Saturday’s Connacht semi-final had been billed as a routine exercise for a Mayo team chasing six provincial titles in a row, with Galway due to play the part of whipping boys.
Instead, when the final whistle sounded the Tribesmen had pulled off the perfect ambush — finishing with a flourish to hit 1-4 down the home stretch — to win this age-old derby for the first time in eight years.
The crowd of 21,784, the vast majority of them wearing green and red colours, couldn’t believe what they had seen.
A Mayo team, unbeaten in the Connacht championship since 2010, brought to their knees by a Galway side that hadn’t won a competitive match in almost four months.
Afterwards, Stephen Rochford lamented some terrible shooting and decision-making by his players, but was making no excuses for Mayo’s lethargic and lacklustre display.
Apart from a 20-minute spell either side of half-time, the defending champions were a pale shadow of their usual selves, their customary energy and intensity missing just as much as the guiding hand of many of their established leaders.
Galway, on the other hand, had settled far quicker than the mood music around the county last week had suggested. And even when Mayo had eased into an 0-11 to 0-7 lead by the 50th minute, Galway stuck to their game-plan.
Five minutes later Thomas Flynn pinched a short kick-out from Rob Hennelly and raced through to lash the ball into the Mayo net. Everything had changed, changed utterly.
From there to the finish only one team looked like going to a Connacht Final against Roscommon next month.
Galway’s debutants stood strong in defence, while old soldiers like Gareth Bradshaw, Gary Sice and the outstanding Paul Conroy opened their shoulders one more time. Man of the match Conroy kicked an outrageous levelling score less than a minute after Flynn’s goal, before Danny Cummins, Sice (free) and Conroy again all hit the target.
Mayo were taking in water and losing two of their full-back line to cramp [Brendan Harrison and Kevin Keane] made a bad situation worse.
Forced to shunt Keith Higgins (who had started in the forward line) and attacking half-back Lee Keegan back to guard their own goal, the holders lost some key line-breakers at a time when they needed them most. The fact Mayo’s only score in the last 23 minutes came from a Cillian O’Connor free tells its own story.
Galway’s manager Kevin Walsh put his thoughts into words eloquently afterwards, and admitted that ‘pride’ was a big motivating factor for his players in the build-up.
“We know we have nothing won, but we’ve got pride back which is really important,” said the two-time All-Ireland senior medal winner.
“The boys are entitled to be jumping and roaring there for a few minutes, but we know we’ve got a serious job in hand to win the Connacht Final.
“We took the flak over the last number of weeks, brought it into the dressing-room, and used it as a little bit of motivation. But that can often go against you, you have to have your systems and structures right. The boys weren’t getting excited about it, we knew we’d have to get ourselves together, and that if we did we’d have a great chance.”
Mayo are now heading to the All-Ireland Qualifiers for the first time since 2010.
First though they must try and figure out where this all went wrong. Without playing particularly well at any stage, Mayo were still three points up (0-11 to 0-8) when Thomas Flynn pounced for the second spectacular goal of his fledgeling Galway career. However, they were unable to respond when Galway hit a string of points and going a total of 40 minutes without a score underlined Mayo’s systems failure on the evening.
They racked up 13 wides in total and only converted 12 of their 28 scoring chances.
Galway set out their stall early and led by 0-5 to 0-2 after 30 minutes with Eamonn Brannigan, Gary Sice, Shane Walsh and Johnny Heaney all on target.
Mayo lost Jason Gibbons to a dislocated shoulder midway through the half, but a late scoring burst saw them lead at half-time by 0-8 to 0-6 as Colm Boyle, Tom Parsons, Cillian O’Connor (free), Lee Keegan and Stephen Coen all picked off points.
The floodlights were on for the second half and Mayo seemed ready to grind out a result when they edged ahead by 0-11 to 0-7 with 20 minutes remaining. But Flynn’s goal changed the course of history.
“Time will tell,” remarked Stephen Rochford when asked if his team can bounce back to make an impact in the All- Ireland. “We’ll know more as the summer continues.”
G Sice (0-4, 3 frees); T Flynn (1-0); E Brannigan (0-3); P Conroy (0-2); S Walsh, J Heaney & D Cummins (0-1 each)
C O’Connor (0-6, 5 frees, 1 45); C Boyle, T Parsons, L Keegan, S Coen, J Doherty, E Regan (free) (0-1 each)
B Power; D Kyne, E Kerin, D Wynne; G O’Donnell, L Silke, G Bradshaw; P Conroy, T Flynn; G Sice, S Walsh, J Heaney; E Brannigan, D Comer, D Cummins
A Varley for Walsh (66); P Sweeney for Cummins (66); S Denvir for Heaney (69); E Tierney for Flynn (71, black card)
R Hennelly; C Boyle, K Keane, B Harrison; S Coen, L Keegan, P Durcan; T Parsons, J Gibbons; K Higgins, C O’Connor, J Doherty; E Regan, A O’Shea, K McLoughlin
S O’Shea for Gibbons; D Vaughan for Boyle (46-47, blood); D O’Connor for Harrison (59); D Vaughan for Keane (59); A Moran for Regan (64); A Freeman for Parson (69)
C Lane (Cork).