Mayo unearth some gems to go with the silverware

Mayo’s dominant midfield pairing of Aidan O’Shea, left, and Matthew Ruane celebrate Sunday’s Allianz FL Division 1 final win over Kerry at Croke Park. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach

Last Sunday saw the curtain come down on what was one of the more enjoyable and competitive national football league campaigns in recent memory. 

It was an almost novel pairing in the division one final, given the absence of Dublin from the showpiece event for the first time since 2012 and it was a contest that didn’t disappoint.

Kerry and Mayo shared the spotlight and had been this season’s most consistent performers all through, with 11 out of a possible 14 wins between them. 

As important as the end result will have been the discovery of some very exciting new summer options. 

It’s fair to say both camps have been as focused on progress in that regard as much as the final scoreline itself.

Every available opportunity presented to new Kerry manager Peter Keane he has been quick as a bullet to highlight his desire to focus on giving players an opportunity to display their wares and gain valuable experience at this level as opposed to measuring the success of their league strictly by the win and loss column. 

The fact that they have been able to do both is what has the supporters so enthused by what they have seen from this new-look Kerry group, at least up to last Sunday.

By my calculations, six players started for Kerry in Sunday’s division one final that weren’t even on the panel the previous year. 

Tommy Walsh and Jack Sherwood’s experience and guile has acted like a counter-balance to the youthful exuberance of the likes of Dara Moynihan and Diarmuid O’Connor. 

In truth, none of the four of them would be happy with their performance at the weekend, but that would be consistent with the majority of their teammates also.

James Horan has found himself back to the future; reinstated at the helm of a ship he was unable to steer to their ultimate destination previously, but he has also used the league to find his own cohort of fresh faces to infuse his squad with a new energy.

On the evidence of last weekend, he’s unearthed a few gems.

In Matthew Ruane, he has a dinger in the middle of the field. 

He delivered another solid performance of unspectacular graft, topped off with another cool finish to the keepers’ bottom right to wrestle momentum back from Kerry in the crucial final quarter.

Fergal Boland, Darren Coen, and James Carr combined to score five hugely valuable points for Mayo, along with the Kevin McManaman-esque impact of Ciaran Tracey in the 67th minute who sealed the deal when he found himself on the end of a wonderful Andy Moran ball over the top to finish low to the Kerry net.

Moran referenced it after the game — the fearlessness of youth. 

Instead of fisting the ball over the bar and playing the percentages like a seasoned veteran would have done in the same situation, Tracey was ruthless when given the opportunity and killed the game.

The fact that the goal came directly from a crucial save by Rob Hennelly at the other from David Clifford typified the excitement and end to end nature of the second half.

Both teams will take an abundance of positives from their respective league campaigns overall, and Mayo plenty more from the final match up itself.

Having young players do well in the home comforts of Tralee or Castlebar is one thing, showing their new manager that they have the capacity to deliver at headquarters raises their stock considerably higher, and the Connacht men certainly had more in that category.

There’s little doubt given the disappointments they suffered in Croke Park and particularly at the hands of Kerry over the years, winning this title and getting their claws on some silverware was a huge motivation for those Mayo players.

The scenes after the final whistle gave everybody in the ground a glimpse of what it truly meant to the players, management, and supporters to clinch a title.

It was actually quite heartening to see the players drop the facade and show everybody how much winning a national title really meant to them. 

There was no pretence that this was just another game; that it was only the league. 

There was no acting cool and collected for the cameras because ‘you’re not supposed to celebrate a league title’.

This was full on hugs, fist pumps, kids on the pitch, photos with spectators. The whole nine yards. It was something meaningful and a result they will no doubt take great confidence from.

Not that Kerry weren’t flat out to win, but the result unquestionably meant more to Mayo and they justifiably took their time to soak it in and enjoy themselves afterwards, and as a GAA supporter, it was good to see.

It was a similar story in the division two final on Saturday evening when Andy McEntee’s Meath put on an exhibition of kicking that was brilliant for the neutral to sit back and admire.

Both themselves and Donegal served up a real feast of football highlighted by an abundance of long kick-passing, great score-taking, some brilliant fielding and ball-winning, as well as everything else we marvel at when the game is played with an attacking mindset.

The four football finals that took place last weekend were all well contested and hugely enjoyable to watch.

The re-emergence of foot-passing has been a recurring theme of this season’s campaign and whether because of rule changes or not, the game has been a far more attractive product to watch, for one reason or another.

Perhaps its just the natural evolution of the game and the way it is being coached again, but it’s not often a crowd leaves Croke Park talking more about the quality of the football than the hurling final that preceded it.

This league has gone a long way to rebalancing the way the game is being played at the top level, as we draw a line under it, all we can do is hope that the trajectory keeps rising all the way into the summer.

GAA podcast: Quirke and Dalo's Allianz League Review, with Ger Cunningham and John Divilly

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