They were at it again yesterday, but with a last chapter twist and someone else’s tragic downfall.
This time it was Cork blood on the floor as the All-Ireland champions fell prostrate before the Connacht’s best.
Cork not so much succumbed as collapsed in the third of the Championship quarter-finals at headquarters — a listless, unbecoming concession of their crown that yielded one second half point in a 1-13 to 2-6 defeat to James Horan’s men.
The “dream” semi-final between Munster’s monsters had already been diced and discussed by football’s cognoscenti, but if such wild talk was wall fodder in the Mayo dressing room, Conor Counihan was not reaching for such a lifebuoy in defeat.
“That doesn’t give sufficient credit to Mayo. They were hungrier than us, they were winning all the loose breaks, they deserve all the credit for that victory,” the Cork boss said afterwards.
“They won (a lot of) breaking ball, which was crucial. They seemed to have an extra bounce of energy. Some of that had to be expected — challengers v champions. I’m not making excuses in terms of our performance and our preparation — that was as good as it has ever been. (But) if you kick them when they’re down often enough, they can come back to bite. There’s a lot of pride in those lads.”
Where once Mayo management prepared for All-Ireland clashes with Kerry waving to the natives from the top of a chartered plane at Knock Airport, James Horan appears cut from a different cloth.
The Ballintubber man spoke yesterday of “a lot of talk” from Mayo people in the past that would not be repeated by the 2011 representatives. For starters, this crop roll their sleeves up for real — not to show off their biceps.
“There was a lot of talk in the media about Cork and Kerry in the semi-final,” said Horan, “so maybe that influenced them (Cork) a small bit. But we knew that if we could work as hard as we could we might shock them.
“We were ready. Fitness is important and while the discipline in some of our tackling today was close to the edge, it was very good. We were aggressive in the tackle, we conceded very few frees in the second half. The discipline and the set-up we have is very strong and the guys are working so hard that we’re getting results.”
Where once Mayo would climb on the nearest rooftop, this squad returned last night to prepare for today’s recovery session. They train tomorrow night.
Said Horan: “You haven’t seen us jumping around the place, shouting our mouths off or doing anything like that. We’ll keep our heads down and try and be as good as we can when the semi-final comes around.
“I think Mayo people are a bit more cautious than they may have been (in the past) so that won’t be an issue.”
Clearing their heads after a fuzzy first 15 minutes — after which they trailed 1-4 to 0-1 — Mayo out-scrapped Cork and outscored them 1-12 to 1-2 in the remaining hour or so. Cork still led by two points at the break courtesy of a deft, flicked goal from Paul Kerrigan, but the deeper their second half peril became, they less they looked like champions. The loss of key forwards was exacerbated by Paddy Kelly’s imprisonment by a rash of Mayo defending. Their attack was full of support acts with no lead once Donncha O’Connor was starved of possession.
Fifteen minutes from the death, their race was run; Fintan Goold was put through by sub Mark Collins for a glorious goal chance but he blazed badly wide. A minute later, Mayo turned possession over from Donncha O’Connor under the Cusack Stand and that lusty roar from the west suddenly had a weight of authenticity to it. Jason Doherty pointed and Cillian O’Connor nailed his sixth point of the day to close the deal. Not bad for a 19-year-old who was minor last season.
By the time Donncha O’Connor converted an early Cork penalty, Kerry were already pouring onto the bus home from Dublin, their work done at headquarters. They might have been a little presumptuous too in their travel detail and will have to rely on the video eye.
The Munster champions were sloppy and shoddy at times in a 1-20 to 0-10 win but they played in whatever gear was necessary to keep daylight between themselves and Limerick. Kieran Donaghy was anonymous while Colm Cooper and Declan O’Sullivan sporadically extended themselves. In a near deserted stadium that housed only 22,000 at its fullest yesterday, the biggest fret for Kerry was the hamstring injury which ended Darran O’Sullivan’s day only seven minutes after he conjured the goal of the season at the Davin End. Once upon a time Gianfranco Zola got a year’s value out of a similar goal for Chelsea but the Glenbeigh man will spend most of August on a physio’s treatment table.
Paul Galvin and Tomas Ó Sé played like they’d never been away, but Marc Ó Sé was the best player on view – and masked some of the deficiencies of those around him.
Coach Jack O’Connor felt the problem was less attitude and more rust. “It is very hard mentally for the lads to be watching other teams playing games. Our training to games ratio must be gone through the roof. I haven’t got the solution but certainly four and five week gaps is not good at all, so hopefully down the line there will be a tighter structure.”
It’s tempting to lob condescending plaudits at Maurice Horan’s men but once they lost Stephen Lucey and John Cooke to injury before half-time, they were playing for respectability.
They’ve earned that and more this season and Mayo man Horan had some interesting reflections afterwards — and not just on his own team.
“Kerry are not just very skilful and athletic, they are also very clever. They are always talking to each other and you can hear the communication going on at pitch level. They push up on opposition players coming out of defence and there is a lot to learn from them. Their forwards defend so strongly they could nearly be inter-county defenders.
“Once they turn over the ball everyone becomes an attacker for them from No 5 up. They are looking to carve you open. They have no issue with going forward. They back themselves completely, and that is a great thing in a team.”
By close of business last night, two fancies had fallen in the GAA’s autumn steeplechase, Kildare joining Cork on the margins. There’s a sense that after a hat-trick of League titles and a burst of Septembers, this Cork squad needs a pause.
“Whether you’re up or down people will find fault with you,” Counihan mused. “From where I stand, if a group of people give you a significant effort over a long period of time, the day they are down isn’t the day to be kicking them. That’s for others to do but I won’t be doing any of that. I’m certainly very proud of them.”