Sligo can’t upset western apple cart as Mayo ease to opening win
Visitors far from disgraced at MacHale Park but Rochford’s side never truly threatened
Fergal Boland tries to escape the attentions of Neil Ewing and Patrick O’Connor during Mayo’s win over Sligo. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Taoisigh may come and go but these early championship days in the west are never-changing. Sligo find Mayo all but impossible to unseat in MacHale Park and so it went.
Still, while a late burst of 1-1 by Cillian O’Connor prettified the score board, Mayo were in prosaic form in what promises to be a long summer for them.
The crowd of 14,661 ducked and dived through the Castlebar showers and then settled in for this latest instalment as if resigned to a kind of uneasy truce. Although Sligo hung about bravely on the scoreboard, this encounter felt as if Mayo knew they couldn’t quite lose this while Sligo deep down realised they couldn’t quite win it.
This was a dramatic improvement on the last championship meeting when Mayo inflicted a physic wound on Sligo in the Connacht final two years ago. Here, Mayo found the Yeats county a tougher proposition without ever appearing truly threatened.
“We found it hard to shake them off even though we created the chances,” said Stephen Rochford. “We created a couple of chances but they are a dogged team and are quite disciplined. Look, we are happy to get the result. We understand the performance needs to come up a couple of levels with the challenge that awaits us in Pearse Stadium in three weeks.”
Injuries to Seamus O’Shea and Kevin McLoughlin were the only nagging concerns for Rochford afterwards. He sent Aidan O’Shea on as a blood substitute early in the second half and then as a substitute proper with fifteen minutes to go: as it turned out, O’Shea didn’t do anything spectacular other than exiting the field like a man racing for the midnight bus out of Bohola at the final whistle. Understandably, he wanted to keep out of sight.
“It is unfortunate that one of our players gets singled out in that fashion,” Rochford said of the criticism surrounding O’Shea in recent days.
“In relation to the actual incident: I think it is going to go down as the most talked about cool down in the history of the GAA because that is literally what it was. We weren’t even having a huddle. Look, it is absolutely nonsense as far as we are concerned and we are just moving on. There is no talk about it at all.”
There won’t be much talk about this afternoon either.
Until the 34th minute, Sligo were at liberty to interpret their first half in one of two ways. Here they were holding their own against the most dominant west of Ireland football force of the past decade, the scoreboard balanced at 0-5 apiece in a match of meagre scoring chances.
Their trinity of experienced, high calibre defenders - Brendan Egan, Charlie Harrison and Ross Donovan - controlled that sector and Mayo could do nothing to get the ball to stick on their inside line. Sligo’s full-on press on Mayo’s kick out worked in slowing down the home team’s restarts and for long periods, MacHale Park was strangely quiet. The opening half hour was about as good as it could get for Niall Carew’s side.
However, the flip side is that they only managed five points despite playing with a big May breeze rushing in from the bacon factory end of the arena. It would have been six had David Clarke not risen to retrieve a Mark Breheny free as it was about to scrape over the cross bar.
But then came a free for Cillian O’Connor, preceding a 35th minute goal Sligo coughed up to Diarmuid O’Connor, scores which utterly changed the co-ordinates of their task. The goal came without any warning other than an appreciable rise in the sharpness and urgency of movement throughout the Mayo ranks. O’Connor was involved in the origins of a scrap for an awkward bouncing ball in the shallows of Mayo’s half and once in possession, the home team demonstrated stealth and speed, with Patrick Durcan hurrying the ball onto Seamus O’Shea who in turn found O’Connor. The Ballintubber man broke through a tackle and ate up the ground ahead of him before firing a drop- kick past Aidan Devaney.
Suddenly, Sligo trailed by four and faced 35 minutes defending a Mayo side literally sailing on the breeze.
“I was just glad that we matched them physically more this time than we did two years ago,” said Niall Carew.
“They threw us around like rag dolls then. Now we need to get up to their smarts. The more times you play teams like Mayo the more you learn. We were beaten by nine points: maybe Mayo were five or six points better today.”
That was fair Although Patrick Durcan made an ominous run at the Mayo goal early in the second half and screwed a delicate shot wide, Mayo never opened the throttle.
Sligo stayed organised and sticky and still trailed by that O’Connor goal with ten minutes remaining. The days when this Mayo team reach molten point in Connacht are probably over and they were competent here rather than outstanding. Fergal Boland enjoyed a creative debut performance and Ger Cafferkey return gives the Mayo defence an added depth.
There was little sign here that they are about to embark on one of their epic summers. A sharper assignment awaits them in Salthill.
MAYO: 1 D Clarke; 2 C Barrett, 3 G Cafferkey, 4 K Higgins; 5 C Boyle, 6 L Keegan, 7 P Durcan (0-1); 8 S O’Shea, 9 T Parsons; 10 F Boland (0-2), 11 D O’Connor (1-0), 12 C O’Shea; 13 K McLoughlin (0-1), 14 C O’Connor (1-6, 5 frees), 15 A Moran (0-2). Substitutes: 23 J Doherty (0-1) for K McLoughlin (27 mins), 22 A O’Shea for 15 A Moran (55 mins), 18 S Coen for 5 C Boyle (59 mins), 19 D Vaughan for 12 C O’Shea (63 mins), 26 C Loftus for 10 F Boland (66 mins), 25 D Kirby (0-1) for 8 S O’Shea (68 mins).
SLIGO: 1 A Devaney (0-1 free); 2 R Donovan, 3 Charlie Harrison, 4 E McHugh; 5 K Cawley, 6 B Egan, 10 N Ewing; 7 J Kelly; 8 P O’Connor (0-1), 9 A McIntyre; 11 M Breheny (0-2 frees), 13 S Coen (0-2), 12 K Cawley; 14 P Hughes, 15 A Marren (0-4, 2 frees, 1 50). Substitutes: 18 D Kelly for 12 K Cawley (30 mins), 24 K McDonnell for 13 S Coen (47 mins), 19 N Murphy (0-1) for 14 P Hughes ( 50 mins), 22 G O’Kelly-Lynch for 4 E McHugh (50 mins inj), 17 S Gilmartin for 7 J Kelly (60 mins), 20 N Gaughan for 5 K Cawley (70 mins).
Referee: S Hurson (Tyrone).