Relentless Mayo turn their eyes to the main prize again
Horan’s men pip Galway to reclaim Connacht title while Dubs issue a warning
Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor and Aidan O’Shea celebrate after their side’s narrow victory over Galway in the Connacht final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Mayo march on through the pandemic winter. They may be travelling without the insatiable crowd but the old ambition and bloody-mindedness was the same as ever as they edged out Galway in the Connacht final to become the first team to book their All-Ireland semi-final place.
Their 0-14 to 0-13 over Galway on a heavy November Sunday in Salthill, with seaweed strewn across the promenade, is their first Connacht title since 2015.
More significantly, it them leaves edging towards dream territory again. They will face the winners of the Munster final between Cork and Tipperary and, irrespective of how low-key James Horan plays it, expectations will be rampant that Mayo can get to another All-Ireland final. Of course, getting to finals has not been an issue since Horan’s first term in charge back in 2011. It’s that last step that is the key.
“The prize today was huge,” said a delighted Horan.
“We get to spend three weeks together now and have eight or nine sessions and we are absolutely buzzing to have a go at an All-Ireland semi-final. That was a battle out there and we just hung on in the end.”
It was gruelling from the get go.
Whatever about in high summer, Pearse Stadium is a bleak house at this time of year, with heavy grass and a tricky wind bamboozling some of the brightest talents in the game. Plus, both camps seemed to confound both themselves and the opposition with their tactical approach and match-ups.They got bogged down in each other.
Galway were sparkling and creative in attack all year but worryingly cavalier in defence. Here, they flipped that; sticky and organized all afternoon but unable to get into their flow with the ball in hand.
Mayo were Mayo; inspired at times but frustratingly wasteful during other periods. The error count was high on both sides. Mayo couldn’t pull away in the first half, which finished 0-8 to 0-5. But playing with a big wind, Galway couldn’t quite catch up and the occasion narrowed into an exceptionally tense and controversial injury time when either side could have won it.
Eoghan McLaughlin, a force of combustible energy, might have swung it for Mayo with a 65th minute break and shot with Bernard Power saved; at the other end, Paul Kelly came within inches of earning a penalty when McLaughlin unceremoniously dragged him down with David Clarke’s goal looming.
Paul Conroy, a Herculean figure here, dragged Galway back into it by hoofing a 69th minute point and then winning a free which Shane Walsh converted. That left it at 0-13 to 0-14 and the day turned on a Galway sideline ball which was taken quickly only to be whistled back by referee Sean Hurson.
“Gary Sice took the side line kick and got it to Cillian McDaid,” recalled Pádraic Joyce.
“He was straight through probably on goal if he got it. He took it back because he took it two yards from the wrong spot. But sure how could he take it from where it was given when there were five Mayo players standing there? Again, we had a chance back but we messed it up and didn’t force a draw.”
Joyce spent a long time conversing with the official afterwards. But if he was frustrated with some of the marginal calls, he was unequivocal about why his team lost the match.
“We have no one to blame but ourselves. Thirteen points is not enough to win any game. We just fell short at the end but we weren’t clinical enough. We had the chances and didn’t take it. Mayo deserve credit. This is their fifth week in a row playing. And they will go on and represent Connacht and they will do well.”
It was equally edgy up in the Athletics Grounds as Cavan again refused to give up the ghost, hauling themselves back from a ten-point deficit against Down to force their way into the Ulster final.
Their 1-14 to 1-13 win completes an extraordinary reversal in fortune since their relegation to Division Three. They will now face Donegal in the Ulster final after the reigning champions made light work of Armagh’s challenge on Saturday afternoon.
Andy McEntee’s Meath fired an eye-catching five goals against Kildare to earn the right to play Dublin in the Leinster final. Right now, it looks a dubious honour. The All-Ireland champions posted an ominous 2-23 in their remorseless demolition of Laois in a stinging reminder that they haven’t gone anywhere.
The Limerick hurlers evaded a sustained Waterford challenge to successfully defend their Munster hurling title. It finished 0-25 to 0-21. Limerick haven’t had consecutive Munster title wins since 1981 and even if they remain favourites for the All-Ireland, the hurling championship could be in for an unpredictable few weeks.
On Saturday night, Kilkenny dazzled both Galway and the national television audience with their familiar brand of ferocity and sorcery to land their 72nd Leinster title. The afternoons are turning wintry now but the championship is warming up.