Mayo dig deep to shake off Kerry’s demon-like grip
Stephen Rochford’s side end 21-year-wait to beat Kingdom and reach another final
Mayo’s Keith Higgins, Séamus O’Shea, Aidan O’Shea, Colm Boyle and David Clarke close down Paul Geaney of Kerry during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
It is part of the Mayo DNA. Reek Sunday comes in all sorts of guises. It’s swampy hot on the Jones’ Road for once – actual August weather – and both Kerry and Mayo have ventured way, way off the strategic and tactical chessboard now and are deep down in that blood-and-guts place where they are trying to remember and forget who they are and where they are from. The footballers from both counties have brought a bit of Atlantic coast madness to the middle of the city and the waves, the mad waves of hope and anxiety, are smashing all around us.
In the stands, the Mayo support is chanting the county name cheerfully. You’ve all heard the chant. MA-YO! MA-YO! Their team is giving a show here. But even so, there’s a kind of awful queasiness, a forced gaiety to the singing, like aeroplane passengers belting out a Beatles hit even though the engine sounds like its stalling.
Mayo are clearly the superior football team on this day: 1-8 to 0-6 up at the break after smothering Kerry’s kick out in the first half; 2-9 to 0-7 up after a nimble terrific give and go between Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor, with Moran, the everlasting, finding the net. A black card for Darran O’Sullivan and big Kieran Donaghy getting waspish and worked up. Their match-ups are working perfectly. Their forwards are purring. Their wide count in the second half is zero. And yet. Mayo can’t quite bring themselves to fully kill Kerry off.
There’s this nagging doubt that something could go wrong.
This is Kerry.
In Mayo, that name means demonology. It is not easy to kill that mindset off. And Kerry aren’t lying down. They don’t know how. Mayo are hungrier, stronger, first to the ball but after that second goal, a kind of nothing-to-lose franticness comes into the Kerry play. Pride and the reputation that comes stitched into that Kingdom emblem is coming to the fore. They keep on hanging about, sometimes 0-7 down, sometimes 0-5 down but only a solitary Mayo mistake, only a goal-from-nothing away from changing the entire complexion of the afternoon. Getting there. Even when it’s easy for Mayo, it never is. A first championship win over Kerry in 21 fast summers brings Mayo back to that sacred place.
“We did well enough to win an All-Ireland semi-final,” said Stephen Rochford afterwards, in no mood for embroidery.
“We knew Kerry were going to come at us really hard. It was really important that we didn’t allow Kerry to get the fast start they got in previous games. They had a lot of talented footballers so they can play how they want – six up, four up, a target man. We spoke about the possibilities but we didn’t over focus it.”
If Rochford felt that this performance was a rebuke to the deluge of criticism he faced after last Sunday, he kept it in check. He also put Aidan O’Shea back on Kieran Donaghy – Donal Vaughan and Séamus O’Shea also had early tours of duty on the Stacks man – and it worked.
Everything Rochford instructed his men to do worked here. O’Shea had a huge influence on this game and the end of this titanic match-up saw Donaghy clatter O’Shea in frustration and earn a red card and a lonely walk. Star. You’d hope it’s not his last act in a Kerry shirt but if so, well, he leaves on his own terms. But Rochford shrugged when asked if having the final say was satisfying after everything.
“It is satisfying in that we won. I mean, Aidan had a fine game. There is no doubt. But you are only as good as your last game and there is another one coming up. He sacrificed his game for the team and that says a lot about him. I had an engagement on Sunday night that I didn’t get to see the papers on Monday morning. Someone’s opinion. I don’t do this to seek someone’s approval or disapproval. I didn’t lose any sleep over it. It may not be the nicest headlines but we look at what we can control. We certainly can’t control newsrooms or headlines in newspapers. And we are aware that if we don’t deliver in three weeks’ time there will be another headline.”
It is undeniable now that this Mayo crowd have the stuff to deliver. They are an extraordinary bunch. Was it that 46th-minute sequence when Mayo repelled three cannoned shots on their goal that decided the day and cleared the muggy air of whatever doubts and haunted-ness might be in it? Or maybe it was the once-in-a-decade ravenous brilliance of Colm Boyle that made it clear that Mayo weren’t for buckling. Even without Cillian O’Connor – gone to a black card after 50 minutes – Jason Doherty stepped to hammer a big point and the crowd chanted with greater belief.
It’s rare you get to see a Kerry football team like this, playing through a fog of desperation. But when it happens, you truly see what it all means to them. This experience was killing them. And there was nothing they could do about it.
“What went wrong?” echoed Eamonn Fitzmaurice.
“Mayo were better. Mayo were hungrier. They just performed better than us. They were outstanding. We didn’t need the last two games to confirm they are a serious outfit. They have been so close going back to 2012. We knew we had to be on the top of our game and we weren’t. They are a great bunch, serious resilience. And they are no mean footballers either. I think they were operating at a slightly higher level than us. The kick out in the first half was a big factor. They were on top of us. You can be moving pieces around your tactics board and chatting all you want but it is a different scenario out on the pitch. It is about having the ball and we didn’t have enough ball.”
They didn’t. It was kind of miraculous that they kept the scoreboard ticking over. But Mayo always had an answer, with young Conor Loftus landing a 68th- minute point which was an exorcism of sorts. And so the five minutes of extra time were like a day-spa for the Mayo faithful. They could sit back in relative ease and wonder at this team of theirs.
“They are certainly not running out of steam anyway,” said Fitzmaurice with true admiration.
“They are getting stronger the whole time. Massive credit to them. They will take stopping.”
Since losing to Galway on a wet day that is a distant memory now, Mayo have been building up steam. Maybe that’s the real question now as they charge for the finish line. Can they be stopped? The Mayo flag hung from the pedestrian walkway on the M6 motorway somewhere outside Maynooth caught the mood. It was there for the thousands as they travelled. And it offered the plainest salutation.
Plough On, Mayo.
It could be their motto.