Keegan remains heartbeat of Mayo odyssey

After watching Kerry slowly grind out an all too familiar workmanlike quarter-final victory over Galway in the opening game, there was a sense around Croke Park going into the afternoon’s second game that Mayo would do likewise.

However, that sense was well and truly blow out of the water with Roscommon’s blistering start. Fintan Cregg set the tone with a well-taken point inside a minute and his defence followed suit.

Three times in the first seven minutes Roscommon turned over Mayo attackers, firstly Andy Moran was smoothered by three defenders while a similar welcome awaited Colm Boyle as he joined the next attack. The third defensive stand came when Brian Stack turned over Kevin McLaughlin and started a move that resulted in Enda Smyth splitting the posts with an expertly finished score.

When Cregg finished to the net a minute later the main question was did he mean the lobbed finish? As a forward I like to give the benefit of the doubt to an attacker but for me he got lucky. If it was scored on his stronger left foot I’d say he went for it but a finish like that off his right foot was fortunate in my opinion.

The exclamation mark on this opening salvo arrived at pace in the form of Ciarán Murtagh who took a lay off from his brother Diarmuid and finished to the net to bring the noise in the stadium up a few more decibels.

It was the dream start for Roscommon but of all teams to do it against, ups and downs like this are the norm for Mayo so there was no sense of panic amongst Stephen Rochford’s charges. Being involved in games like this is what this team is all about.

David Clarke played a key role in the swift Mayo riposte.

While he had just taken the ball out of his net for a second time he knew he couldn’t just waste a kick out and used the Roscommon joy as an opportunity.

He quickly set his team on the offensive with a short smart restart and with some Roscommon players still with half an eye on the goal replay on the big screen Lee Keegan stormed through the middle to drive home an instant response with the aid of a deflection.

This was a sucker punch that Roscommon struggled to recover from for the remainder of the first half as Mayo reeled off 1-4 without reply.

Yet again for this Mayo team it was Keegan who was their heartbeat. He was primarily tasked with a man marking job on Enda Smith but was very aware his team needed more. He provided the first three Mayo scores from play and added his fourth score in the minutes before half-time.

In a game where Mayo forwards were struggling, Keegan and Colm Boyle drove them on when others around the middle third were too ponderous on the ball.

In fairness to Kevin McStay and his management team they made a very smart change for the second half by moving Enda Smith to full-forward. If Keegan followed, which he did, then not only was he playing in a defensive position which he’s not as natural in, he was also over 100 yards from the Roscommon goal.

While not as explosive as their first half start, Roscommon also restarted brightly with three points edging them back in front.

However they again failed to build on this momentum and lost their way up front. The lack of real movement from their inside line was leaving them without any real direct option. Keith Higgins was doing a good job in the sweeper role for Mayo but too many times a Roscommon forward made a selfish decision by not making a run when they saw Higgins filling the space. When a sweeper sits in front like that it is obviously harder to get primary possession but the full-forwards must commit to making hard runs with a view to engaging Higgins and then leaving the other full-forward one on one.

It means a lot of tough unselfish running but is critical if you are to have any chance at winning primary possession.

As the excitement levels in the closing stages of the game rose the quality of football started to drop. Players were fatiguing and the fear of an error was heightened.

Neither set of subs really made the game changing impact Stephen Rochford or Kevin McStay would have hoped. I was surprised to see Colm Boyle replaced after 50 minutes — was this a pre-determined change? Donal Vaughan and Conor Loftus didn’t get to the pitch of the game while the Compton borthers also failed to fire on the Roscommon side.

The one exception to this was Donie Smith who got one great score from play and then held his nerve to fire over a tough long range free to force the draw. Both teams will know there is massive room for improvement. Whoever can recover quicker and implement the lessons learned from yesterday will be planning for an August date with Kerry in Croke Park.



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