Saturday 19 January 2019

Dusk descends on Horan's epic quest to end Mayo's eternal Sam wait

WHEN James Horan addressed the media, dusk having long descended on the Gaelic Grounds and Mayo's latest pursuit of the prize that keeps on mocking, he offered a non-committal answer on his own future.

Yet it was clear, not just reading between the lines but reflecting on the 'end of an era' feel to Saturday night, that his baseball cap would be marked absent from the sidelines of Ireland next February.

Just a couple of hours later, the expected resignation was confirmed.

No Mayo manager, bar John Maughan, has come so close to ending the 63-year wait. Now he leaves the stage insisting he can still see an All-Ireland in this group.

"They're a serious bunch of guys," he declared. "People have seen this year the leaders that are there - Cillian (O'Connor), Aidan O'Shea, Donal Vaughan, Lee Keegan. A lot of these guys are still very young; (you have) Stephen Coen, Diarmuid O Connor coming through; Kevin McLoughlin ... there's a huge amount of talent in the room. They'll stick to their posts, they'll learn from today and come back stronger."

Horan was then asked if there was something still missing that would propel Mayo over the line? He paused before answering: "Maybe sometimes you get beaten by a better team and just have to take it on the chin but I suppose ... this group are learning and developing all the time, and if that trend continues time is the only factor."

That first phrase cut to the heart of Saturday's roller coaster. Kerry were better: they won the kick-out battle (more especially off Rob Hennelly's restarts), they had significantly more possessions, and they carried a more consistent two-pronged scoring threat over the 90-plus minutes, in the guise of Kieran Donaghy's aerial prowess and James O'Donoghue's predatory sniping.

And yet ... Mayo have justifiable cause for fury over the performance of Meath referee Cormac Reilly. They will quibble over the two second-half penalties awarded to and converted by O'Donoghue.

In this view, the first was more debatable given the minimal force of Colm Boyle's hand on O'Donoghue's back as he fell to earth.

But Mayo's biggest gripe should focus on the two incredibly soft frees won by Donaghy and Barry John Keane during the first period of extra-time, allowing pivotal tap-over frees to bring Kerry level.

Here's an even bigger issue: Kerry should have been reduced to 14 men for the last 53 minutes of normal time. Shane Enright was already on a booking when he deliberately pulled down Cillian O'Connor. It was not alone a cast-iron penalty but a stonewall black card ... and with a yellow already to his name, he could not have been replaced.

From an early stage, Reilly's laissez-faire approach to discipline had the effect of seeing an ultra-physical game spiral out of his control.

Still, amid the mayhem, we witnessed one of the greatest man-for-man duels in recent GAA history: O'Donoghue scored 0-4 from play, 2-6 in total, against a defender who had strong claims for Man of the Match. That's how good Keith Higgins was.

Cruelly, one Higgins block-down led to a goal for Donaghy. Another facilitated Hennelly to make a save.

As O'Donoghue later noted: "At half-time I was probably losing that battle and everyone was trying to give me advice - 'Do this, do that' ... I think we had a good tussle, probably ended up even enough, and I'm happy that I got to mark someone of his class."

Maybe, for Mayo, there is still hope out there.

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