Mayo stretch boundaries of credulity with last-gasp comeback

Kerry and Mayo must do it all again after a thriller replete with baffling tactical subplots

They say the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction is simple. Fiction has to be believable. And yet here we are, sitting in a bubbling Croke Park, the elastic of credibility pulled out just that little bit further. Mayo and Kerry matched strides all the way on a day when, to rob from Quentin Tarantino, they sold 66,195 seats but people only got use of the edge of them.

They finished level on 2-14 apiece, Mayo sub Paddy Durcan swishing the Mayo equaliser four minutes into injury-time. A game that never quite had its footing because of the rain developed into a stone-cold thriller, with the sides level nine times and the lights above the stands powered by pure adrenaline. By the time Maurice Deegan blew the final whistle, the reaction around the old place was essentially one of stunned exhaustion. Imagine – this game next year would go to extra-time.

"This was frantic," said Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice. "Just a battle and I think that happens at this stage of the championship because the prize is huge. Even looking at the hurling semi-finals, particularly Galway and Tipperary, it was similar to today's game, because fellas were putting everything on the line. Getting to play in an All-Ireland final is such a huge prize. There was the odd tactic here and there but I am not sure how effective they were today."

Yes indeed, there was the odd tactic. The oddest by far being Mayo's decision to dragoon Aidan O'Shea into being a bob-a-job full back for the day. And no, it was not effective. O'Shea was detailed to prevent Kieran Donaghy plundering goals from high balls and though that side of it was a qualified success, it hardly mattered since the Kerry full forward just outplayed him on the ground instead.


Donaghy impact

Of Kerry's 2-14 total, Donaghy either scored, played the last pass or was materially involved in the build-up to 2-6. He contested two high balls all afternoon – O'Shea won the first to a great guttural haroo from the Mayo crowd but was marked absent for the other, leading directly to the second Kerry goal. Donaghy had the run of the place all day and although Stephen Rochford was unmoved by some fairly pointed questioning on it afterwards, it seems unthinkable that Mayo will try the same trick again in the replay.

"Aidan has played full back for us in a couple of instances," Rochford insisted. "Earlier this year he played full back for a while against Donegal on Michael Murphy. Last year he played full back against Kildare on Kevin Feely. He's one of our best tacklers. Obviously his physical presence versus the physical and aerial threat that Kerry might bring in that area. We'll look back on it and we'll see if things worked from it or did we lose something from it."

Pressed on it, he was asked if maybe apart at all from O’Shea’s limited experience as a defender, they lost out on his influence further up the pitch.

"Possibly," he replied. "But you know, we're not a one-man team. No more than Lee Keegan missing the Roscommon game, we don't want to be seen as a one-man team. I don't believe we're a one-man team. Aidan was effective in some aspects. We'll take closer attention before being definitive on that.

“We would have felt that 2006, 2014 – there was lessons to be learned from those games. Was it the right decision? Look, we’re half-way through. You win the game, you lose the game, people decide you’re right or wrong. We’ll see what happens next week.”

For Fitzmaurice, the necessity to be polite about these things – and, presumably, the hope that Mayo might give it another shot next Saturday – meant he took a kind view of their attempts to shackle Donaghy with O’Shea.

“It was a thing we’d discussed,” the Kerry manager said. “There was a possibility it could happen, that they could match him up with Kieran. We felt maybe it would be down the list of possible options, but it was something we had discussed.

“Look, obviously it’s up to Mayo to get their match-ups right and for them to organise those – that’s not something we can control. I’m not sure, I think he did fine. He won one or two balls in the first half and rooted away with Kieran, didn’t allow him to have a huge impact on the game.”


Eternal season

Anyway, this game was about more than one match-up. It was about Andy Moran having the game of his life in the Mayo full-forward line, hot-stepping around the place for 1-5 from play and laying on another 1-3. It was about Kerry having to make three changes by the start of the second half and only a fourth one, Darran O'Sullivan, really making an impact. It was about another game in Mayo's eternal season going to the wire and then pushing the wire beyond the wire.

Should we be surprised though? Mayo gonna do what Mayo gonna do. This makes it three Croke Park engagements in a row that they've needed to sort out via a replay. Of their last 15 games at headquarters, 10 have either been drawn or decided by a point. Over the past seven summers, they have been involved in 20 matches that have ended with a goal or less between them and their opposition. For comparison, Dublin have had 13 such games. Kerry have had 12.

This is who they are, this is what they do. They head into their ninth game of the summer next Saturday at three o’clock, knowing that they will always be enough of a force to hang in during these kind of games but never enough of a force to put them beyond doubt.

Fiction wouldn’t take the licence to invent such a delicate tension.