The “sweetest”, declared corner-back Eoghan Kerin on his return to the Galway dressing-room early on Sunday evening.
The defender was at full-back for the county’s surprise Connacht championship win over Mayo in 2016 and while he missed last year’s victory through injury, he didn’t need to put too much thought into which of the three triumphs was the most satisfying.
Mayo, off the back of Galway’s league run to the Division 1 final, knew exactly what they were coming up against and although Stephen Rochford’s charges dealt admirably with the setback of losing Diarmuid O’Connor to a red card after 30 minutes, they were unable to prevent a third successive championship defeat to their neighbours.
From chasing a Connacht six-in-a-row early in the summer of 2016, Mayo, for the first time since 1978, have failed to reach the provincial decider three-years running.
Moreover, they’re now looking at eight games between June 9 and August 12 if they’re to get back to an All-Ireland final.
“They [Mayo] were saying the last couple of years they sleepwalked into the games [against us]. I don’t think they can have any excuses this year,” said Kerin. “There is no inch given out there. It is always tight and tough. We expected nothing else but, yeah, it was probably the sweetest of the three of them.”
Crucial to this latest Mayo scalp were the contributions of those coming in off the bench.
Seán Kelly kicked a point, set up Ciarán Duggan for another, and made a key interception down the other end.
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He and fellow replacements Adrian Varley and Ian Burke were central to Johnny Heaney’s match-winning goal, while Peter Cooke and Eamonn Brannigan — the latter cut out an Andy Moran pass intended for Cillian O’Connor close to the Galway goal — fizzed around the park with intent when introduced.
“The impact off the bench was huge,” Kerin continued. “When you have lads like Eamonn Brannigan, Ian Burke, Seán Kelly, and Johnny Duane coming in, you know you are in a good position. Each and every one of them had a huge bearing.
“Seán Kelly wasn’t on 20 seconds and had popped the ball over the bar. That is exactly what we needed. We needed runners and fair play to those lads, each of them made an impact.”
Gary O’Donnell pointed to the U21 team which contested last year’s All-Ireland final as instrumental in adding another layer of depth to the senior set-up. Three of that team — Cooke, Seán Andy Ó Ceallaigh, and Kelly — featured at MacHale Park.
“There’s huge competition for places. It’s taken a few years to get that but we’re getting there now,” said O’Donnell.
“The younger lads have hit the ground running. All the debutants did very well.”
The 30-year old was involved in the defeats to Mayo in 2011, ‘13, ‘14 and ‘15. More so than the younger members of Kevin Walsh’s panel, he appreciates what it means to have regained the upper hand in this authentic provincial rivalry.
“There were a couple of tough years when we couldn’t get the better of them. That seems to have flipped on its head now, but it counts for nothing really unless we make something of it for the rest of the championship.
“We’re breaking for club championship in the next week so once we have that done we’ll be all guns blazing for Sligo.”
Having lost just one of their eight league outings, O’Donnell said it was imperative they backed up their spring form with victory in Castlebar.
"It’s starting to bear fruit. Since Kevin’s come in, we’ve had huge consistency in performances. We’ve had a couple of blips, but, at the same time, there have been huge positives in the teams we’ve beaten and the progress we’ve made. We have to focus on that rather than being too critical of ourselves.
“We’ve had a good year but we’re well aware we need to keep going now. This year, we’ll be judged on how far we go in the championship.”
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