The sun embraced a splendid looking Hyde Park before a crowd of 23,000 and there was certainly a huge air of anticipation, with Sligo arriving in this final on the back of that win over Galway and certainly they were fired-up.
Untested Mayo didn’t really know where they stood but they showed character to dig out a two-point win in what was an uncompromising and very physical battle.
Pretty it wasn’t and Mayo have much to chew on as they wander down the September road aware that unless there is a huge improvement in a number of departments, notably up front, their summer journey will end in early August.
That said, they dug deep, especially around the middle of the field where Barry Moran put in a huge shift while the full-back line of Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey and Keith Higgins had the shackles on the highly vaunted Sligo full-forward line which had slim pickings for the hour, seven of the Sligo scores coming from placed balls.
However, this game was listing heavily in the direction of Kevin Walsh’s men until Aiden O’Shea’s arrival on the scene early in the second half and the Breaffy man steadied the Mayo ship, scoring a point and setting up the two scores, which ultimately helped Mayo find dry dock.
O’Shea’s powerful presence, aided and abetted by Barry Moran, lifted all boats as the game entered the last 10 minutes on a knife-edge at 0-9 apiece.
O’Shea found Colm Boyle and the point from the Davitts man was to give Mayo the lead for the first time in the game.
Some observers maintain the ball sailed just outside the upright but the score stood and Cillian’s O’Connor’s ’45 pushed Mayo two clear, seemingly in the driving seat and heading for their second title on the bounce.
Sligo came back with a Mark Breheny free but Westport’s Lee Keegan burst through to score a huge point, O’Shea again involved, as Mayo finally saw off the Sligo challenge but this was a bitter battle and Mayo stood up to the physical test, something they have not always done in the past.
Sligo could have won this game, and maybe deserved a draw, but when the pressure came on them in the last 10 minutes they were forced into turnovers and wrong options, and Mayo’s greater experience, plus the leadership qualities of a few players, carried them through, Andy Moran, Alan Dillon and Kevin McLoughlin faring best in the attack, which will need to up their game as a unit when they face stiffer opposition.
But they made life so difficult for themselves with two clear-cut scoring chances wasted by Barry Moran and Donal Vaughan as they tried to walk the ball into the Sligo net, while Keith Higgins, after a tremendous 60-yard run, untypically fisted wide when other options may have been on.
Had those scores been taken in the first half the pressure on Mayo would not have been as intense on the defending champions, but their insistence on going for goals appeared to be rewarded when Andy Moran drilled low to finish off a superb move started by Kevin McLoughlin.
However, the lay-off from Cillian O’Connor was adjudged to be illegal and the score was disallowed, leaving Mayo trailing 0-5 to 0-3 at the interval, Cillian O’Connor (free), Enda Varley (free) and Dillon from play accounting for Mayo’s meagre first-half return
By the 44th minute Mayo had hauled themselves on level terms, Andy Moran on target, O’Connor, who was having a bad day all round, nailing one and Barry Moran making it 0-6 apiece.
It was level at seven, eight and nine apiece, O’Shea, who was now making his presence felt, bringing Mayo back once more after a good ball from the tireless Andy Moran.
It was now there for the taking and it was Mayo who reached for it with those late scores as Sligo were finally worn down, Barry Moran ending his long shift on a second yellow just before the final whistle but knowing he had done his job well.
Scorers for Mayo: C. O'Connor 0-3 (2f, 1 45'), A. Dillon 0-2, C. Boyle, L. Keegan, B. Moran, D. Geraghty, A. O'Shea, E. Varley (f), A. Moran 0-1 each. Scorers for Sligo: A. Marren (2f), M. Breheny 0-3 (2f) each, D. Maye 0-2 (1f, 1 45’), A. Costello (f), D. Kelly 0-1 each.
Mayo: D. Clarke, K Keane, G. Cafferkey, K. Higgins. C Boyle, D. Vaughan, L. Keegan, B. Moran, D. Geraghty, K. McLoughlin, C. O'Connor, A. Dillon, E. Varley, A Moran, J. Doherty. Subs used: A. O'Shea for Geraghty (41m), M. Conroy for Varley (46), A. Freeman for Doherty (60m).
Sligo: P. Greene, N. Ewing, J. Martyn, R. Donovan, C. Harrison, M. Quinn, P. McGovern, S. McManus, T. Taylor, M. Breheny, D. Maye, B. Egan, A. Costello, A. Marren, D. Kelly. Subs used: E. O’Hara for McManus (46m), E. Mullen for Taylor (58m), S. Coen for Costello (62m), J. Davey for McGovern (65m), D. Rooney for Quinn (70m).
Referee: C. Reilly (Meath).
There were two major ones in this game The first concerned Andy Moran’s first-half goal which looked good. It was fine move involving Kevin McLoughlin but Cillian O’Connor’s lay-off to Moran was deemed illegal.
The second may have balanced the goal as Colm Boyle’s point was in the view of many just outside the post. It was a crucial score as it fired Mayo into the lead for the first time in the match at 0-10 to 0-9 and they were never closed.
The arrival of Aiden O’Shea on 40 minutes was to have a profound impact on this game. The Breaffy man scored a point and set up the crucial point for Colm Boyle which was to turn the tide in Mayo’s favour. He was able to take the heat and the hits, and Sligo just couldn’t handle him.
Man of the match
Once again Barry Moran put in a massive shift around the middle of the park. He was hit hard at times but was able to take it and dish it out, ending with a second yellow card and a dismissal just before the final whistle, but the Mitchell’s man had his medal and a performance to cherish.
Mayo now wait until the August bank holiday weekend to know their quarterfinals opponents. Kerry, Kildare and Tyrone are in the mix are as a number of others.
The draw will be made live at An Sportlann, Castlebar ,on Tuesday next, July 24, at 11 a.m.
The bar is raised another few notches for James Horan’s men who are three steps away from an All-Ireland final having taken just two steps forward.
The Conor Mortimer issue has been closed and tempted and as I am to write extensively on it I have chosen to ignore it on the basis that enough acres of print alogn with radio and television time has been devoted to what was, in my view, an impetuous act.
We know how much the Shrule man contributed to Mayo football over his long and at times controversial career but in my view he let himself and his team down badly by the timing of his walk-out and the manner in which he executed it.
No player is bigger than any team, as Roy Keane and Stephen Ireland have discovered. It showed a huge lack of maturity on behalf of the Mayoman, who was just short of his 100th appearance for his county.
It also showed a huge disregard for his team-mates on the eve of such an important game.
Had he bitten his lip he would have been playing on Sunday against Sligo and have picked up another Connaught medal and, more than likely, played his way back into the starting 15.