Andy Moran’s sixth point of the match on 69 minutes ensured a first draw between Mayo and Down in 14 meetings, after the visitors had let a five-points lead slip twice during the course of an eventful evening.
Ironically, last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists would have left empty-handed had Mayo sub’ Peadar Gardiner not fired wide in injury-time as James Horan’s rejuvenated young side went in search of the winner.
After watching his team outscored by 0-6 to 0-1 in the final 20 minutes, there was no disguising James McCartan’s mood as he surveyed the final outcome.
“Frustrated, to be honest,” he sighed. “We were probably in a very good position in the first half and then, it was a bit like a carbon-copy of the All-Ireland final. We thought we’d talked about that, and corrected a few things, but obviously we haven’t corrected them completely.”
Mayo’s new manager was also processing the different variables as he tossed the result around in his mind. A point gained, or a point lost? “We’d be happy with the result,” he nodded. “But we could have snatched it in the end. We were finishing the stronger and we could have taken it, but we’re happy with the performance.”
The tone was set on three minutes when a ‘45 from Down playmaker Martin Clarke skidded awkwardly into the Mayo goalmouth before clipping Ronan McGarrity’s shin and flying past Kenneth O’Malley into the net.
That score deflated the majority of the 5,500 crowd, and rocked the hosts back on their heels.
Mayo’s defence was prised open for a second time on 14 minutes when Benny Coulter cut through before leaving John Clarke with a point-blank range finish past O’Malley again. At that stage Down were at their very best; defending in packs, keeping possession smartly, and using their pace and trickery to devastating effect against Mayo’s new-look backline.
However, a goal from impressive centre-forward Alan Freeman (after a barnstorming run up the middle) meant the margin had been pared back to four points at the interval (2-5 to 1-4).
Down’s manager described his team’s first half display as “typical Down football’.
McCartan continued: “Whenever we moved the ball quickly into the forward line, we had players up there who can play football and do damage. We applied pressure on their defence, they spilled the ball, and we got turnovers and got scores. It was basically a carbon-copy of what we were doing well last year but, unfortunately, there was a carbon-copy of the mistakes we made last year as well.”
The signs were ominous when Down’s lead had been halved ten minutes after the restart with frees from Mark Ronaldson and the industrious Andy Moran (2).
Mayo seemed to be getting their second wind but that was before Down stitched together a flowing move that travelled the length of the field where Peter Fitzpatrick’s attempted handpass was deflected into his own net by McGarrity. Five points behind again, Mayo tore into the rescue mission with abandon.
Tom Parsons came off the bench to help the turn the tide at midfield and, along with Alan Dillon, Andy Moran and Enda Varley, led the charge towards the Down goal.
A string of inspirational scores from Moran (2), Alan Freeman, Kevin McLoughlin and Varley hauled Mayo level for the first time on 64 minutes. Down were on the ropes but broke upfield where sub’ Conor Maginn squeezed over the lead score with two minutes of normal time left.
The momentum was with Mayo though and Andy Moran fired over yet another fine point to deadlock the game for the second and final time.
“Everyone gave it everything they had while they were on the field. That’s all we were looking for at the start of the league,” was James Horan’s final word on his first real test.
Scorers for Mayo: A Moran (0-6, 4fs), M Ronaldson (0-3, 2fs), A Dillon (0-2), A Freeman (1-0), E Varley (0-1), K McLoughlin (0-1).
Scorers for Down: M Clarke (1-3, 2fs), J Clarke (1-1), P Fitzpatrick (1-0), D Hughes (0-2), C Maginn (0-1).
Mayo: K O'Malley; T Cunniffe, C Hallinan, K Higgins; R Feeney, G Cafferkey, K McLoughlin; R McGarrity, J Gibbons; A Moran, A O'Shea, A Dillon; E Varley, A Freeman, M Ronaldson.
Subs: P Gardiner for Feeney (45), N Douglas for Ronaldson (45), T Parsons for Gibbons (56), C O'Connor for Freeman (63)
Down: B McVeigh; G McCartan, D Gordon, L Howard; A Brannigan, K McKernan, P McPolin; P Fitzpatrick, K King; D Hughes, M Poland, M Clarke; P McComiskey, J Clarke, B Coulter.
Subs: C Maginn for King (47), R Murtagh for J Clarke (49), P Murney for McPolin (61)
Referee: C Reilly (Meath).