HomeFootballConnor Gleeson the unlikely hero as Galway finally have lift-off in stop-start...

Connor Gleeson the unlikely hero as Galway finally have lift-off in stop-start season

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Connor Gleeson has his detractors in Galway and beyond. And even in this game, he provided further ingredients for those that would prefer change in the No 1 position. But ultimately, before a crowd of 19,193, he had the nerve to stand up and steer that kick between the posts to complete a late surge for a first provincial three-in-a-row since 1984 that was somewhat against the odds given the position Galway were in coming into the game. The win means they are the first team to win 50 Connacht titles.

The awarding of that free was a talking point in itself. Conor Loftus had moved in to take a kick-out from Colm Reape but was surrounded by Paul Conroy and Matthew Tierney. Their efforts to strip the Mayo substitute of possession looked aggressive but referee David Gough didn’t see it that way, instead determining that Loftus had held on too long.

There was still time for Cillian O’Connor to get a kick away at the other end but it was well wide and the siege that Galway have felt under all year, as injuries and poor form enveloped them, lifted.

Their manager Pádraic Joyce’s record against Mayo in his five years had quite the focus this week, one win in nine games across Connacht league, national league and championship. And by extension, that pressure to deliver here extended to his players too. So they all felt it but when it mattered most they had the nerve to see it out.

“You always feel it,” said Joyce of the pressure. “When you see articles written about different stuff on our side and nothing on the far side. It does get to you a little bit.

“For the lads, I’m probably putting more pressure on them than anyone else. We know the talent that is in the group. Hopefully we can push on.”

For Mayo, it’s not a disaster. Manager Kevin McStay rationalised afterwards that one point the other way would give it a different complexion. But they led by two points at the break and by two points on two other occasions in the second half after Galway had gone ahead yet couldn’t maintain a grip.

They are not a team that appear to have evolved much since last year, personnel-wise or tactically, but they were hampered by the pre-game withdrawal of their captain Paddy Durcan who always gives them thrust from the back.

Naturally, Joyce was keen to praise the character of a team that have been submerged by big injuries all year. Among those has been Damien Comer who was magnificent here, posing such problems for Mayo with power and movement framed by his low centre of gravity.

Comer scored two points, was fouled for four frees that Rob Finnerty converted, and teed Finnerty up for one of his three points from play just after half-time.

He was also centrally involved in the game’s two best goal chances, first drawing a great save from Reape in the 14th minute when he turned David McBrien after running on to a nice ball popped into his path by Finnerty and then placing John Maher with swift hands. Maher was denied by some good scrambled defence from Rory Brickenden who cleared off the line initially and Reape who tidied up.

Mayo tasked McBrien with tracking him but he was in difficulty early on as Comer went by him and hit the side-netting, a move that earned the first of those four frees. McBrien was the obvious choice for such duties but no Mayo sweeper, or even obvious variation of one, played into Comer’s hands.

Finnerty was also sharp and looks like a player back to the form that carried him so far in 2022. He finished his day with eight points, three from play.

Joyce wasn’t oblivious to the fact that it was far from a complete performance. This was a poor quality game at times and some of that paucity will probably be lost in the nature of the finish. But for Galway it’s a step up from where they were in the league and against Sligo in the semi-final.

Gleeson was only on the long-range frees – Joyce said afterwards that he had put himself forward for those duties – because Shane Walsh is unable to strike off the ground due to an ongoing groin injury that has been hampering him since the league game against Mayo in January.

On top of that Gleeson’s grandmother was buried on Tuesday, after which he ignored a request from Joyce that he stay away from training that night. Walsh was named in the team, then withdrawn but came on near the end of the first half to score two points, convert a free and win another for Gleeson in a busy second half.

Kieran Molloy and Cathal Sweeney had replaced Walsh and John Maher from the original team but by half-time those changes were reversed and Maher also made a decent second-half contribution.

They were economic with just three wides throughout but two more dropped short and John Daly was blocked down at one stage by Stephen Coen beneath the Mayo posts, an intervention that led to Donnacha McHugh’s point for a 0-4 to 0-3 lead on 23 minutes.

Any wind in Salthill, and it was minimal, favoured Galway in the first half but they still trailed by 0-7 to 0-5 at the break. They quickly went 0-8 to 0-7 ahead however, and that told Joyce at the very least the attitude was where it should be.

Their captain Seán Kelly operated at centre-forward but added little in an offensive capacity, though Joyce referenced a key turnover he made in the second half. They’ll need him more centrally involved and coming from deeper.

The involvement of Mayo’s key inside forwards was intermittent. Johnny McGrath was a tough opponent for Ryan O’Donoghue and while O’Donoghue got a mark and a booming 45-metre point, Mayo have become accustomed to more from him. Tommy Conroy scored a point in either half and was fouled for the free that brought parity, 0-13 each, while Jack Carney ran hard from midfield throughout. But there was never a sense that Mayo went for the game when they were on top.

They’ll now face Roscommon, Cavan and the Leinster winners, most likely Dublin, in a group that gives them a decent chance of a home second/third place play-off at least.

But there was nothing here to suggest that they’ll go further than last year.

SCORERS – Galway: R Finnerty 0-8 (5f); S Walsh 0-3 (1f); C Gleeson (2f), D Comer 0-2 each; J Heaney 0-1. Mayo: R O’Donoghue 0-6 (4f, 1m); M Ruane 0-3; T Conroy 0-2; J Flynn, F Boland, C O’Connor, D McHugh 0-1 each.

GALWAY: C Gleeson 7; J McGrath 7, S Fitzgerald 6, J Glynn 7; D McHugh 7, J Daly 6, L Silke 7; P Conroy 7, C Darcy 7; J Heaney 6, S Kelly 6, K Molloy 5; R Finnerty 8, D Comer 9, C Sweeney 5. Subs: J Maher 7 for Molloy (21), S Walsh 7 for Sweeney (33), M Tierney 6 for Heaney (52), S Mulkerrin 6 for Fitzgerald (65), D O’Flaherty 7 for Daly (71).

MAYO: C Reape 8; J Coyne 7, D McBrien 6, R Brickenden 6; E McLaughlin 6, D McHugh 7, S Callinan 6; J Carney 7, M Ruane 7; S Coen 6, F Boland 6, J Flynn 6; T Conroy 7, A O’Shea 6, R O’Donoghue 7. Subs: D O’Connor 6 for Boland (45), C O’Connor 6 for O’Shea (54), E Hession 6 for Flynn (58), C Loftus for Coyne (65), B Tuohy for Carney (72).

REF: D Gough (Meath).

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