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Madden on Monday: Mayo versus Fermanagh

Pete McGrath’s Fermanagh produced a superb first half performance against Mayo in Castlebar but were undone in large part by two awful refereeing decisions involving Aidan O’Shea. Picture by Philip Walsh

BELIEVE the unbelievable and receive the impossible. This was another weekend of exciting and unpredictable games involving Ulster teams.

Longford have once again bolstered their reputation as the giantkillers of the All-Ireland Qualifiers.

It’s hard to quantify just how much the two Donegal games took out of Monaghan both mentally and physically. When a team you are expected to beat comfortably, come fresh, hungry and ready for war, you can see how a result like this can happen.

Three weeks on the bounce had left Malachy O’Rourke’s men flat and Longford took advantage.

At Owenbeg, half-time couldn’t come quick enough for a Derry team who just weren’t at the races in the first half against Meath but serious grit and a throw caution to the wind (pardon the pun) approach in the second saw them grab a superb victory.

But, if all that was hard to believe, then what unfolded in Castlebar upstaged everything else.

1) The penalty was key...

THE game in Castlebar came down to one moment. It’s clear Aidan O’Shea conned the referee by diving. That was wrong on his part but O’Shea didn’t invent gamesmanship so it was up to Joe McQuillan and his umpires to do better. In making such a huge call, a referee must be totally convinced the foul has been committed. Perhaps Cillian O’Connor should have had a penalty earlier in the half as Marty O’Brien came down on top of him, but two wrongs do not make a right.

2) ...and Aidan O’Shea shouldn’t have been on the pitch to win it

I HAVE sympathy for referees who have a split second to make a decision that an entire season can hinge upon. The rest of us can look at replay after replay before making our assessment and pontificating about how inept the referee was. Players and management escape the same level of scrutiny. But the much bigger question for me, about which I have no sympathy for Joe McQuillan, is why Aidan O’Shea was still on the pitch at this point in the game.

Already booked in the first half, he committed a textbook cynical foul on Eoin Donnelly to disrupt the speed of a Fermanagh attack moments before the penalty. It wasn’t a black card offence but surely a cynical tackle that deserved the second yellow. It infuriates me that a referee can book a player for a genuine tackle attempt that goes marginally wrong, yet turn a blind eye to a cynical drag as it didn’t look that bad or in this case because he didn’t want to send off a star player. This was the much easier decision to make and one he got horribly wrong.

3) 15 v 14 would have been huge

McQUILLAN’S failure to send O’Shea off cost Fermanagh the game for two reasons. Up to this point in the match Mayo’s full-forward line had been largely ineffective. O’Shea going to full-forward gave them a genuine threat close to goal which produced the penalty.

Secondly, a numerical advantage in those last 20 minutes would have been massive for the Ernemen, who were aiming to see the game out. From the word go in the second half, Mayo put the full press on the Fermanagh kick-out making it impossible for them to work a short one. They completely dominated Chris Snow’s restarts, putting enormous pressure on the Fermanagh defence as attack after attack came pouring in.

An extra man would have eased the pressure, creating the space for some shorts to be worked. The extra man always makes it easier to create the overlap which would have allowed the impressive Fermanagh running game to come to the fore once again.

4) Fermanagh’s first half was brilliant

WHAT cannot be lost in the midst of controversy was just how well Pete McGrath’s men played in the first half. Smarter, hungrier, more disciplined, Fermanagh looked like a serious team. They were so disciplined and organised in defence and turnover after turnover was followed by the slickest of counter-attacking play. Marty O’Brien and Che Cullen had Cillian O’Connor and Alan Freeman completely sewn up. Aidan Breen, Barry Mulrone and Eoin Donnelly gave unbelievable energy on the front foot and the Ernemen gave Mayo a serious lesson in modern defending and effective counter-attacking play.

5) Ernemen will be haunted by the concession of Mayo’s opening goal

THE controversy aside, there were other key moments Fermanagh will look back on with regret, none moreso than the first Mayo goal. The management of space and subsequent swarm tackling was a very impressive feature of the Fermanagh game but in this instance they messed up. Four defenders had surrounded Evan Regan, who seemed set to be blown for over-carrying. But somehow he managed to release the ball, which allowed Keith Higgins to come around the blindside unmarked. As he hit his shot straight at Chris Snow, the nearby Fermanagh defenders didn’t follow in after the rebound, which allowed Freeman the easy chance.

That said, the response to the goal was superb as they hit seven out of the next nine scores finishing the half with 1-8 from play. There is no getting away from the fact Fermanagh began to tire soon into the second half. On one occasion a superb combination tackle from Marty O’Brien and Mickey Jones stripped Mayo of the ball when they looked destined to score.

But no Fermanagh player pounced on the loose ball. Fatigue had set in. The luxury of having a very strong bench was a big factor for Mayo. Alan Dillon and Barry Moran gave them another scoring threat and more ball-winning presence around midfield, while Donal Vaughan added a serious injection of pace going forward. The penalty aside, 15 on 15 Mayo just might have gone on to win the game anyway. But without Aidan O’Shea and a man down, Fermanagh would have won.

It was evident from the first whistle that Mayo lacked the discipline in their tackling, shape and general play. As the game entered its climax they should have been punished for this. As for Fermanagh, they deserve huge credit, but at this point admiration and moral victories will mean very little. In the end they got a different type of unbelievable that made their task impossible. They deserved so much better.

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