Mayo 3-15 Westmeath 1-14: Yet another All-Ireland quarter-final for Mayo, but this wasn’t business as usual.
This wasn’t the side that sauntered so serenely onto August’s plain the last five years. In its place on Saturday was a collection of individuals as uncertain on their feet as in their thinking, and it is hard to escape the sense that they are stumbling into a Tyrone haymaker next Saturday.
They won’t see it that way. They can’t.
This is a squad of players that has invested too much time and effort into the search for Sam — and one that has divested itself of a management team along the way — to simply accept the signs of a summer that has already seen them lose both their Connacht crown and their way.
There is enough muscle memory and raw talent in the ranks to dismiss their chances entirely in the last eight but Mayo will need to conjure up a 75-minute performance to push Tyrone, and that feat has been utterly beyond them so far this summer.
They led by 2-10 to 0-4 after half an hour here and yet ended the evening with more questions than answers after a stubborn comeback from a Westmeath side that played the last few minutes with 14 men and trailed by just a single goal until Mayo pulled belatedly clear.
It was all so unconvincing.
Andy Moran spoke positively about Mayo’s unfamiliar journey through the back door since that provincial loss to Galway, but Mayo haven’t shown nearly enough in their defeats of Fermanagh, Kildare, and now Westmeath to give any credence to talk of another step beyond the next one.
“It’s fascinating,” said Moran. “It’s going to be good to sit down and watch (Tyrone) during the week. See what they do. We’ve all seen the Ulster final and it was a bit of cat and mouse. We will try to manufacture a game plan that will work against them.
“Are they a good team? Most certainly. Anyone that comes out of Ulster is a good team. Will they be favourites? Ye boys will probably make them favourites. It’s Mayo v Tyrone. They are rarely dull, and we expect this one to be good as well.”
Moran spoke loudly and quickly, as people with their backs to a wall sometimes do, and he actually put his finger on the problem holding Mayo back when he spoke about how they had actually played really well “at times” on their detour through the back door.
“At times” doesn’t cut it. Not in August.
Stephen Rochford touched on this too.
The Mayo manager noted how the midfield problems that bedevilled them against Kildare had been addressed against Westmeath. And he waved away their poor second half here with a reminder of their strong finishes against Fermanagh and the Leinster side.
So, it may be that they address a defence that was porous and indisciplined against Westmeath this week but Mayo simply can’t afford to plug one hole and spring another leak somewhere again, as has been the case this campaign, this week.
The likely return of Diarmuid O’Connor promises some improvement. Rochford has spoken positively about the Ballintubber forward’s prospects of shaking off the dead leg that sidelined him for this one and 18 wayward shots on target would suggest they certainly need him.
There is hope too in Cillian O’Connor’s 1-5 and Andy Moran’s leading of the line at full-forward and they played some high-octane, effective football for 15 minutes or so in the first half, when a Jason Doherty goal, an O’Connor penalty, and nine points had them humming.
They did all that against a Westmeath side playing two sweepers, which didn’t make for the worst trial run before a meeting with the Ulster champions, but then they struggled to cope when James Dolan’s 31st-minute goal triggered a change in tides.
With nothing to lose after the break, Westmeath went man to man and swept over Mayo in waves. A deficit that had stood at 12 points at its peak shrank to five after 41 minutes, then to three with less than 10 minutes to go.
Mayo could argue that the game would have petered out earlier had O’Connor or Aidan O’Shea’s second-half efforts found the net instead of a post or crossbar, but the fact is that they couldn’t shake a Westmeath side that lost Denis Corroon to a second yellow six minutes from time.
It leaves them approaching an All-Ireland quarter-final against an impressive Tyrone side with a multitude of questions? Can they produce a complete 70 minutes? Has Aidan O’Shea more in him? Is Kevin McLoughlin really the answer as sweeper?
Time now for some answers.
Scorers for Mayo:
C O’Connor (1-5, 0-2 frees); J Doherty (1-1); A O’Shea (1-0); E Regan (0-3, 0-2 frees); A Moran (0-2); K Higgins, P Durcan, D Vaughan and K McLoughlin (all 0-1).
Scorers for Westmeath:
J Heslin (0-10, 0-7 frees); K Martin (0-2); J Dolan (1-1); F Boyle (0-1).
D Clarke; K McLoughlin, K Keane, B Harrison; C Boyle, L Keegan, P Durcan; S O’Shea, A O’Shea; D Vaughan, K Higgins, J Doherty; E Regan, A Moran, C O’Connor.
B Moran for Boyle (53); A Dillon for Regan (55); C O’Shea for Doherty (59); A Freeman for A Moran (66); C Barrett for Keegan (68); T Parsons for S O’Shea (70).
D Quinn; A Stone, K Daly, J Gonoud; J Dolan, K Maguire, F Boyle; J Heslin, G Egan; J Egan, P Sharry, D Lynch; C McCormack, K Martin, J Connellan.
D Corroon for Stones (20); D Daly for Lynch (32); S Gallagher for Quinn (HT); S Corcoran for J Egan (45); D McNicholas for Connellan (54); D Conway for McCormack (66).
R Hickey (Clare).
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