Robbie Hennelly well positioned to keep Mayo dream alive
Goalkeeper focused on going one step further than before
IT has been the year of the goalkeeper, with shot stoppers dominating events in Brazil for the past month while on Gaelic fields, the importance of the goalkeeper seems to be magnified Sunday after Sunday.
In Castlebar, Mayo’s Robbie Hennelly finished the Connacht final with a clean sheet but reflected on a hectic period just after half-time when he saw Galway’s Shane Walsh smash a shot against his crossbar, Paul Conroy fire another goal chance just inches too high and was then asked to step up to face Walsh in a penalty.
He made the save look easy and inevitable but afterwards admitted that with one-on-one spot kicks, there is always an element of smoke and mirrors.
“I knew which way I was going to go before the game. I didn’t know which way he was going to go! You just have to commit to it, I was thinking about doing a bit of Tim Krul but I had kicked away your man’s (Danny Cummins) boot in the first half so I thought I can’t be at that again.”
Serious questionThe sight of the Galway forward’s boot spinning away from his foot seemed to sum up the visitor’s day in the first half. Things got better for the visitors but from minute one to 70, Mayo controlled the final and never allowed a serious question about their superiority to materialise. The win gave this generation of Mayo men the significant accolade of winning four provincial championships in a row.
“I think history is only really something you enjoy when you retire. It’s a great achievement,” Hennelly says. “You’d totally regret it if we didn’t win today and you’d think I’d love to have gotten four in a row. But if you start thinking of history before the game you’ll get caught up in it. It’s four in a row but we are hoping to do five in a row or six in a row, that’s the target. At the same time its only one step on the journey for us.
“That was the most important thing today, a clean sheet and a good solid performance. We didn’t break any records today but we got through and it’s another Connacht title in the bag and we are looking forward to going back to Croke Park. It’s where we want to be.”
The argument that Mayo’s domination of the west has been facilitated by a lean period for other counties – most notably Galway – is weakened by the fact that they have been consistently excellent in the latter stages of the championship. The latest versions of heartbreak in the last two All-Ireland finals left them as close to winning the championship without actually winning it as a team can come.
Their resilience has been a marvel: this year, they look just as energetic and fresh as they did during Horan’s first summer in charge. For Hennelly, the escapology of this year’s Connacht semi-final win against Roscommon and a much improved Galway showing in the final was to be expected.
“It was always going to be tougher. You’ll never get a season like that in Connacht last year twice in a row. We took it when it came to us we knew it was going to be a lot tougher this year and Galway put it up and they were far more structured today.
‘Better stead’“Every good team has to have it hard in their own province and we’ve had two tough games against Roscommon and Galway and we know it’ll put us in better stead coming into Croke Park.”
Last year, Mayo emerged from Connacht after a so-so local campaign and didn’t so much beat as execute the All-Ireland champions Donegal in the quarter-final.
They are reaching that tantalising stage for all Mayo football people. The only relevant question left is whether or not they can finally win a September football match. One of the many contradictions about Mayo is that they make getting to an All-Ireland final – a task which proves impossible for the vast majority of counties – appear easy.
Hennelly says that one of the key attributes under James Horan has been their ability to concentrate on each game and from the beginning of the season. They have never just assumed that they would be good enough to make it through to the quarter finals.
“If you have that attitude . . . I know other teams have been really good at that in the past few years but we are not in a position where we can take any team for granted, we haven’t won the All-Ireland yet. Every game is important for us, we have to learn from every game and improve on the last game.
“Our season started back there against Roscommon, we knew that was going to be a tough game. It’s easy to say that when you’ve won a Connacht final but if you lost it’s a different story altogether.
“This is real championship season now, back in Croker and looking forward to it.”
Meet againOf course, their neighbours Galway are still out there in the shadows. There is a possibility – floated by Alan Mulholland after the match – that the teams might meet again down the line. But for now, Mayo can enjoy the luxury of a break and resumption of club games and wait to discover their opposition in the last eight.
“Whoever we play in the quarter-final we know it’s going to be a tough game,” Hennelly says matter-of-factly. “So if we want to win All-Ireland, they are all going to be tough.”