Mark Ronaldson scores a goal for Mayo against Derry.Photo: Sportsfile

Mayo smuggle valuable points over the border

Lucky general Pat Holmes and his trusty lieutenant Noel Connelly guided Mayo through a tricky incursion into Northern Ireland from where they smuggled two precious points across the border to leave them sitting pretty on top of National Football League division one table ahead of Cork on score difference.

The win will boost their confidence even further ahead of a crucial tie on Saturday night against Dublin, who will need to take something back from Elverys MacHale Park to keep their league ambitions alive.

While the win in Derry was merited, it was the manner in which it was achieved that will leave Mayo feeling satisfied with a job well done with a team that had five changes from that which defeated Monaghan last Sunday week in MacHale Park. Kenneth O’Malley (goals), Michael Forde (debutante), Danny Kirby, Colm Boyle and Ger Cafferkey were all in from the start, Under 21 players Patrick Durcan and Diarmuid O’Connor being released for this particular fixture.

What impressed about Mayo was their work ethic all over the field and while they did nod off at the wheel for a period in the second half when Derry came at them to erase a five-point deficit and draw level, Mayo had the wherewithal to ride out the storm and produce two late points to seal the victory.

Mikey Sweeney did fire home a late goal, which was negated by an even later effort by Derry, but the game was won in the last 10 minutes by Mayo, who found that bit more and had leaders who stood up and when they had to call on the reserves, Barry Moran making a significant impact.

Derry will look back on this game, and on the first half in particular, ruing a lot of unforced errors as they were forced into a number of costly turnovers, due in large part to Mayo’s hard tackling and the work of the forward line in general and Jason Doherty in particular, who got in some big hits.

Ger Cafferkey was named at centre-back but swapped places with Tom Cunniffe, who took up the task of marking Derry dangerman, Mark Lynch, Cafferkey operating mainly in the corner, but it was Kevin Keane at full-back who inspired this Mayo defence along with the massive work from Aidan O’Shea, the Breaffy man starting at full-forward but ending up doing the spade work in a deeper role.

Mayo did enjoy a touch of good fortune when a 50-yard free from Cillian O’Connor came back off the upright and in flash Mark Ronaldson reacted to guide the ball to the net. It couldn’t have come at a better time as Mayo held a slender 0-6 to O-5 lead, the goal helping them stay ahead by 1-7 to 0-6 at the break as the crossbar denied Derry a certain goal just before the interval.

All but one of those Derry scores in the first half came from placed-balls, Benny Heron hitting a 45 and two terrific frees into the wind, while Mark Lynch was also on target from frees.

An early second half point from Aidan O’Shea extended Mayo's lead to five but Derry were gradually beginning to stretch Mayo in a few areas as substitutes James Kielt and Fergal Doherty began to make a serious impact. Thy had it back to three before Ronaldson kicked a terrific point from a tight angle and O’Connor followed up with another free after a darting run by Higgins came to an abrupt end to restore the gap to five for the second time with 20 minutes remaining.

Kenneth O’Malley was called on twice to save the day, a rare lapse in concentration by Keith Higgins lucky to go unpunished as the Ballinrobe man got down bravely and then saved from the second attempt. But Derry gradually reeled Mayo back in to tie the game at 1-10 to 0-13 with five unanswered points. Aidan O’Shea was the man who made the initial run to set up McLoughlin to fire Mayo head again, McLoughlin also pointing a free after Colm Boyle, who had a massive second half, earned it following a typical bursting run at the Derry defence.

Derry found Mayo difficult to handle when they came at them with pace and the game was in injury time when Barry Moran set up Mikey Sweeney for a well-taken goal, Derry coming back with an even later effort when the ball was swept across the face of the goal only to be deflected to the net by Brian Óg Gilligan, who was one of three Derry men to go for it.

By then both Mark Ronaldson (blatant pulling down) and James Kielt (back-chat to the referee) had been brandished black cards but unlike the Monaghan game, both teams maintained their discipline, Mayo edging a few crucial areas, and their work ethic in general keeping them on target for the playoffs.

Saturday night should tell us a lot more about where Mayo are at and, more importantly, in what direction they are going, but, at the moment, they seem to be heading in the right direction.

Mayo: K. O’Malley, T. Cunniffe, K. Keane, K. Higgins, L. Keegan, G. Cafferkey, C. Boyle, S. O’Shea (0-1), D. Kirby K. McLoughlin (0-2, 1f), A. O’Shea (0-2). M. Forde, M. Ronaldson (1-2), C. O’Connor (0-4, 3f), J. Doherty (0-1). Subs used: A. Dillon for M. Forde (47), B. Moran for Kirby (60), D. Drake for G. Cafferkey (60), A. Freeman for C. O’Connor (64), M. Sweeney (1-0) for M. Ronaldson (BC, 65).

Derry: E. McNicholl, O. Duffy, N. Holly, D. McBride, B. Óg McAlary (0-1), K. Johnston, S. L. McGoldrick, M. Craig (0-1), B. Óg McGilligan (1-0), C. McWilliams, M. Lynch (0-2f), E. Lynn, D. McKinless, B. Heron (0-4, 1f, 2 45s), A. McAlynn. Subs used: J. Kielt (0-4, 3f) for Lynn (h-t), F. Doherty (0-1f) for McKinless (45), E. McGuckian for McAlynn (47).
Man of the match: Aidan O’Shea put in another huge game for Mayo but the performance of Kevin Keane at full-back was inspirational at times and it is wonderful to see the Westport man bounce back after what was a tough 2013-14.