By Mark Higgins
They were a couple of seconds when your blood suddenly chilled. Galway, two points down and in full-on desperation mode, win a break in midfield and their flying corner-back Sean Kelly hits an open seam in the Mayo defence at full tilt. Mayo, having clung grimly to a tenuous lead all the way through the second-half, are suddenly faced with the imminent prospect of a sickening late goal with no time left on the clock to respond.
But just as Kelly pulls back the hammer and takes aim, Eoghan McLaughlin comes from nowhere with a textbook take-the-legs-from-under-him tackle. Aggressive enough to ensure Kelly has nowhere to go but the deck, early enough (just) to leave Shane Walsh with a 21-yard free rather than a potentially game-winning penalty.
Now, far be it for us to glorify cynical fouling. But considering that one of the biggest criticisms laid at Mayo’s door over the last few years is a lack of street-smarts or cuteness, a certain naivety in the bigger moments, it was heartening to see a young player still in his first season as a senior willing to do what needed to be done to stop what could well have been a goal, black card and puritan disapproval be damned. It was probably the winning of the Connacht title.
It was a crucial moment in a game of very fine margins, a Connacht final that probably won’t go down among the classics of the genre but could yet prove hugely significant in the development of this emerging Mayo team. No reasonable people were getting overly concerned about Mayo’s four-year Nestor Cup drought but it was a step that needed taking all the same, and for players like McLaughlin, Oisin Mullin, Tommy Conroy and Jordan Flynn to have claimed Connacht medals in their first season is an achievement worth acknowledging.
And they weren’t the only ones; the generation of players one rung above them were winning their first senior championship medals too. The likes of Stephen Coen, Conor Loftus and Mattie Ruane may be established players by now and have played in All-Ireland semi-finals and finals, but none of them were involved the last time Mayo won Connacht in 2015.
Mayo didn’t play with anything like the same fluidity or control they showed in the win over Roscommon. Instead it was a case of gutting out a result and holding off opponents who never quite clicked as a unit but had individuals capable of fleeting moments of magic. Paul Conroy came up with a couple of great scores while the Kelly brothers of Moycullen, Sean and Paul, also impressed.
But the undoubted star of the show from a maroon point of view was Walsh, who demonstrated the full range of his gifts in a brilliant display. All of Paddy Durcan, Oisin Mullin and Lee Keegan, arguably Mayo’s three best man-markers, had their turns shadowing the Galway captain but some of his contributions were impossible to resist.
Galway’s real issue was that their other forwards didn’t fire. Ian Burke was anonymous and was taken off before the second water-break, while Dessie Conneely faded after a bright start and Damien Comer, who made a surprise return from his hamstring injury in the second half, never really reached the pitch of the game.
Galway defended deep and in numbers in the first half while playing into the wind. They were content to allow Mayo to control possession for long periods, confident that their double-sweeper system was equipped to handle the one-off runners breaking the line. Paddy Durcan and Mattie Ruane did produce a couple of good scores by running from deep but in the most part Mayo were frustrated, with handling errors or poor shooting decisions curtailing several promising moves.
The majority of Mayo’s scores in that first half came off turnovers, as the likes of Cillian and Diarmuid O’Connor and Aidan O’Shea brought unyielding pressure on the Galway half-back line. The work-rate of the Mayo forwards out of possession has been one of the most encouraging elements of their game over the last five weeks and that was in evidence again on Sunday, with Galway having to work hard to earn every passage out of their own half.
On the balance of play Mayo should have been five or six clear at half-time instead of three, but Galway failed to really capitalise on that in the third quarter, despite playing with more ambition with the wind on their backs. Some big scores from Ruane, Conroy and substitute Bryan Walsh meant that Mayo’s cushion was still pretty much intact at the water break, 0-12 to 0-10.
From that point on it was always likely to boil down to which team were willing to endure the most. Mayo only managed two points in the final quarter but both were absolute daggers, with Ruane intercepting a pass out of the Galway defence and winning a free for O’Connor to pop over and Walsh fisting a point after a brilliant Eoghan McLaughlin turnover out the field.
The final moments were chaotic; Conroy trimmed the deficit but Shane Walsh sent two difficult frees from the right-wing wide. He opted to take his point after McLaughlin brought down Kelly and looked set to take a cut at a last-gasp sideline that would have forced extra-time. But the previous misses may have been weighing on his mind because instead he went short, and Mayo forced one last definitive turnover.
The reward for Mayo, apart from the silverware, is a three-week rest until December 6 when they will take on the winners of this weekend’s Munster final. Horan couldn’t hide a smile after the game when he was asked if three weeks might be too long of a break; after five games in as many weekends, all of them must-wins in their own way, a couple of Sundays on the sofa could do this group the world of good.
It’s no disrespect to either Cork or Tipperary to say that Mayo now have a fantastic opportunity to return to an All-Ireland final for the first time since 2017. Whichever side wins in Páirc Uí Chaoimh this Sunday, Mayo will be faced by a team that played Division 3 league football this year.
There are plenty of glum Kerrymen who would tell us not to underestimate a youthful and spirited Cork team. When Mayo last met the Rebels in 2017, after all, it took extra-time to get out of the Gaelic Grounds with a win, while the All-Ireland semi-final win over Tipp the previous year was no walkover either. But Mayo should still head into the game as justified favourites.
The three weeks will also give Horan and his selectors time to tweak some outstanding issues with Mayo’s game. David Clarke’s kick-outs still don’t inspire confidence – Paul Conroy could have shown more ruthlessness and gone for goal when intercepting a particularly poor one in the second half on Sunday, while the last one of the game, when Mayo only needed to secure possession to see the game out, flew out over the sideline to give Walsh that late untaken chance.
Mayo’s midfield failed to make much of a dent in the Galway kick-outs, and the likes of Ryan O’Donoghue, Kevin McLoughlin and Diarmuid O’Connor struggled at times to threaten any real penetration of Galway’s defensive block. Mayo will look to improve on these and other areas before the semi-final.
But the important thing is that they have a semi-final to improve for. A first Nestor Cup since 2015, a 47th in total and an extension of this strange but precious winter championship was a decent haul for one afternoon.