Monday, April 23, 2007

Donegal Triumph as Mayo Well Goes Dry

When John O'Mahony is out on the stump for the impending general election, kissing hands and shaking babies, he would be forgiven, should he find any particular baby who shows any sort of point scoring ability, to fire said baby into the back of the van, to be sprung in less than one month's time into the white hot cauldron of Páirc an Phiarsaigh, Bóthar na Trá, Cathar na Gaillimhe, when Mayo face Galway in the Championship on May 20th.

O'Mahony, a man whose levels of preparation and foresight are justly famous, played another sly one yesterday at the start of the National League final, naming James Nallen at corner-forward instead of Kevin O'Neill, and then pairing Nallen at midfield with David Heaney, sending Pat Harte up to full forward. Donegal were surely expecting a two man full-forward line, and this would certainly put them thinking.

The makeshift midfield did their best against as fine a pairing as exists in the country, Gallagher and Cassidy of Donegal, but the centre of the park became as crowded as an Irish dole office during the bleak 'eighties, and what was happening at either end proved the difference between the teams. The Donegal forwards buzzed like those bees around the sweet cask that Dermot O'Leary and the Bards sang about many years ago; by contrast, the Mayo forward line were as one of those redwood forests in Northern California, USA - stately and imposing, certainly, but not displaying very many signs of movement.

It was all very disappointing, and it is a testimony to the Mayo backs that Mayo were still in the game at half-time, trailing by only two points, 0-7 to 0-5. There was a sense that Mayo were only hanging on though, and if Donegal broke through for a goal it would be goodnight Irene.

Mayo clawed their way back in the second half, chiefly through the impish Conor Mortimer's ability to get frees and then convert them. However, just as things were in the balance at ten points each with fifteen or so minutes to go, and your correspondent was feeling smug about tipping a draw while interviewed by Noel D. Walsh on Shannonside Northern Sound last Friday, Donegal sprung Adrian Sweeney from the bench and pushed on for a well deserved win.

Donegal have to start as favourites now against Armagh in Ballybofey on May 27th, as 2002 seems so very far away for the Orchard County. In Mayo, there are, as ever, more questions than answers. Mayo didn't get ripped open in the backs as had been feared in some quarters, but the frozen-in-the-headlights aspect of the forwards is a source of profound concern. Conor Mortimer has his critics, but a quick glance at Mayo's scoring figures for the league shows that Mortimer has scored twice as much (4-24) as Alan Dillon (1-15), who's second leading scorer. Which means that, for all intents and purposes, Conor is the only scoring threat Mayo currently have, and a single scoring forward is a small rock indeed upon which to build a church.

Forwards are only as good as their supply, of course, and as the Galway game looms the absence of Ciarán McDonald with a continuing back injury seems more and more critical. Kevin McStay was remarking in the Mayo News during the week that Mayo, while supremely organised, are lacking the spark of genius, and the Mayo faithful can only think of their missing hero, and hope. Former Dublin and Roscommon manager Tommy Carr told Paul Collins on Setanta during the week that McDonald isn't that good, actually, and if it were up to him, Thomas, he wouldn't even have McDonald about the place unless he "conformed." Thomas did little to ease the worries of your correspondent about football in the County Mayo, but he did solve in a sentence any lingering doubts as to why Tommy Carr managed teams never won a damn thing. So that was something.

There are five weeks to go until Salthill. John O'Mahony has five weeks to untie the Gordian Knot of how to get the ball to the forwards and how to get the forwards to kick said ball between the sticks, because he will know from long personal experience just how well Pádraic Joyce and chums will doing just that at the opposite end of the garden. David Heaney and Pat Harte have been doing a fine job in midfield, but how O'Mahony must rue the absence of David Brady and Ronan McGarrity. Your tireless typist was wondering whether or not it'd be feasible to put Barry Moran in there come Salthill, but Moran's injury as the Under-21s crashed and burned against impressive Laois in Dr Hyde Park on Saturday now just seems the tin hat on a miserable enough weekend for Mayo football.

The future holds Galway lurking with intent in the long grass to the south, and a Risen Ros banging their spears against their shields to the East. John O'Mahony's critics - and I think we'll be hearing from this week, as per usual - accused O'Mahony of taking the Mayo job in order to further his own electoral prospects. Right now, suggesting the building of a nuclear reactor in Murrisk at the foot of Croagh Patrick seems a quicker path to popular acclaim. Whatever O'Mahony's reasons are for his return to management in Mayo, he's certainly not doing it for a quiet life.

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