By Cliona Foley
Mayo are back in the TG4 All-Ireland ladies SFC semi-finals for the first time in seven years, but only after surviving a nail-biting quarterfinal tussle with Westmeath.
“We didn’t do it in the most exemplary way possible but we did it, the dream is still alive,” said relieved manager Frank Browne. They face Dublin next and will need to improve considerably after struggling for long periods with Division 2 finalists Westmeath, who held them to just four first-half scores and cleaned them out at midfield. Mayo centre-back Martha Carter played, despite breaking her finger in the Connacht final six weeks ago, and they all looked ring-rusty from the long layoff since that game.
“I think rustiness definitely was the issue, that lack of a real intense battle,” said Browne.
Westmeath certainly gave them one and might have been leading, not trailing (0-4 to 1-3), at half-time if they hadn’t chased goals so persistently. Rebecca Dunne held Cora Staunton to just 0-2 (1f) by the break and Mayo’s first goal, on 26 minutes, came against the run of play when a Staunton shot came off the cross-bar and fell to an unmarked Doireann Hughes.
The sides were level a third time before Staunton eventually cut loose with a trademark piece of opportunism after Niamh Kelly won a short free on 37 minutes. Before anyone could blink the Carnacon wizard had hit a rocket from her hands to the net.
Westmeath rallied marvellously with quick points from their top-scorer Leona Archibald and Maud Annie Foley. Laura Walsh, marked well by Sarah Tierney throughout, then had a good goal chance saved, and the Midlanders looked unlucky not to get a free for a late foul on Fiona Coyle as she shot a wide.
Those misses proved costly as Mayo, inspired by Staunton, then kicked four points clear with a flurry of points. Yet a dramatic late Westmeath goal from Maher cut the gap to just one with four minutes left and Mayo needed a super insurance point from Niamh Kelly to seal victory.
“It’s our first semi-final since 2009, that’s a long time for a county with a proud tradition of ladies football,” Browne said. “It’s a damning statistic in some ways but we’ve got a lot of things right this year too and we’re still moving in the right direction.”