A bumper crowd of 9,292 turned up at Elvery’s MacHale Park, the vast majority in support of Mayo, but if they were expecting thrills and spills, not to mention a semblance of excitement, they were sorely disappointed.
High-flying Derry, who had already qualified for next weekend’s play-offs, brought a second-string squad to Castlebar so there was never likely to be much of the drama you’d expect from these sort of final round fixtures.
However, Mayo (who were 1/16 with the bookmakers to win) made very hard work of getting the job done, and needed a late scoring burst to finally shake off the stubborn resistance of Derry’s makeshift selection.
Not for the first time this season, Alan Freeman emerged as the hero for Mayo; the rangy full-forward racked up 2-6, including a penalty that he side-footed past Derry goalkeeper, Eoin McNicholl, at a crucial stage in the second half.
But overall, a Mayo side that contained 10 of last year’s All-Ireland final line-up failed abysmally to make the most of home comforts, and were made to battle and scrap much harder than anyone would have expected.
“We got through today but we were very poor,” admitted Mayo manager James Horan.
“We let our standards and tempo drop a little bit. Derry had a goal chance in the second half to bring it to two points so we were lucky in the end, against a Derry team that were missing 14 of their regulars.
“So we’ve a huge amount of stuff to try and work on for next week.”
Although they were far from their best in the opening half, Mayo still jogged down the tunnel with a seven-point lead (ahead by 0-8 to 0-1), despite playing against a stiff breeze.
The home side played their best football in the first quarter, and with Tom Parsons in dominant form at midfield, a plentiful supply of possession saw Freeman, Mikey Sweeney and sub Darren Coen all get on the scoresheet.
Derry’s shooting in that opening period had to be seen to be believed; Brian McIver’s side clocked up 11 wides in total before the interval. Their only effort to hit the target came in the 20th minute from wing-back Aidan McAlynn.
Mayo lost their way during the second quarter too, over-elaborating far too often and tagging on just three more scores.
“In the first half some of the lads were probably a wee bit overawed,” reflected the Derry manager Brian McIver.
“Mayo had All Stars on the field, a lot of last year’s All-Ireland final side, so we knew what a good challenge it would be for our boys.
“In the first half it was just a lack of composure, we gave away the ball umpteen times. We were shooting from too far out and not working the scores. So we said, ‘Let’s just settle down and play our own football’. I have to say they played some (excellent) football in the second half.”
The performance of Derry’s shadow selection after the restart was made all the more noteworthy by the fact they fell nine points behind when Alan Freeman converted a penalty in the 40th minute after he had been hauled down in the square.
In a cruel twist of fate, seconds earlier, at the other end, Ger Cafferkey’s fingertips had diverted a palmed effort from Emmett McGuckin onto the Mayo crossbar.
To their credit, rather than fold, the Derry reserves went to work and laid siege to the Mayo goal, pilfering 1-3 without reply in the space of five remarkable minutes.
Points from subs Aaron Kerrigan (free), Emmett Bradley and Charlie Kielt were the ideal accompaniment to a stunning goal from McGuckin on 52 minutes. It was 1-8 to 1-5 when the dust settled in the 55th minute, and Mayo seemed to be stuck in gear.
Luckily for them, Alan Freeman was in one of those moods and he cracked in a spectacular goal after a strong run from Barry Moran.
Late points from Donal Vaughan and Andy Moran, allied to a couple of Freeman frees, kept Derry at bay.
“It won’t be the same again, it’ll be a very different Derry team I’d say,” mused James Horan about next weekend’s rematch.
Scorers for Mayo: A Freeman (2-6, 1-0 pen, 3fs, 1 45), M Sweeney, T Parsons (0-2 each), A Moran, D Vaughan (0-1 each).
Scorers for Derry: E McGuckin 1-1, A McAlynn (0-2), A Kerrigan (1f), E Bradley, C Kielt, N McFeely (0-1 each).
MAYO: R Hennelly; T Cunniffe, G Cafferkey, K Keane; C Boyle, S McHale, D Vaughan; S O’Shea, T Parsons; K Higgins, A Moran, J Doherty; M Sweeney, A Freeman, C O’Connor.
Subs for Mayo: D Coen for O’Connor (inj, 10), R Feeney for Higgins (ht), B Moran for Doherty (52), M Conroy for Sweeney (52), D O’Connor for Parsons (61), L Keegan for Boyle (70).
DERRY: E McNicholl; K McKaigue, C McAtamney, O Duffy; A McAlynn, M Craig, C Kielt; N Holly, E McGuckin; C McWilliams, D Heavron, A Devlin; C McGoldrick, D Mullan, J Kearney.
Subs for Derry: E Bradley for McGoldrick (ht), A Kerrigan for Mullan (40), K Conway for Devlin (47), N McFeeley for Heavron (57), P Cassidy for Kearney (57), N McNicholl for McGuckin (65).
Referee: D Coldrick (Meath).