Mayo are back where they belong

You could call it a comeback, but Mayo have been here for years. A return to form? Absolutely, and ever so timely, as Kerry appear clear and present on their horizon. 

That 13-day turnaround doesn’t seem so short now, not when Mayo’s gaze would have shifted to the semi-final long before Anthony Nolan put Roscommon out of their misery.

It wasn’t until the 2005 quarter-finals that Tyrone on their mammoth 10-match run to an All-Ireland title came to life when they pulverised Dublin. It wasn’t until this last-eight replay, Mayo’s seventh outing this championship, that they opened up their shoulders in obliterating their neighbours.

“I can definitely tell you we’re not trying to chain them or hold them back,” smiled Stephen Rochford wryly.

All the same, this has been a laborious stretch for Mayo to get to this point and, at several times against Derry, Clare, Cork, and Roscommon the previous weekend, their foundation work looked shoddy. Rochford acknowledged that their supporters were “very disappointed with us last week and we totally understand that”. They were outnumbered in the 39,154 attendance yesterday, but that might have more to do with the expense associated with backing this team of theirs than any lack of faith.

The only team of the Fab Four to be beaten, the only team who threatened to ruin most if not everyone’s All- Ireland semi-final predictions made at the outset of the championship, it’s understandable that many either believe or want to believe they are a distance shy of replicating the standards Dublin, Kerry, and Tyrone have been setting.

Who’s to know if they had heard all the chatter following Saturday’s similarly one-sided All-Ireland quarter-finals about there being a top three and them having been jettisoned on account of a second successive spluttering campaign through the backdoor.

It seemed like they did, given the nigh-on merciless demolishing of the Connacht winners. As Kevin McStay bemoaned of his “young team”, who “didn’t see this coming”, they were “jumped on by a very experienced team” who “got their stuff together” and were “a dead duck at half-time”.

Roscommon had their chance and Mayo, as tired as they appeared in the drawn game, weren’t going to be so slack again. That was evident in the opening quarter, their lead reading 0-6 to 0-0. Aidan O’Shea claimed two early frees, pointed by Cillian O’Connor, while Mayo’s midfield were tarnishing Roscommon’s restarts, Donal Vaughan breaking down one Colm Lavin kickout to Tom Parsons and finishing off the move for Mayo’s third point.

Lavin’s woes were obvious long before he kicked one out over the sideline almost in vain in the 28th minute. He ended up beaten three times in the first half and, indeed, it could have been a couple more but for Mayo’s wastefulness. Kevin McLoughlin’s double hop in scoring Mayo’s first goal wasn’t picked up by the officials, but the manner in which his solo run was unchecked by Roscommon told so much about what was to follow.

Less than 60 seconds later, Lavin’s kickout was too long, Keith Higgins powered up the field, combined with Cillian O’Connor in a one-two move before teeing up Andy Moran to strike to the net, a goal which silenced the early boos that had come his way.

It must have been so disheartening for Lavin and his full-back line to look up the field when there was little or no movement, few players making themselves available for outlet ball. It seemed Roscommon had braced themselves for an early Mayo onslaught, but forget about constructing something in the form of a counter.

The absence of Lee Keegan, who didn’t start because of a foot injury, had dampened some of the Mayo expectation but, after that two-goal salvo, their following could relax. They were practically horizontal in the 28th minute when Higgins added a goal, advancing forward with the speed of a player 10 years younger. O’Shea’s point in the 32nd minute meant all six starting forwards had obliged with a score and attention began to turn to Kerry.

Nevertheless, Rochford will have taken pleasure by how Mayo, even with their catalogue of substitutes, never let up, winning the second half by 1-11 to 0-5.

Roscommon at least have a Nestor Cup to admire, a piece of silverware that shouldn’t be too dulled by this result given their insipid spring. But one wonders if McStay will remain at the helm given the insults flung at him and those that inevitably will be thrown his way in the wake of yesterday. Or will a provincial title, only the county’s third since 1991, provide him with enough of a mandate to give it one more year?

The return of proven performers like Cathal Cregg and Neil Collins would boost Roscommon’s chances of returning to Division 1 and making next summer’s Super 8 is hardly beyond their reach when there is little super about what anyone might consider the four best teams behind Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, and Tyrone.

But there is no shifting football’s elite and nobody, at least on the field of play, ready to kill off Mayo yet. A seventh consecutive All-Ireland semi-final, ninth if you include the replays, is an immense body of work. It also marks a third against their bogeymen, a fourth if you include the Gaelic Grounds. That and Cormac Reilly will escape few conversations ahead of Sunday week. Kerry means only one thing: Mayo are yet again back in the big time.

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