The sight of thousands of Mayo young supporters on the field at MacHale Park after yesterday’s win over Monaghan was a timely reminder of just how popular the county’s footballers have become in recent years.
A ‘meet and greet’ with both the Mayo men’s and women’s teams had been organised in advance, but in the case of James Horan’s squad it also doubled up as quite the send-off for next Sunday’s Allianz League final against Kerry.
The usual suspects, like Aidan O’Shea and Diarmuid O’Connor, were mobbed by autograph-hunters and well-wishers while Monaghan’s Conor McManus was also still on the field posing for photographs long after most of his teammates had showered and packed their bags.
By that stage, most Monaghan minds were already starting to turn towards their Ulster SFC quarter-final against Cavan on May 19 — especially after their place in the top flight of the league had been secured for at least another season.
Despite their first defeat on Mayo soil in three visits, Kerry’s comfortable win over Roscommon had spared Monaghan’s blushes and relegation to the second tier. This Mayo squad that Horan is building have very different things on their minds this week; a first league decider in seven years giving them an opportunity to win this competition for the first time since 2001.
Not that Horan was getting carried away, of course.
“We just love games,” he said after watching his team rack up their fifth win of an eventful campaign.
“We’ve tried a lot of things out and different bits and pieces, a lot of it is working and some of it isn’t, we’ll tweak that and have a crack at it.”
The victory that propelled Mayo into next weekend’s decider was fashioned on the back of two first-half goals from Kevin McLoughlin; a red card for Monaghan’s Fintan Kelly six minutes after half-time; and a strong finish from the winners where they showed all their experience.
McLoughlin’s goals in the sixth and 25th minutes came after a couple of slick passing moves which the number 13 finished in style past Rory Beggan.
Those two green flags meant Mayo led at the break by 2-7 to 0-6, despite having played against the strong wind.
For the most part, Monaghan struggled to get going and were unable to make much of the breeze with five points from play from Jack McCarron their only positive.
At the other end, Fergal Boland was doing his best to match McCarron’s exploits with the Mayo attacker whipping over three brilliant points.
Malachy O’Rourke’s men re-emerged for the second period looking like they meant business. Four quickfire points, including a couple of superb scores from Conor McManus, moved them to within striking distance of the locals.
But a double-whammy then tore up their carefully hatched plans with Fintan Kelly red-carded by referee Derek O’Mahony before Ryan Wylie found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time to deflect the ball into his own net.
Sandwiched in between was a brilliant goal from Monaghan midfielder Darren Hughes in the 48th minute, but it was wiped out by Mayo’s stroke of good fortune with the OG just two minutes later.
The last 25 minutes was all a bit of a blur, Mayo pushing their lead out to eight points with a string of scores from Brendan Harrison, Jason Doherty, and Kevin McLoughlin before Monaghan launched another rescue mission.
The Farneymen shot six points without reply between the 55th and 65th minutes to come roaring back into contention as McManus (0-4, three frees), McCarron, and McCarthy hunted scores relentlessly.
Sitting rather uncomfortably now on a two-point advantage, Mayo gathered themselves sufficiently in the closing stages to engineer chances for Diarmuid O’Connor and Donal Vaughan that were both taken in style.
A neat point from Ryan McAnespie four minutes into stoppage time came too late to earn Monaghan a victory they didn’t actually need anyway.
Scorers for Mayo: K McLoughlin 2-2, F Boland 0-3, R Beggan (og), J Doherty 0-2 (1f), B Reape 0-1m, D Coen 0-1, D O’Connor 0-1, B Harrison 0-1, R Hennelly 0-1f, D Vaughan 0-1, J McCormack 0-.
Scorers for Monaghan: C McManus 0-8 (5f), J McCarron 0-7 (1f), D Hughes 1-0, R Beggan 0-1f, C McCarthy 0-1, R McAnespie 0-1.
MAYO: D Clarke; B Harrison, S Coen, E O’Donoghue; P Durcan, C Barrett, J McCormack; M Ruane, A O’Shea; F Boland, J Doherty, D O’Connor; K McLoughlin, D Coen, C Diskin.
Subs: B Reape for Diskin inj (31), R Hennelly for Clarke inj (34), J Gibbons for Ruane (blood 48), D Drake for O’Donoghue (56), J Carr for D Coen (59), D Vaughan for McCormack (68), C Treacy for for Boland (74).
MONAGHAN: R Beggan; B Kerr, D Wylie, R Wylie; K O’Connell, C Boyle, K Duffy; D Hughes, N McAdam; F Kelly, D Malone, R McAnespie; C McCarthy, J McCarron, C McManus.
Subs: S O’Hanlon for Malone (half-time), D Mone for McAdam (49), V Corey for D Wylie and J Mealiff for O’Connell (both 60), O Duffy for McCarthy (68).