Mayo 2-14 Sligo 0-11: Anybody searching for definitive signs that this might be Mayo’s year would have left MacHale Park sorely disappointed yesterday afternoon.
The perennial All-Ireland contenders did what they had to do to engineer a way past the stubborn challenge presented by Sligo, but last year’s beaten finalists were unable to hit too many high notes in the process.
In fact, with ten minutes to go in this largely lacklustre Connacht quarter-final, the natives in the crowd of 14,661 were getting increasingly restless as Sligo eased to within three points of their high- profile hosts.
By that stage Stephen Rochford had restored Aidan O’Shea to his team’s frontline and Stephen Coen had also joined the fray as Mayo tried in vain to find the right formula.
Donie Vaughan, Conor Loftus, and Danny Kirby were all thrown in too as the outcome hung in the balance.
And it was only in those closing stages that Mayo finally got the show on the road, reeling off 1-4 impressively and closing the game out as Sligo finally ran out of road.
Cillian O’Connor’s palmed goal on 70 minutes — after a piercing run and pass from Loftus — was the highlight of Mayo’s late blitz while Kirby and Doherty also landed eye-catching points.
Sligo’s only response during that period was a ’45 from the tireless Adrian Marren but for the best part of the previous hour, the Yeats County gave as good as they got.
Niall Carew had vowed that his team were not going to suffer a repeat of their 2015 Connacht final humbling, and they were true to their word.
Their defensive system frustrated Mayo for long spells and Cillian O’Connor’s first score from play only arrived on 69 minutes, while Andy Moran endured a frustrating afternoon in the company of the tigerish Ross Donovan.
With the wind behind them, Sligo hit the ground running and early points from Stephen Coen (2) and Adrian Marren served notice of their intent.
Mayo met the challenge head on, creating chances that were taken by Cillian O’Connor, Andy Moran, Kevin McLoughlin, and Paddy Durcan as things started to take shape.
The sides were level five times in the opening 26 minutes and Sligo were more than holding their own until Diarmuid O’Connor took centre stage eight minutes later.
The warning lights would have been flashing in the Sligo defence when the talented 22-year-old took a pass from Seamie O’Shea in his stride outside their D.
But it was still an incredible sight to see O’Connor hold off and break the tackle of two defenders (exploiting the advantage being played in the process with the number of steps taken), before fly-kicking the ball to the Sligo net.
The game was never quite the same again; Mayo taking a lead of 1-6 to 0-5 into the dressing-rooms at the interval.
However, Mayo never built on O’Connor’s goal and while they kept Sligo at arm’s length throughout the third quarter, they didn’t threaten to pull away.
Championship newcomer Fergal Boland capped an energetic display with two neat points from play, but some erratic finishing and poor shot selection from his team-mates undermined some decent approach work.
Down the other end, Sligo midfielder Paddy O’Connor, Mark Breheny (free), Adrian Marren, and Niall Murphy all hit the target to keep Mayo honest.
Sligo’s inability to threaten David Clarke’s goal or put his full-back line under any serious pressure meant Mayo were always a step ahead.
In the last ten minutes the home side showed glimpses of what they’re capable of as they booked their ticket to the big Connacht semi-final dance against Galway in Salthill on Sunday, June 11.
Maybe then a lot more will be revealed about Mayo’s plans and intentions for the months ahead.
Scorers for Mayo:
C O’Connor (1-6, 5 frees); D O’Connor (1-0); F Boland, A Moran (0-2 each); P Durcan, K McLoughlin, J Doherty, D Kirby (0-1 each)
Scorers for Sligo:
A Marren (0-4, 2 frees, ‘45); M Breheny (frees), S Coen (0-2 each); P O’Connor, A Devaney (free), N Murphy (0-1 each).
D Clarke; C Barrett, G Cafferkey, K Higgins; L Keegan, C Boyle, P Durcan; S O’Shea, T Parsons; F Boland, D O’Connor, C O’Shea; K McLoughlin, C O’Connor), A Moran.
J Doherty for McLoughlin (26m, inj); A O’Shea for Moran (54m); S Coen for Boyle (57m); D Vaughan for C O’Shea (62m); C Loftus for Boland (66m); D Kirby for S O’Shea (68m, inj).
A Devaney; R Donovan, C Harrison, E McHugh; Keelan Cawley, B Egan, J Kelly; P O’Connor, A McIntyre; N Ewing, M Breheny, Kyle Cawley; S Coen, P Hughes, A Marren.
D Kelly for Kyle Cawley (30m); K McDonnell for Coen (45m); N Murphy (0-1) for Hughes (48m); G O’Kelly-Lynch for McHugh (54m); S Gilmartin for Kelly (59m); N Gaughan for Keelan Cawley.
S Hurson (Tyrone)
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