In the typical nature of Mayo championship games, there was enough in their five-point win over Down on Saturday night for Mayo manager James Horan to get his teeth into when the post-match analysis starts in earnest.
After going seven points up in 13 minutes into the second half, Mayo allowed Down to get through for a couple of glimpses of goal that, when it comes to playing at a higher altitude, probably would have been converted.
Horan had Lee Keegan, with three brilliant second-half points, to thank, along with Conor Loftus’s dead ball vindication, for their place in this morning’s Round Three qualifier draw.
After the mix-up in the Connacht semi-final loss to Roscommon when captain Diarmuid O’Connor took a late free off Loftus and gave it to Kevin McLoughlin who missed the chance of taking the game to extra-time, the lesson was absorbed here. Loftus kicked three tricky frees from the right side off his right foot and missed just one.
“It was hairy enough in the second half at times,” acknowledged Horan.
“I thought we were strong enough in the first half, we did well, kept them to a few scores, but once we got the goal in the second half we seemed to just step off half a yard and gave them quite a few goal chances.
“That wasn’t great but I think we were enough ahead just to keep our noses there, we went down and got a score when we needed to through Lee and Ciaran Treacy, so we’re just delighted to be in the bowl.”
In order to embark upon the hard road, Horan had made the decision to recall decorated foot soldiers and multiple All-Stars David Clarke, Colm Boyle and Andy Moran to the starting line-up. Bolstered by the youthful hard running of Loftus and Fionn McDonagh in the half-forward line, they may rediscover the heavy metal football that has worked for them in the past.
There was no place, however, for Cillian O’Connor who didn’t make the matchday squad, with Horan denying any rumours of indiscipline surrounding O’Connor.
“Absolutely nothing. It’s important are fans are behind us and steady behind us, sometimes there’s crazy stuff happens but as long as they’re steady and supporting us we’ll be happy.
“Cillian will be training with us Wednesday, he just needs to get his fitness up, he’ll be training and pushing very hard for inclusion next weekend. It’s great he’s back. Donie Vaughan will be training Wednesday night, so he’ll be pushing, we’ve a lot of guys who are very close.”
It was Down that made the early running, taking advantage of Caolan Mooney’s superhuman speed to get him running through the centre. That tactic brought the game’s opening goal when the Rostrevor man skittled through a number of tackles, got lucky with a bounce and potted his cushioned finish beyond the reach of David Clarke to put the home side 1-1 to 0-2 up.
In 18 minutes however, Mayo outscored their hosts by six points to one to create a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
They enjoyed a measure of fortune when Kevin McKernan tried to stop a kickout going over the sideline. When Jason Doherty was fouled he released a quick free to Loftus. The Crossmolina man was almost upended by Down goalkeeper Rory Burns but recovered to slot into the empty net.
Mayo had a healthy lead but will be alarmed by a number of long balls that caused havoc in their defence. One such example ended with Donal O’Hare fielding a delivery and while Keith Higgins clawed the ball free, O’Hare had a free swing at it on the floor. Clarke spread himself Peter Schmeichel-style to block it.
In the overall context, Down had more scoring chances than Mayo, leading to manager Paddy Tally thinking in terms of a lost opportunity to claim a scalp in front of a packed house.
“It’s a very disappointed changing room there at the moment,” said the Tyrone man.
I suppose it’s one we will look back on with regret. There was a stage there we were very much in it. We didn’t take the opportunities that presented themselves.
“We created some really good goal chances and a goal in a game like that is massive. And I think the goal that Mayo got turned the game in their favour.
“To be honest, it’s only when you play against teams like that, that you understand. You can talk about it in terms of coaching and looking at it but until you stand in the middle of it, you don’t understand what top-level championship football is about.
“And, that’s the thing that puts Mayo and these teams in the All-Ireland finals every other year. It’s because they are good at it, but that comes with experience too.”
The final word and assessment fell to Horan; “We weren’t perfect by a long way but we’re delighted to be in there.”
C Mooney (1-1); D O’Hare (0-3, 2 frees); C Harrison, C Quinn (0-2 each); P Havern, J Johnston (0-1 each)
C Loftus (1-4, 3 frees); L Keegan (0-3); F McDonagh, A Moran (0-2 each); D O’Connor, K McLoughlin, C Treacy (0-1 each)
R Burns; D O’Hagan, B McArdle, G Collins; R McAleenan, K McKernan, D Guinness; O McCabe, C Poland; C Francis, C Mooney, P Laverty; P Havern, D O’Hare, C Harrison
J Guinness for Laverty (42m), J Johnston for D Guinness (46m), C Quinn for Havern (50m), B O’Hagan for McCabe (55m), P Devlin for D O’Hagan (Black card, 62m)
D Clarke; C Barrett, B Harrison, K Higgins; L Keegan, C Boyle, P Durcan; D O’Connor, A O’Shea; F McDonagh, C Loftus, J Doherty; K McLoughlin, D Coen, A Moran
E Regan for D Coen (Black card, 14m), F Boland for Doherty (53m), M Murray for McDonagh (62m), C Treacy for McLoughlin (69m), M Plunkett for Moran (71m), J McCormack for D O’Connor (76m)
Fergal Kelly (Longford)
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