Michael Moynihan reflects on the first of the football semi-finals which saw Mayo limp over the line against Tipperary.
We are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
Slievenamon or the Reek? After yesterday you surely know. Mayo and Tipperary might have been a clash you associated with the Pathe newsreels and flat caps of the thirties, but it was in live and living colour yesterday in Croke Park, 53,212 in attendance. (We still have the flat caps, thanks to the ineradicable hipster influence, of course).
Mayo eventually tuned in properly to book the hotel rooms for September, but it’s a slightly skewed indication of Tipperary’s achievement this summer that they - Mayo! - were wearing the black hats in yesterday’s game. The romantics’ romantics, pale knights on an endless quest: these were the roundheads ready to crush underfoot the gallant representatives of a downtrodden race?
Pardon the exaggeration, a necessary interjection before the descendants of Matt the Thresher and the Galtee Mountain Boy point out etc., etc. However, the description of Tipperary as bringing a breath of fresh air and freedom and positivity to the summer has been heard so much you expected Anthony Robbins to lead them out of the dressing-room. What Scrooges and Grinches could Mayo offer to counter that?
The big gift an experienced side wants to hand callow opponents is doubt. Mayo’s late team exercises, just before the throw-in, looked geared to getting them out of the blocks early, to putting Tipp on the back foot, but the blue and gold began well.
They were a point up on seven minutes and had had enough possession to hit three wides to Mayo’s one at that point; on 20 minutes they were three up. Surviving, if not quite thriving on the scoreboard.
At that point the Mayo wides were looking sloppy, a team not fully present and engaged. Harsh? Take the dissent that gave Michael Quinlivan an easier angle to score a free, the Lee Keegan miscalculation that gave Tipp a sideline.
The westerners weren’t sharp enough: With Tipperary three points clean Mayo needed something to spark them, and Keith Higgins provided it.
Higgins has put in plenty of shifts up front, and the logic behind that placement was plain to see yesterday as he broke from deep. The defender’s electric acceleration and dazzling sidestep carved Tipperary open and he presented Jason Doherty with a goal chance which was calmly accepted.
Four quicksilver points - one of which, Kevin McLoughlin’s, should have been a goal - and Mayo were leading well. After the goal Tipperary managed just the one point before half-time, while Mayo hit seven to lead 1-10 to 0-7.
Tipp didn’t go away. Twelve minutes into the second half they were two behind, the inexhaustible running of their half-backs keeping Mayo under huge pressure. Bill Maher got up to score and Jimmy Feehan covered huge ground as well.
Mayo struggled with Tipperary’s energy - leaking frees, missing passes, arguing with the referee. Michael Quinlivan’s accuracy from those frees punished Mayo every time, and Tipperary bossed the third quarter totally.
They might have conceded a soft goal from a quick Cillian O’Connor free to Andy Moran but Evan Comerford stood up tall; when the resulting 45 was recycled Keith Higgins got Mayo’s second point of the half, on 55 minutes.
Still, they got the goal that sealed the win. Mayo sub Evan Regan was clearly going for a point but lost his footing, and another replacement, Conor O’Shea, ghosting in behind the Tipp defence as inconspicuously as an O’Shea from Breaffy can ghost, did well to convert the loose ball with a first-time finish.
For Tipperary the might-have-beens will burn through autumn and winter. Losing Robbie Kiely so early to a black card was a blow they weren’t expecting; neither was Bill Maher’s late red. They had a sniff of goal themselves but didn’t convert, something Liam Kearns won’t forget.
Can they build on this next year? Will their panel be strengthened by the return of some prodigals? Kearns and co. will have expectation to deal with, but for now they can point to progress, and plenty of it.
“I was as proud of them today as I was three weeks ago, more proud maybe,” said Kearns yesterday. “I thought the second half was bordering on heroic, I thought they were outstanding. I said to them at half-time, ‘we’re not lying down here’, and no-one lay down. They went out and brought the game to them, as we have throughout this campaign.
“Ultimately we didn’t get the breaks, we had two injuries and the depth in our squad probably told against us in the end. We had a black card that was very hard for us to take, and a red card at the finish. The second Mayo goal was a killer, he was going for a point, slipped and it ended up at the feet of the player who pulled on it for a goal.
“We didn’t get the breaks but the players never gave up, they played to the end and played football the way it should be played.”
Mayo will face an All-Ireland final with their traditional virtues - and vices. They needed Keith Higgins’ energy surging through the middle to kickstart their afternoon, and up front the lack of an out-and-out magician will surely hurt against either Kerry or Dublin.
The other semi-finalists have no lack of forwards who can produce the unexpected, and it’s rare to see All-Ireland champions with at least one unpredictable genius in one of the jerseys from 10 to 15.
On the other hand they’ll be keen to see a little protection for Aidan O’Shea, who spent yesterday being refereed like the 14-year-old who’s had a growth spurt and is expected to mind himself.
“Tipperary were a tough, tough team,” said Mayo manager Stephen Rochford. “They had scored a goal in every game this year and that included two against Kerry. There was no case of staying we would come in here and win this game at 80% and then come back for a final. Absolutely no way.
“We have huge respect for Tipperary and the manner in which they had beaten Galway certainly had our antennae up and that quarter before the end of the first half where we drove on and scored 1-7 to a point from them, and showed a ruthlessness that we want in the group, that was pleasing.
“We just have to be more consistent, better in front of goal with some of the opportunities that we created.
“We put the ball in the goalie’s hand three times in the first-half and twice in the second-half and with all due respect to Tipperary I don’t think it was down to the pressure. It was poor execution.
“We need the performance to be better in the All-Ireland final and Kerry or Dublin I’m sure they’ll bring this out in us.”
Ah yes, the All-Ireland final. Whoever’s in the other dressing-room, let Mayo consider where we started above, with O’Shaughnessy’s poem: World-losers and world-forsakers on whom the pale moon gleams,
Yet we are the movers and shakers of the world for ever, it seems.
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