Cork are half-way through their campaign to equal Mayo’s seventy-year-old record of six National Football League titles in a row. If yesterday’s third title in three years is anything to go by, they will do it.
It matters little to the victors of course, but yesterday’s game made for poor spectacle. It quickly became apparent that familiarity has bred contempt between Cork and Mayo and a lot of nasty, mean-spirited fouls littered play. Referee Maurice Deegan had a chance to cut it out when the centre-backs, Cork’s Graham Canty and Mayo’s Dónal Vaughan, treated themselves to a punch-up early in the second half. Sending both men off, for striking or attempting to strike, is the response demanded by the rules, and would have served as a warning against further bad behaviour. Not even a card.
Ger Loughnane, one of the greatest Gaels, used to tell his players that they couldn’t rely on the referee for protection. They had to protect themselves. This is a lesson better learned by Cork than by Mayo. James Horan’s Mayo is showing an admirable bit of snarl in games, but when Cork upped the physical ante Mayo had no answer and were well beaten, really, in the end.
And by what was clearly the better side. Joe Brolly and Pat Spillane believe that Cork won because they had the better forwards, and certainly the Cork forwards did better than Mayo, racking up some very tasty scores. Fintan Goold had a much better day against Mayo than he did during the All-Ireland quarter-final, and Daniel Goulding’s final point was a treat to see.
However, An Spailpín would contend that the soul of the current Cork team is in their half-back line of Noel O’Leary, Graham Canty (formerly John Miskella) and Paudie Kissane. They give Cork a presence and a personality. To beat Cork, you must conquer that line. You must endure more than they endure and inflict more than they inflict.
Mayo were able to do it in the summer, but not yesterday in Croke Park. Cork didn’t see Mayo coming last summer, and they were riven by injury. None of those factors applied yesterday.
A school of thought holds that, because yesterday was for a “national title” and the quarter-final was for nothing, Cork have avenged that summer defeat with interest. Probably not, is An Spailpín’s view but that’s up to the Corkonians themselves to decide and more power to them.
From a Mayo point of view, it’s disappointing to lose another final in Croke Park. Of course it is. But it’s been a great League campaign, not least as the team looked like being on their way to Division II around Easter. But even in the ahses of ultimate defeat. there’s much to be happy with about the campaign.
The defense is settled and solid. The Mayo half-back line doesn’t match Cork’s for presence, but it’s by golly getting there. The first-choice defence is now nailed down.
Aidan O’Shea will anchor the Mayo midfield for the next ten years, but who to pair him with this summer remains a vexed question. Barry Moran has never quite captured his club form, and the returned Pat Harte is looking more and more like a contender.
Up front, the half-backs pick themselves at this stage, but the inside line remains a trickier matter. Mayo haven’t had a nailed-on full-forward since John Casey – Alan Freeman looked to the manner born for two years, but his star seems on the descent now, which is a pity.
Freeman was unlucky last year because, while Andy Moran could play at 11 or 14, Freeman didn’t swap in and out as easily. Cillian O’Connor will start for Mayo in every game, but wearing what shirt is the question. Plenty of food for thought for James Horan and the faithful until Mayo face either London or Leitrim in eight weeks’ time.