Also worth noting were the aforementioned performances of the veteran corps of Moran and Boyle, some good contributions from Fionn McDonagh in the first half in particular and, ultimately, the securing of a win that keeps the flames of the season burning for another two weeks at the very least.

The Donegal game will be the defining one in the first year of Horan’s return, and possibly the final fling in the careers of a number of Mayo’s elder players. Mayo will likely go in as underdogs, given Donegal’s unbeaten run through the championship to date and Mayo’s iffy recent record in Castlebar.

Win and it’s onto an All-Ireland semi-final, probably against the winner of the clash between Dublin and Tyrone in Omagh. Lose and there’s another long winter ahead. But their destiny is firmly within their own hands; whatever way you look at it, the big one is coming in twelve days’ time.

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By Mark Higgins
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