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Monday 21 August 2017

Rampant Mayo right back in the ball game

Rochford's men find their mojo and rip Ros to shreds

Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea holds off Roscommon’s Enda Smith during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final replay at Croke Park yesterday. Pic: Sportsfile
Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea holds off Roscommon’s Enda Smith during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final replay at Croke Park yesterday. Pic: Sportsfile

There's life in those tired limbs yet. Lots of it.

Just a week ago, quills were being sharpened and cursors primed to pen the obituary of this Mayo team.

For all their famed resilience, evident again in the drawn match, the consensus seemed to be that Mayo were on their last legs. Fatigue, either mental or physical or both, would catch up with them very, very soon.

If not in yesterday's All-Ireland SFC quarter-final replay, then certainly in the semi-final to come against Kerry ...

Not so convinced any more, are you? For all the shocking acquiescence of their obliging neighbours, there was something about Mayo here that was different. Or maybe it was a throwback - to the rampaging, hard-running Mayo of old.

Mayo’s Keith Higgins scores his side’s third goal against Roscommon in the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final replay at Croke Park. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Mayo’s Keith Higgins scores his side’s third goal against Roscommon in the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final replay at Croke Park. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Either way, it was a massacre. The official audit shows a 22-point differential but, in all truth, it could have been worse for Roscommon.

Mayo hit them for four goals, including three in a five-minute frenzy: Kevin McLoughlin capitalised on a missed double-hop to open the floodgates on 23 minutes; Andy Moran scored from the very next play; then Keith Higgins crowned his 'Roy of the Rovers' run with the best of them all.

Cillian O'Connor would add a fourth in the 46th minute - yet another example of Mayo going for the jugular off another mid-range Rossie kickout from the frazzled Colm Lavin.

Glaring

And that's where it rested even if they could, conceivably, have doubled that tally when you factor in an earlier O'Connor chance (he handled on the ground), Brendan Harrison's powerful attempt (saved), Diarmuid O'Connor's overlooked penalty claims and a glaring miss from Conor Loftus.

Not that it mattered on a day when Mayo raised 19 white flags whereas the Rossies - reduced to 14 men for the last quarter after half-time sub Fintan Cregg came and went for a double yellow - had raised a different type of white flag by the finish.

Kevin McStay summed it up thus: "One team got their stuff together and the other team fell off a cliff."

Roscommon manager Kevin McStay (l) and selector Liam McHale in the dying minutes of the game. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Roscommon manager Kevin McStay (l) and selector Liam McHale in the dying minutes of the game. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Even if he didn't say so, you couldn't but wonder would his team have been better off if Donie Smith had missed that high-pressure free to force a replay in the first place? Better to depart as valiant quarter-final losers, rather than to have this humbling sequel to a well-earned Connacht title breakthrough.

"I'm certainly going to try my best when we get back to the hotel to emphasise the positives and the strides we've made as a group," McStay insisted.

"It leaves a little bit of a smell, for sure, it's not a nice way to finish your season - but we're in good company. Most of the second tier teams have said goodbye to the championship with fairly big margins."

That point is well made: the 'Top Four' predicted by most pundits pre-championship have duly made it to the semi-finals, albeit Mayo via a far more circuitous route, and they've won their respective quarter-finals by a combined 58 points. If you exclude the original Mayo/Ros stalemate, that represents an average of 14.5 points per game.

Two-tier championship? More like two tiers before you even exit Division 1.

That caveat duly noted, this was a hugely impressive Mayo display, one that rekindles hope that they still have what it takes to push Kerry all the way on Sunday week.

One word sums up the day-and-night difference in eight days - energy.

Higgins has always qualified as jet-heeled but when have we last seen him at this electrifying level? Starting from a nominal centre-back berth, he cut a swathe through a parting primrose-and-blue sea to tee up Mayo's second goal (coolly converted by Moran) and then to score their third himself at the end of an epic solo burst.

In truth, they were buzzing from the first whistle. Aidan O'Shea was first to carry the baton, winning the throw-in (plus ca change) but also drawing early frees, two if which led a brace of Cillian O'Connor frees.

McStay had surmised, beforehand, that Mayo's pace and power might be "waning a bit". He soon had his answer. "That's probably the most energetic I've seen Mayo for a long time," he concluded.

And to think, all this without Lee Keegan. Last weekend's saviour didn't feature because of an infection to his foot, which "ballooned up on Monday night" and led to a stint in hospital.

"He would have been available if needed going into the final 20 or 25 minutes. He'd made a really, really good recovery," Stephen Rochford assured.

And no - he wasn't needed.

Exclusion

Last word to the Mayo manager, who was asked about his team's recent exclusion from the All-Ireland conversation monopolised by Dublin, Kerry and Tyrone.

"You can't control it," he reflected. "Our focus was Roscommon. We hadn't earned the right to be talked about as a potential All-Ireland finalists, or whatever. And by and large we still haven't.

"We have to show up and deliver a performance in 13 days' time. One that is going to be another monumental ask."

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