It was two minutes after 10pm when the Roscommon team bus, led by two garda squad cars, departed the scene of a most unexpected raid.
Traffic outside the Castlebar venue, even at this late hour, was still in a state of gridlock, but the sight of the primrose and blue bus, ferrying the men who had ended the county’s 33-year wait for a championship victory over Mayo at MacHale Park, set horns blaring, lights flashing, and gave rise to the odd yelp from rolled down car windows.
Where the locals quickly scattered home, the visitors among the crowd of 20,471 had taken their sweet time in beginning the journey back across the border.
Understandable, of course. Not since 2001 had Roscommon bettered their neighbours in a championship fixture, not since 1986 had they bettered them on Mayo soil.
That long, long wait saw a broken dam of emotions flood onto the field at David Gough’s long whistle, the scenes of wild jubilation which played out under a darkening sky and heaving rainfall very much reminiscent of Galway’s shock victory at this very stage and venue four years ago, a result which set in train Mayo’s worst — and still ongoing — provincial run since the seventies.
“It was astonishing, really, to see the happiness. The elderly people, especially, and the young kids who would have never seen [Roscommon beat Mayo in championship]. That is what the GAA is all about,” said Roscommon manager Anthony Cunningham of the unbridled joy which greeted the call for full-time.
“I wouldn’t be in the game unless I loved it. We’re just extremely satisfied the players produced what they can produce.
Roscommon, despite playing the final nine minutes with 14 men, despite their own restart strategy spectacularly malfunctioning, despite their failure to score from play between the 20th and 45th minute, and between the 56th and 73rd minute, prevailed.
Mayo, despite greater possession and a far greater number of scoring opportunities created, were condemned to the qualifiers for a fourth successive year.
The difference, in short, was Roscommon conjuring two goals out of nothing in the opening quarter of an hour.
In the same period, Jason Doherty and Diarmuid O’Connor failed to capitalise on either of the two green flag openings which fell Mayo’s way.
Where Conor Cox and goalkeeper Darren O’Malley converted five of six dead-ball opportunities, Mayo went through four free-takers — Rob Hennelly, Jason Doherty, Evan Regan, and Kevin McLoughlin.
All bar Regan were off target with at least one placed-ball effort.
Hennelly, as well as gifting Roscommon their second goal with an overcooked short kick out, the mistake punished by the alert Ultan Harney, missed two frees and a ‘45, while Kevin McLoughlin’s 75th minute free, to force extra-time, tailed right and wide. These misses added to a final tally of 15 wides.
Beginning with the concession of Cathal Cregg’s superb individual goal five minutes in, Mayo, who at one point late in the first-half trailed by five, had failed to retake the lead in this provincial semi-final right up until back-to-back white flags from the otherwise subdued Fergal Boland on the hour mark.
This brace from the Aghamore half-forward left the scoreboard reading 0-17 to 2-10.
But Mayo were unable to push for home, not even when David Murray’s black card left the underdogs with 14 as Cunningham had already used his full complement of subs.
Bar Darren Coen’s five-point haul, one of which, mind you, was wide, and Matthew Ruane’s honest shift at midfield, there were few positives for Mayo to take from this latest early summer setback.
“We made poor decisions. Our shot selection was poor,” said James Horan, encountering provincial championship defeat for the first time as Mayo manager.
“We had a number of shots blocked down, we had a number of shots wide, we kicked under pressure. Maybe we didn’t back ourselves enough to make sure we took the right shot at the right time. 15 wides is just too many.”
Where they were unable to do so last year, can they regroup and launch a sustained run through the backdoor?
"We have a lot of new guys in there and we’ve a lot of guys coming back from injuries. We have four weeks to our next game. We’ll definitely change a few things.”
Niall Daly blocking down Andy Moran’s point attempt was central to the creation of the Roscommon winner, possession subsequently worked through the hands of Donie Smith and Conor Hussey, before sub Fintan Cregg, with the clock having run into the third minute of injury-time, planting the game’s decisive score.
“Our bench is very, very strong. Conor Devaney made two brilliant interceptions. Fintan Cregg contributed immensely. But that is what we want. We want a very strong panel. Conor Cox has been a huge find for us this year, brings that bit of genius to it in very, very tight angles,” continued Cunningham.
“I think they can go another step or two now, but that’s up to them if they do go another step or two.
"That’s the big trick. It hasn’t been a forte of Roscommon in recent times.”
Roscommon have beaten Mayo in the Connacht championship!
Mayo 0-17 Roscommon 2-12
Watch the full-time highlights here! pic.twitter.com/fTwOGVLWol— The GAA (@officialgaa) May 25, 2019
Lee Keegan’s point attempt at the end of regulation time, to nudge Mayo in front, which dropped short into the hands of Roscommon ‘keeper Darren O’Malley.
With the home side enjoying a numerical advantage, the worst outcome that would have materialised from taking a one-point lead into second-half stoppages was extra-time.
In the end, this miss proved every bit as crucial as Kevin McLoughlin’s late free.
As was the case in 2001, Mayo’s latest national league title has been followed by Connacht championship defeat to Roscommon.
Saturday’s result in Castlebar is only the second time this decade that Roscommon have overcome a Div 1 county in the championship, their 2017 Connacht final win over Galway being the other.
1959 was the last occasion Mayo went four years without reaching the provincial decider.
From the highs of the county’s second-ever Connacht five-in-a-row (2011-15), Mayo are enduring their worst provincial run in over half a century.
BEST ON SHOW
Conor Cox. Having never got a look in with Kerry at summertime, the Listowel native has been nothing short of a revelation for his adopted county.
Landed two massive second-half points from play at a time when the visitors were being forced to live off limited possession.
When it was put to James Horan that it appeared captain Diarmuid O’Connor had told Kevin McLoughlin to take the injury-time free to rescue a Mayo draw, Horan gave an agreeing nod.
McLoughlin had not kicked a single free prior to being handed responsibility of this 75th-minute dead-ball effort and given he had been relatively quiet throughout, should management have decreed someone else take the kick?
James Horan reported that Cillian O’Connor (ankle), Seamie O’Shea (ankle), Fionn McDonagh (quad), and Donie Vaughan (hamstring), all of whom missed Saturday’s game, are five to six days away from being fully right.
MAN IN THE MIDDLE
David Gough wasn’t shy in doling out the cards, showing four yellows, to Mayo’s Patrick Durcan and Lee Keegan, and Roscommon’s Niall Daly and Cathal Cregg, for the brief skirmish as the players went back down the tunnel at half-time.
Brandished nine yellow and two black cards, in total.
Roscommon’s David Murray and Mayo sub Andy Moran were the pair to walk for cynical fouls.
Mayo find themselves banished to the championship backroads for a fourth successive year, thus giving rise to a fourth successive Galway-Roscommon Connacht final on June 16.
Scorers for Roscommon:
C Cox (0-5, 0-3 frees); U Harney, C Cregg (1-0 each); D O’Malley (0-3, 0-2 frees, 0-1 ‘45); C Daly, A Glennon, F Cregg (0-1 each).
Scorers for Mayo:
D Coen (0-5); E Regan (0-3, 0-2 frees); M Ruane, F Boland, P Durcan (0-2 each); L Keegan, J Doherty (0-1 free), A Moran (0-1 each).
D O’Malley; C Daly, S Mullooly, D Murray; C Hussey, N Daly, R Daly; T O’Rourke, S Killoran; H Darcy, C Cregg, N Kilroy; U Harney, C Cox, A Glennon.
D Murtagh for Lennon (HT); B Stack for R Daly (45 mins, inj); C Devaney for Darcy (48); E Smith for C Cregg (50); D Smith for Harney (55); F Cregg for Killoran (60).
R Hennelly; C Barrett, B Harrison, K Higgins; P Durcan, M Plunkett, L Keegan; M Ruane, A O’Shea; F Boland, J Doherty, D O’Connor; E Regan, D Coen, K McLoughlin.
A Moran for Regan (45 mins); C Diskin for Coen (60); C Loftus for J Doherty (70); C Treacy for Moran (74, bc).
D Gough (Meath).
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