An absorbing encounter between the teams who have been to the last three All-Ireland finals ended in welter of excitement in Castlebar on Saturday. Ryan O’Donoghue’s 76th-minute equaliser tied it all up with neither side objecting too much to the outcome before a buzzed-up attendance of 13,654 in Hastings Insurance MacHale Park.
It was a lovely finish by the Belmullet corner forward, back after serious injury and showing that his importance to the team hadn’t been exaggerated in his absence.
The opening weekend of the Allianz Football League means something different this year. From late January to the end of July will be one seamless continuum with what teams do in the spring having the potential to exert a direct influence on their championship fortunes.
On top of that contemporary resonance come the usual boxes to tick. Kevin McStay’s new management got off to a good start in that although outplayed at times, his team stuck at it and their work-rate and determination never flagged.
He has been at pains to dial down the talk of transition but with the team of the last decade gradually moving on – as illustrated by Lee Kegan’s presence in the RTE studio, ghostly in the familiar afterlife of the intercounty player turned pundit – that reality it hard to avoid.
The fluctuating rivalry between the teams has been very significant in the broader context: 11 times in the last 25 years, one county or the other has been in an All-Ireland final, frequently with their battles against each other setting the tone for the rest of the summer.
Galway returned to that stage last year and Pádraic Joyce’s mission is to improve the quality both of performance and personnel. His team looked good in patches at the weekend, still very hard to break down at the back as Mayo discovered when holding possession for periods that felt as lengthy as January but to no avail on the scoreboard.
The visitors’ captain Seán Kelly got the television MOTM award and he had delivered a characteristically intelligent performance, blending his reading of the defensive game with his usual flair for incisive counter-attacking, which on his umpteenth run delivered a much needed goal in the 46th minute.
There were other admirable contributions on both sides but few sustained inputs. Damien Comer again mixed strikingly good ball winning with difficulty in getting on the end of scoring opportunity.
It is part of McStay’s intention to produce a more varied attacking style but the quality of the defensive cover militated against that and ironically it was their opponents who profited most from the long ball – most obviously when Johnny Heaney’s attempt at a point dropped invitingly for Matthew Tierney, finding himself like Gulliver, with only corner forward Aidan Or
That goal was also timely, coming just over a minute after Mayo had scored theirs. James Carr’s strike was like a thunderbolt and the rigging shook on impact. It wasn’t even the Mayo full forward’s best goal against Galway – as a quick visit to YouTube can confirm – but it settled the team after a prolonged phase of indecisive attack.
McStay’s relative contentment afterwards owed much to a fired-up second-half response from his team. Having stayed afloat principally because of the goal, Mayo knuckled down in the second half and the centrefield of Diarmuid O’Connor and Matt Ruane platformed a third quarter revival and both kicked nourishing points.
Defence will presumably be a key focus for the team. Their set-up was too easily disrupted by Galway rotating in a few different full forwards and testing the defence in the air.
There was however enough in David McBrien’s application at full back and the defensive resilience to give hope going forward that the most obvious lapses. As well as the systemic mix-up for Tierney’s score, Cillian McDaid should never have been given a visa to travel as far as he did for Kelly’s goal.
McStay acknowledged the flaws but emphasised the positives.
“But again, these are great challenges for our team. They get this belt in the face when they think they’re on easy street and they’re knocked back down again and then they get - we see it on the side-line – a really good response.
“We got some very good scores from play; we worked them very well; and the big takeaway for me is we didn’t back off, we didn’t go missing, and we felt we could get a result. If it had gone on, I’d say we were chasing the winner, let me put it that way.”
Pádraic Joyce said that he had picked so many Moycullen players, club semi-finalists just three weeks previously, because of lack of options. There was further bad news in the departure of Rob Finnerty with an ankle injury, caused by a hurtling defender trying to block the corner forward’s 24th-minute point.
It looks like being more immediately bad news for DCU in the Sigerson quarter-finals.
The Galway manager will have also been frustrated at how his team, generally effective at taking right options, coughed up a turnover in the penultimate play of the game to hand salvation to O’Donoghue.
He had quibbles with some of referee Joe McQuillan’s decisions.
“It’s the first league game. I was very proud of the fellas and . . . overall a draw was probably a fair result but, lookit, we were a point up and five minutes injury time was up and he played a sixth one . . . no complaints but we do feel a bit aggrieved that we didn’t win the game but that’s a good sign of the team. We’re not happy with a draw in Castlebar, so it’s a good sign.”