Where were the sporting gods when Mayo needed them most?
IF it was ever mooted that such a thing as a ‘Sporting God’ existed, I’d be an unrepentant atheist for sure.
Mayo had absorbed absolutely everything as they entered the home straight of yesterday’s All-Ireland final.
The nightmare start, the harsh red card, the missed chances, including a sitter for goal, and when Dublin brought on all the big guns their defence stood tall.
Chris Barrett, in particular, was immense. So good, in fact, that he was the man who put Mayo in their best ever position to finish Dublin off in an All-Ireland final.
As Dean Rock pointed to bring the teams level for the ninth time, the momentum once again swung towards Jim Gavin’s men.
But in the space of two minutes the Mayo number six stripped both Con O’Callaghan and Rock as they looked destined to score.
On both occasions counter-attacks led to Mayo scores and at two points up with 62 minutes gone, my overriding emotion was “surely it’s their time, come on Mayo”.
Dublin’s Eoghan O’Gara experiment had flopped. Paddy Andrews was gone at half-time too. Rock was missing frees he’d usually put over in his sleep. Lee Keegan had Ciaran Kilkenny tied up. Paul Flynn was failing to make an impact. The expected influence of the Dublin bench had been absorbed.
But in typical fashion, Mayo imploded once again. In some respects it was through their own doing and in others because of the quality and never-say-die attitude of a brilliant Dublin team ladened with so many potential match-winners.
The strong response to the early Dublin goal was what we now expect of Mayo as they followed up with the next two scores. After Dublin’s next three attacks resulted in two missed frees and another ball kicked over the line, you could sense that Stephen Rochford’s men were about to make Dublin look anything but invincible.
As it happened, the next Mayo score raised the roof. James McCarthy ran a hard 60 yards with the ball but Tom Parsons had the hunger, grit and discipline to chase him, rob possession, and the move ended with a Kevin McLoughlin point.
McLoughlin was superb in the first half. A real orchestrator of the Mayo attack.
For once the Westerners’ full-forward line ran riot against Dublin. Eight points from play was some return from Cillian O’Connor, Andy Moran and Jason Doherty.
O’Connor and Moran also created the goal for Lee Keegan who completely destroyed Kilkenny. Once again though, Mayo were left to rue so many glorious missed chances in the first half when they were really dominating the game.
By my reckoning, the kickout count in the first half was 14 taken by Stephen Cluxton to just seven by David Clarke. Before we even get to the won and lost, that stat on its own demonstrates just how dominant Mayo were after the early goal.
But more than that, Mayo scored 0-3 directly off the Dublin kickout. Donal Vaughan, Moran and Doherty blocked off all the angles perfectly before attacking every long delivery from Cluxton.
The free awarded by Joe McQuillan, and scored by Rock, on the stroke of half-time was just one of a few puzzling decisions made by the Cavan whistler.
The free awarded to Mayo to put them two up looked a stonewall penalty. All of the fouling was done inside the 14-yard line and the referee only put his arm up and blew for the foul when Keegan hit the ground six yards inside the square.
Dublin were given a few soft ones as well, but credit to Rock for showing nerves of steel.
Once again he came up with the goods when it mattered most in an All-Ireland final.
Both teams had a man sent off – John Small and Donal Vaughan for Mayo – but Mayo suffered more for a number reasons.
Vaughan’s straight red was possibly a bit harsh. A flailing bicep made contact with an opponent as opposed to an attempted strike so it was a yellow in my book.
However, Vaughan left himself open to punishment and his rash act probably cost Mayo the game.
The obvious negative for Mayo was the additional space left for the likes of Diarmuid Connolly, Paul Mannion, Rock and Kevin McManamon.
When it went to 14 versus 14 you could see Dublin playing with more width to stretch the already overworked Mayo defence.
With fewer men on the pitch and Mayo tiring, Cluxton was able to find the short kickout targets much easier.
As Aidan O’Shea ran out of steam he offered next to nothing in the last 15 minutes. At the important stage of big games he always seems to pass the buck rather than making something happen.
James McCarthy won the Mayo kickout uncontested that led to the Dublin winner. At that stage Clarke needed to hit the ball as long as possible rather than landing it on his side’s defensive ‘50’.
The kick was meant for O’Shea but he didn’t even go for it. I made a case during the week for him being brought in from the bench and the evidence yesterday showed the merit of that suggestion.
People will talk about the impact of the Dublin bench and there is no doubt the subs helped them over the line.
Connolly and McManamon brought a threat if not always an end product. But it was the likes of McCarthy (0-2), Rock (0-3) and Mannion (0-3) who saw Dublin to victory.
Those eight points kicked in the second half were vital.
Mayo had seven scorers on the day but when the game finished, four had already been taken off and another dismissed.
On the stroke of 70 minutes O’Connor missed a difficult enough free to put Mayo one up. He was desperately unlucky to hit the post, but his side needed that score.
Although his free was much straighter, Rock was clinical when he got the chance.
It was a game of fine margins and that was another area where Dublin triumphed.
As we entered injury-time, nearly all the scoring aces and experienced fresh legs were in wearing blue.
Mayo needed to be a point or two in front entering those last three or four minutes.
There was something about them this year after all. Something very special, but at the same time something unlucky.
But while sympathising with Mayo, it is important not to overlook the serious character and composure shown by Dublin. Despite all the talent at their disposal they had to do it the hard way when it they were up against it.
THE big dilemma for the Derry management going into yesterday’s All-Ireland minor final was how they could somehow limit the threat of the genius that is Kerry’s David Clifford.
It is important to state that yesterday we witnessed not only one of the greatest ever individual performances in an All-Ireland final, with Clifford scoring 4-4, but perhaps we also saw the most accomplished talent ever seen at minor level.
The amount of space left in front and behind Clifford was puzzling.
Twitter was awash with retrospective expert opinions on the naivety of Derry’s approach, but in reality it wouldn’t have mattered.
Take his second goal for example. He leapt off the ground surrounded by three Derry defenders before bulldozing past, holding them all off and then coolly finishing to the net.
He would have done enough damage no matter how many men were on him.
A sweeper or two in front would have made little difference such was the quality of the Kerry kickpassing and Clifford’s strength, movement and aerial ability.
He also had the awareness to bring other very dangerous players into the game.
In what was a successful year for Derry minors, yesterday was a harsh footballing lesson from a top, top talent by the name of David Clifford.
It seems the ‘Sporting God’ doesn’t do the fairytale ending after all, but then again, it’s possible that he lives in a big bright world full of Sky Blue.