Sligo 0-12 Mayo 3-23
Remember: Never feel sorry for Mayo. They are pitiless as sharks. And they need to be if they are to see this thing out. The sight of Cillian O’Connor labouring on crutches was a reminder of their latest tough break. But the Ballintubber man looked content as he watched in the shadow of the stands while his team-mates steamrolled a young Sligo team to get their All-Ireland challenge up and running.
They put up a handsome score, should have left town with more and once again underlined they have the physical power and athleticism to live with the best. They have the requisite meanness too.
Eleven summers have slid by since Sligo ransacked the big houses in the province, first dumping Mayo and then Galway from the Connacht championship before suffering the blackly comic fate of losing that year’s final to the Rossies by a point.
Markievicz Park was pretty in aspect only then: it was an intimidating place to play. Recreating that atmosphere will be Tony McEntee’s ultimate ambition but these things take time. In a knock-out summer when the stands are empty and after an unpromising league, this match long had the look of the impossible.
Sligo made five changes to the named starting team just before throw-in, deepening the sense that they were an unknown quantity even to themselves. Two years have passed since they last played a championship game after last year’s Covid-related withdrawal.
McEntee was a smart, fearless footballer on the field and has developed the reputation as a shrewd operator on the sideline but he could have been forgiven for submitting to an involuntary shiver as he watched last year’s All-Ireland finalists motor through their warm-up. Mayo shimmer with athletic prowess.
Still, the home side should have got the first score of the game after 14 seconds when Niall Murphy got open for an excellent chance. The full forward was one of the bright spots on a heavy day for Sligo.
Their game plan was simple: to crowd the defence and try and trouble Mayo’s full-back line by raining down ball in on Murphy and Barry Gorman, his towering partner in crime. It yielded a reasonable dividend and in addition to two fine scores from play, Murphy crashed a brilliant shot off the crossbar after seizing on Gorman’s breaking ball.
Elsewhere, Seán Carrabine had a hugely impressive game, leading his Sligo team-mates through the Amazonian density of Mayo’s pressing game and firing a brilliant shot from the 50. These were the glimmers of hope.
Because overall, it was one-way traffic. Mayo were sharp here and had a ravenous, impatient look about them. They pounced on the Sligo restarts, with Ryan O’Donoghue and Eoghan McLaughlin rapacious in the tackle.
Aidan O’Shea had 2-2 to his name by half-time, both goals originating in Mayo’s pressing and hard running game. He hadn’t hit a championship goal in five years before this but if Mayo are to climb to their Everest this year, one senses he will need to adorn the championship scoring board with several more.
O’Shea is as versatile as they come: converting him into a goalscoring Rothweiler may not be the worst plan in the world. Darren McHale rewarded the selectors with 1-5 from play on his championship debut and on this evidence has the predator’s instinct, honing in on Tommy Conroy’s goal-burst to hammer home the rebound.
As a contest, this match was out of Sligo’s control after 10 minutes. The afternoon, chilly for late June, was a taste of what life at the very top table is like. The Mayo work-rate and marking was smothering. They were loath to allow the home team an open pass or free look. It was worth a month of training sessions and each of Sligo’s eight first-half points was well crafted and fully earned.
If Mayo were looking for other signs of encouragement, then the speed and mobility with which Lee Keegan covered the field was a welcome sight and added substance to the suspicion that the Westport man was not moving as he would have liked last winter.
The second half was a more pedestrian affair and the chief enjoyment for the neutrals was derived in watching McLaughlin’s lightning forays up the left wing, from which he grabbed two points and hit the Sligo crossbar. McLaughlin’s conversion from elite cycling has been well documented but it seems unlikely he could travel any faster upfield even if he was allowed to use the bicycle.
Mayo spilled enough ball and messed about enough to allow the management to grouse in the video room next week. But if they can put together the kind of demonic appetite and directness which they showed in the first 15 minutes of this game for an entire match, they can become a monstrous proposition. Murphy continued to fly the flag with two fine scores, the last of the season for Sligo.
SLIGO: 1 E Kilgannon; 2 R Feehily, 3 E McGuinness,25 K McKenna; 23 N Mullan, 6 P McNamara, 19 P Laffey; 8 P O'Connor (0-1), 9 P Kilcoyne; 10 D Quinn, 24 L Gaughan (0-1), 12 M Gordon (0-1); 18 B Gorman, 14 N Murphy (0-6, one free), 15 S Carrabine (0-2).
Subs: 4 E Lyons for 25 K McKenna, 5 K Cawley (0-1) for 24 L Gaughan (31 mins). 17 R Og Murphy for 18 B Gorman (35 mins), 26 C Griffin for 12 M Gordon (53 mins), 11 C Lally for 5 K Cawley (61 mins inj).
MAYO: 1 R Hennelly; 2 E Hession, 3 O Mullin, 4 L Keegan; 5 M Plunkett, 6 P Durcan (0-1), 7 E McLaughlin (0-2); 8 M Ruane, 9 C Loftus (0-2); 10 K McLoughlin, 11 D McHale (1-5), 22 J Flynn (0-1); 13 T Conroy (0-2), 14 A O'Shea (2-2), 15 R O'Donoghue (0-5, four frees).
Subs: 25 F Boland (0-1) for 22 J Flynn (46 mins), 18 P O'Hora for 4 L Keegan (54 mins), 20 S Coen (0-1) for 6 P Durcan (61 mins), 24 P Towey for 15 R O'Donoghue (64 mins), 26 J Carr (0-1) for 10 K McLoughlin (70 mins).
Referee: P Faloon (Down).