Anthony Hennigan in Croke Park
A stunning second-half display secured Mayo the Connacht SFC title for the second year in succession, as they overturned neighbours Galway in Sunday’s historic final at Croke Park.
The Green and Red recovered a five points half-time deficit both thanks to goals from Ryan O’Donoghue and Matthew Ruane, and by holding Galway totally scoreless from play throughout the second half, to run out 2-14 to 2-8 winners.
The venue may have been unusual but the early exchanges gave every bit the reminder this was a Connacht senior football final.
Fiercely competitive from the off, Mayo made the early running to lead 0-4 to 0-2 after 16 minutes, with Ryan O’Donoghue scoring twice as he and Stephen Coen featured very prominently in inter-linking some eye-catching Mayo attacks. However, when Galway buried back-to-back goals after the first water-break, Mayo’s hold on the Nestor Cup was certainly up for question among the near 18,000 fans allowed into GAA Headquarters for the game.
Shane Walsh scored Galway’s first major when reacting quickest to a Paul Conroy point effort that rebounded off the left upright, and Walsh set-up his side’s second for Damien Comer to blast past Mayo goalkeeper Robert Hennelly. And with Conroy having already kicked two points, all the signals were that the Tribesmen’s big-name players were up for the fight.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Padraig Joyce’s side though, as Robbie Finnerty and Sean Kelly had both succumbed to injury by the 26th minute, nor was Shane Walsh, after an off-the-ball rattle, looking too healthy by the time the teams visited the dressing-room for half-time refreshments in sweltering summer sunshine.
After Ryan O’Donoghue had kicked Mayo’s fourth point, the Green and Red entered a seventeen-minute scoreless spell until Darren McHale ended their drought, and Conor Loftus rifled a glorious goal chance above Conor Gleeson’s crossbar in first-half stoppage time, which meant Galway turned around with a 2-5 to 0-6 advantage, but a considerable breeze to oppose them from hereon.
Introducing Eoghan McLaughlin and Kevin McLoughlin for the start of the second half, Mayo had pulled a goal back inside two minutes as O’Donoghue sent Gleeson the wrong way from the penalty spot after Matthew Ruane was pulled to ground in front of the Galway posts.
Ruane was a huge influence, adding his second point of the game and having a direct hand in points by Tommy Conroy and Conor Loftus before taking off on a solo run that ended in a second Mayo goal in the 67th minute, which pushed the defending champions five points clear – a 10 points swing since half-time.
Galway had gone 26 minutes before raising their first flag of the second half, the first of three Matthew Tierney frees between then and full-time, but they were fortune that referee Conor Lane spotted a nudge by Ryan O’Donoghue after the Belmullet man thought he had scored a third Mayo goal, and Gleeson produced a brilliant save to thwart Eoghan McLaughlin, before Mayo substitute James Carr showed the ultimate mercy by popping a stoppage-time goal chance over the bar, as Mayo won their 48th Connacht title to Galway’s 47.
Mayo now play either Dublin or Kildare in the All-Ireland SFC semi-final in three weeks time.