Sunday, March 25, 2007

Conor the Hero as Mayo Stun Cork

Tugann C-Mort na cosa glana do Sheán Mac Diarmuid ón RosMayo 1-12
Cork 2-08

If Kevin O’Neill is to become Seán Flanagan’s successor as the captain of an All-Ireland winning Mayo senior team later this year, historians will almost certainly look back on last night as the moment when the dream started becoming a reality. To beat Cork in Cork in never easy; to beat Cork in Cork when Cork are managed by Billy Morgan is difficult, but to beat a Billy Morgan managed Cork side in Cork when six points down at half-time is more or less impossible. Did I add that Mayo were without their first choice midfield and Ciarán McDonald as well? Yet Mayo came back from the dead in the second half last night and in so doing ran an electric charge through Mayo’s collective football psyche. This could be the start of something beautiful.

The return of Sam Maguire after fifty-six years is something of a chimera in Mayo after so many false dawns since the first O’Mahony breakthrough eighteen years ago, but Mayo have quite clearly been knocking at the door in the past decade. That is why O’Mahony has been brought back even while there are still many in authority who are waiting for him to trip up, and last night showed why it may just be worth it.

Consider the problems O’Mahony faced last night. He was without his first choice midfield pairing of Ronan McGarrity and David Brady, and up against the best midfield pairing in the country, Nicolas Murphy and Derek Kavanagh. What else can O’Mahony do but thank God for Pat Harte, and pair him with David Heaney, slot in Aidan Kilcoyne for Trevor Mortimer, and hope for the best?

Disaster strikes. Alan Dillon is injured, and Kevin O’Neill, recently returned from injury, is sprung into the fray, with the county praying it’s not too soon after the injury. Aidan Campbell is then injured, and Marty McNicolas, whose own career has been so blighted by injury, comes in. Mayo are holding their own, as the bench depth and breadth of talent pays off.

Only for disaster to strike again. Twice. Cork have unearthed a monster full-forward called Michael Cussen, as every petri dish in Ireland is searched for a Kieran Donaghy clone. Cussen, towering over Mayo’s rookie fullback James Kilcullen, punches one goal and sets up another. At half-time, Mayo are on the ropes, down 2-5 to 0-5. You’re John O’Mahony, what do you do?

Haul off Kilcullen before any more damage is done? Whom do you put back there to stand sentinel at the gate? Heaney? Are you sure that’s entirely wise? Jimmy Nallen? Even if Heaney does go back do you then need Nallen to come on at midfield? One third of your starting forwards are gone and two more aren’t exactly pulling up any trees. Do you send for Austin, and tell everybody whose shirt number is greater than 4 to welt it up to Austy and hope for the best? What if they get another goal? It’s not like you can send Kilcullen back in and tell him you were only messing.

An Spailpín Fánach is not privy to the Mayo dressing room, but your faithful narrator and habitual punter will lay a buck to a bad back tooth that the first thing Johnno told his charges was: don’t panic. Things are by no means as bad as they seem.

Mayo were six points down, yes. But that’s the thing about goals in Gaelic Games – you really can’t legislate for them, either for the scoring of them or the stopping of them. They just seem to happen, like some of those wilfully capricious events dictated by the Greek Gods in Homer. So you just forget about them, tell James Kilcullen that he’s doing fine, that’s he’s wearing the jersey for a reason and to stick by his man and everything will be ok.

Next, you point out the fascinating fact that Mayo are not getting cleaned like a fish at midfield. Not at all. It’s a bit harum-scarum out there, but football was never a precision science and harum-scarum is a lot better than it might have been. So what to do with all this not entirely expected possession?

Run at Cork with it, and see how they like it.

The eleventh Psalm tells us that a scorching wind shall be the lot of the wicked; it was certainly the lot of Cork last night. Mayo tore right through them, scoring 1-3 in the first five minutes to sensationally level things and thrill Mayo hearts from Belmullet to Cricklewood Broadway. The second half proved more expansive than either manager would have liked, and Cork, in truth, were very unlucky not to have taken the game once they recovered from the initial Mayo onslaught. But profligacy in front of the posts brings its own punishments, and it cost Cork last night.

It is unusual to write of a Mayo attack that were more frugal with possession than the opposition but that was the case last night, and two men were behind it. Kevin O’Neill put on a display of pin-point passing that displayed, once again, what a classy, classy football this man is, and Conor Mortimer came of age.

C-Mort is one of the faces of Mayo in this first decade of the 21st Century, and his football adolescence, like all adolescences, has at times been painful to watch. But every year he’s added something more to his game and last night Conor looked very much the real deal. His long range shooting was on the money, his goal breath-taking, and his standing up to the abuse doled out by some very streetwise Cork backs was a credit to him. Ray Silke made him man of the match, and Silke was completely correct in his assessment. Last night in Páirc Uí Rinn, Conor Mortimer became a leader of men.

So what does this mean in the long run? Very little of course. It’s two points in the league bag, it’s a sharp but useful learning experience for Kilcullen, now a wiser and better man and full back, and Mayo are now more or less assured of Division 1 football next year. Had he his druthers, An Spailpín Fánach would now play more or less joke teams in the remaining fixtures, at home against Dublin and away to Tyrone. What’s the point in getting to the playoffs? May 20th and Mayo’s looming Championship encounter with Galway in Salthill is plenty close enough without Mayo needing any more warm-up matches. The media will be getting hot and bothered about Dublin looking for revenge over the summer but even Pillar Caffrey admitted that it doesn’t mean a thing in terms of next Sunday. For Mayo, it’s all about Galway in the Championship.

Galway stuffed Westmeath today, pulling away in the end with scores from Derek Savage and Pádraig Joyce – you may have heard of them. Reports of Galway’s demise have, as ever, proved premature and Johnno’s all-seeing eye will have noticed that fact – just as Galway themselves will have noticed that a certain Johnno effect is to be seen in his native heath. An effect with which they themselves are fully familiar.

And, as the evenings begin to stretch and the Championship nears, if the good people of the Galway football heartlands of Tuam and Milltown and Dunmore get in their cars and drive the few miles north to the Mayo border and get out and try to catch that strange sound born on the wind, and rising from the heather and the peat and whins, it can only be the fairy families and clans of Mayo hailing the new king, Johnno, Johnno, Johnno. No wonder Enda Kenny’s hair is standing on end.

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