Mayo are Allianz Football League champions for 2019 after a dominant second-half display put Kerry to the sword at Croke Park yesterday.
In truth Mayo were the better team throughout and had it not been for a couple of brilliant Kerry goals in the first half they may well have had more than four points to spare come the end of the game.
As it transpired, they needed a couple of late goals themselves to ensure victory.
Mayo had performers all over the pitch. Rob Hennelly was assured between the sticks on a day where he further put to bed the ghosts of his Croke Park past.
The Breaffy boys in midfield were outstanding from beginning to end. A lot has been said about Aidan O’Shea and Matthew Ruane and despite this writer predicting a midfield role for Diarmuid O’Connor this season, it’s difficult to see anything but O’Shea and Ruane such was their league form.
However, one man stood taller than the rest at HQ yesterday, that man, O’Connor. It was an inspired choice by James Horan to reward him with the captaincy as he proved inspirational in guiding his team to their first national title in 18 years yesterday.
O’Connor had a final twenty minutes to remember, scoring 1-2 as Mayo went on to collect their first league title since 2001.
He is our focus on the 12th edition of the Allianz Deep-Dive.
Kerry are coming out of defence. O’Connor chases and harries but it is left to the excellent Aidan O’Shea to execute a corner-back style tackle to turnover the ball.
O’Shea offloads to O’Connor who sets Keith Higgins free. As Mayo look to create an opening the Ballintubber man decides to hang back and not get sucked into the scoring zone. Instead, he loiters around the 45-metre line waiting for the ball to find him and when it does, he produces a moment of magic to bring Mayo back within a point.
— The GAA (@officialgaa) March 31, 2019
Mayo eventually level the game, but with a little over 15 minutes remaining in the match, they need to finish strong, something that has let them down in finals before.
However, O’Connor was never going to let his county down consistently driving at the heart of the Kerry defence, causing them continued distress.
O’Shea is involved again as he comes away with the breaking ball following a Kerry kick-out before offloading to Donal Vaughan. O’Connor really wants the ball and Vaughan obliges. The Ballintubber drives at the Kerry defence before executing a beautiful dummy handpass that creates a yard of space for himself to fire over and put Mayo in front.
It wasn’t just up front that O’Connor was influential. One of the trademarks of the Ballintubber man is his engine and selflessness in terms of not shying away from his defensive duties.
Here we see him 90 seconds after kicking a second inspirational score tracking back and turning over the ball. It is his ability to do things like this that endears him to fans around the country so much.
Finally, the goal, the defining moment and the winning of the game.
Kerry have levelled once more and as the final five minutes approach, it really is anybody’s game. Mayo are attacking but struggle to find a way through Kerry’s defensive screen.
They had plenty of chances to take a shot at goal and when they eventually did it was the wrong option from Paddy Durcan, however, O’Connor had ghosted into the full forward position before literally beating Shane Ryan to the punch and giving Mayo a lead that they refused to surrender.
— The GAA (@officialgaa) March 31, 2019
Mayo supporters celebrated the win as though the curse had ended and while they have come in for some criticism for that, we must remember that despite being at the business end of most campaigns (either league or championship) they haven’t won a national title in 18-years so it was a pretty big deal.
Earlier this year we earmarked the decision to make O’Connor captain as an inspired one due to his leadership qualities, quiet but forceful nature and ability to go all day and he certainly proved that yesterday.
Bigger challenges lie ahead for this Mayo side, however, if their captain fantastic can continue to put on such dominant displays and in turn take the pressure of his older brother when he eventually returns then there is no reason why they can’t challenge for Sam Maguire this season.