Sunday, April 15, 2007

Steady as She Goes on the Good Ship Mayo

An tUiginneachMayo 2-10
Galway 1-12

It all got a bit much for your correspondent at Croke Park this afternoon. As I sat there in the sun-bathed corner of the Hogan Stand and the Canal End, I thought of all the bloodshed and hatred and prejudice and misunderstanding in the ensanguined history of our sad little island, where all our wars are merry and all our songs are sad, and I asked myself if I ever really thought I’d ever live to see the day when Gaelic Games were played in Croke Park, our great “National Stadium.” Ah Christ, I’m tearing up again at the thought of it. I’d better go blow me nose – I’ll be right back.


There now. That’s better.

So it was first blood Mayo in the phoney war, and a considerable appetite-whetter for the Salthill showdown of May 20th, which is becoming even more epic a prospect as the days go by. The days preceding today’s game were suffused with a sense of unreality, as double and treble bluffs were played across the border about who’d be really trying. This was resolved on the publication of the teamsheets, when it looked as though even if it were a phoney war both Peter Ford and John O’Mahony were going to use real bullets, with each naming strong sides.

But once the game started, it changed back again. There were moments when it looked like the game would take off and become a classic encounter between legendary rivals, and yet it didn’t. It was like a voice in players’ heads on both sides cautioned “hold on; it’s only the League” just when someone was about to light the touchpaper. Will Padraig Joyce be as profligate in front of the sticks again? It’s hard to see it – although Joyce has never really cut up Mayo as he has other teams, most famously Meath in 2001 of course, he’s certainly dealt the killer blow in his day. Joyce missed two kicks to settle it at the end today; on all known evidence, he’s unlikely to stay his deadly blade in Salthill with a real prize on the line.

And at the same time there is much to savour on both sides. For Mayo, David Heaney was outstanding in the middle of the park, and Keith Higgins, rather than wither under the constructive criticism that’s been floating around lately, played an exemplary game on an admittedly out of sorts Michael Meehan. Over in the other corner, this new boy Bane gave Liam O’Malley a much more torrid afternoon than O’Malley has been experiencing lately, although the Burrishoole man came into it more in the second half.

For the Galwaymen, they have to be impressed with how their backs marshalled the Mayo forwards, especially Damien Burke, who hardly gave Conor Mortimer, mining a rich vein of form in recent weeks, a sniff of the football. So why did Galway lose? Probably because Mayo got more from midfield and the breaks than Galway did, and were more economical in their use of it. It could have gone either way, and it’s difficult to imagine too many dirges being sung in the Galway bus on the way home. It was, after all, a phoney war.

So where to from here? Both teams are expecting players to return to their respective panels, with the potential Mayo selection being quite appetising. If David Brady returns to midfield, will David Heaney move to centre-half back? Would Kevin O’Neill have the jets to be able to play centre-half forward in the event of Ciarán McDonald not returning? Is there any way to get Michael Conroy, who has been so impressive in his last two outings, into the team? And it did not go beyond An Spailpín Fánach’s notice that Barry Moran was named among the subs. They say that John O’Mahony is a master of preparation; he has enough variables at his command to keep him busy for a while yet. Enda will have to figure a Fine Gael policy on this nurses’ dispute on his own, while Johnno attends to the serious business of plotting victory in Salthill.

The National League Final itself will tell more, of course. Michael Lyster and your correspondent's sometime Mayo News colleague Kevin McStay said on the telly tonight that the final has been fixed for Croke Park on Sunday full stop, although a decision on geographical grounds would suggest either Dr Hyde Park or Clones. No matter; the footballs will be pumped and the grass cut wherever the game is played. McStay was making a case for Donegal being warm favourites but your correspondent, buoyed by McKelvey coming second in the Grand National yesterday with the unbearable weight of a lump of An Spailpín’s wages to carry, as well as the jockey and the handicap, is less sure. While Donegal may have laid waste to all before them in the League proper they struggled to polish off a Kildare team today who were so reliant on the great John Doyle at centre-half forward that if the misfortunate and over-worked Doyle had to drive the team bus back to Newbridge An Spailpín would not be a bit surprised. But Donegal certainly have a potent attack, all of whom seem scoring threats. It will be interesting to see how things pan out. To quote Raymond Chandler, baby feet take baby steps. It’s still very early days yet.

But if the game is going ahead at Croker, wouldn’t it be wonderful to fix the Roscommon v Cavan Division 2 semi-final there as well? Cavan are the only county not to have played at the new Croke Park and when Roscommon’s Under-21 manager, Fergal O’Donnell, said last year that Croke Park was for footballers and not for rock concerts An Spailpín was inclined to agree with him. It’s hard to imagine any Rossie, the proudest of supporters, refusing an invite to headquarters, and it could make for quite a day out on Sunday week. We shall wait and see, as ever, and be grateful for what we have in the GAA. Roll on the summer.

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