The stage was finally set for this year’s championship with the final act of the Allianz Football League. On a bright but cold April afternoon, Mayo the team that has made all the running in Division One, struck early and stayed in front despite Galway pushing hard and threatening to reel them back in.
Many of the team’s fresh assets, the redeployed Conor Loftus at centre back, young defenders Sam Callinan and Jack Coyne, free taker Ryan O’Donoghue back after missing last year and even the other forward reclaimed from injury, Tommy Conroy – who had a very lively cameo – were all on display.
If Aidan O’Shea’s new role didn’t fully emerge from familiar interventions, such as dropping deep and taking on defenders in tight corners, he made big interventions – firing in two precision balls for O’Donoghue to claim and score marks and getting fouled for four scoreable frees not all of which were converted.
The outstanding contribution came however from goalkeeper Colm Reape. He kicked three from four placed balls, critical notches on the post, and made four saves that kept his team’s lead intact. He was an unsurprising choice as TG4 MOTM.
On an eventful afternoon he was also yellow-carded for a collision with Galway forward Johnny Heaney, who marginally won a race for the ball but whose shot flew wide in the 24th minute. It was hard to see how Reape could have avoided his opponent, who had to be replaced a few minutes later.
For the new management of Kevin McStay there was relief that they had sustained a largely positive campaign and avoided the traditional pitfall of seeing the wheels come off on the final pothole.
Not alone that but their bold determination to chase down the title regardless of imminent championship commitments was rewarded with – as we are constantly reminded – one of only two national titles available to teams.
It was a match that they attacked from the start, building a 0-6 to 0-1 lead by the 17th minute – attacking cleverly and defending with a tenacity evident in three early blocks on Galway players, two from Diarmuid O’Connor and another from captain, Paddy Durcan.
For whatever reason, the effort stalled in the second quarter. Galway backs got to grips with their opponents and Mayo went nearly 20 minutes scoreless. Goals had threatened at various stages. Seán Kelly rallied his team for their first point, leading the charge from the back, threading the ball into Robert Finnerty whose lay-off gave the energetic John Maher a chance but Reape saved with his feet only for Kelly to fist a point off the rebound.
Shane Walsh improved as the match unfolded. Back a few weeks, his game is improving and if this Croke Park outing proved less remarkable than some of his more recent displays he led the way in the scoring, knocking over three unanswered points and with Maher squeezing over another, there would have been just a point between the teams at the break but for a couple of frees giving O’Donoghue and Reape the opportunity to maintain a bit of distance on the scoreboard, 0-7 to 0-4.
At the start of the second half both sides had made changes. Damien Comer had come on just before the break as replacement for Heaney and for Mayo, the young full back David McBrien was withdrawn as a precaution.
Finnerty shot two quick-fire points on the resumption – one a mark from Peter Cooke’s delivery and the second from play – in a reverse of his first-half difficulties with Jack Coyne who had kept him on a short leash.
A goal chance at the other end was kept out by a combination of Kelly’s block from Jordan Flynn and Connor Gleeson’s save from James Carr but Reape converted the resulting 45 to stretch the lead in what would become a pattern.
Galway hinted at momentum and Peter Cooke came strongly into the match, kicking a point and at a later stage inspiring one of Reape’s agile saves. Comer threatened and he too had a chance from a great delivery by Matthew Tierney but again the Mayo ‘keeper proved equal and to ratchet up Galway anxieties, Walsh was wide from the 45.
Conroy came on in the 56th minute and his fast, elusive running caused real problems – leading to his being fouled for a couple of converted frees.
The final 10 minutes was more a reflection of Mayo’s hardening resolve than their opponents’ implacably chasing down their prey. There were signs. Comer was denied by Hawk-Eye after he thought he’d scored and when a high ball driven into the Mayo defence was brilliantly nabbed by Coyne, who by the end of the possession was up the other end kicking the insurance point for a 0-14 to 0-10 lead in injury-time.
MAYO: Colm Reape (0-3, 0-2f, 0-1 ‘45′); Sam Callinan, David McBrien, Jack Coyne (0-1); Stephen Coen (capt), Conor Loftus, Paddy Durcan (capt; 0-1); Matthew Ruane, Diarmuid O’Connor; Fionn McDonagh, Jack Carney, Jordan Flynn (0-1); Aidan O’Shea, James Carr (0-1), Ryan O’Donoghue (0-7, 0-5f, 0-2m).
Subs: Eoghan McLoughlin for McBrien (half-time), Tommy Conroy for Carr (56 mins), Darryl McHale for McDonagh (66 mins), Bob Tuohy for Ruane (70 mins), Pádraig O’Hora for Coyne (73 mins),
GALWAY: Connor Gleeson; Johnny McGrath, Seán Kelly (capt; 0-1), Seán Fitzgerald; Dylan McHugh, John Daly, Cian Hernon; Paul Conroy, John Maher (0-1); Matthew Tierney, Johnny Heaney, Peter Cooke (0-1); Robert Finnerty (0-2, 0-1m), Shane Walsh (0-5, 0-2f, 0-1 ‘45′), Cathal Sweeney.
Subs: Damien Comer for Culhane (33 mins), Jack Glynn for Hernon (half-time), Tomo Culhane (0-1) for Finnerty (62 mins), Daniel O’Flaherty for Sweeney (65, Dessie Conneely for Conroy (72 mins)
Referee: Brendan Cawley (Kildare)