Mayo can still lay claim to being a great side
When I sit down to analyse my football career, one word crops up repeatedly. Defeats. I have been part of beaten teams more often than winning ones.
Save for a few Ulster Colleges medals in my first, second and third year at the Abbey, a few Down Division Two winning medals and a Railway Cup medal, there is very little to melt down and flog if I were ever to need the cash.
After experiencing defeat in a couple of Ulster finals and an All-Ireland final, as well as countless beatings in intermediate club finals and a few club championship semi-finals with Saval, each and every defeat sent a chill to my bones, leaving an indescribable scar on my soul.
Some have been a lot worse than others. Being beaten in the 2012 Ulster final was very difficult, however, the 2010 All-Ireland final defeat was particularly depressing.
I do not use that word lightly as I know it is a particularly sensitive term for those struggling with their mental health.
For Down, it was our first All-Ireland final since 1994 and, while Down had only been in five up until then, as a group we did not want to be the first team to break that tradition.
I can only imagine how badly Lee Keegan, Aidan O’Shea and Andy Moran feel this week.
To suffer defeat once is one thing, however, to be beaten on a further four or five occasions in a final is another – especially by the cruellest of margins.
These are truly depressing statistics, whatever way you try to garner the positives.
As a player, I would imagine that you begin to wonder if sport is capable of producing any justice.
As a child playing, you are encouraged to keep going.
‘Your time will come’ is preached constantly.
Well, what if it doesn’t? What do we hang onto then? This is the human tragedy of sport. It isn’t fair and never will be.
When you buy into team sports, you have to be psychologically prepared to lose to an opponent in any circumstances.
You have to be prepared to place your trust in team-mates and prepare for them to cost you.
Into the bargain, you are expected as an individual to be humble enough not to apportion any blame to any player for mistakes and instead encourage collective responsibility.
A couple of years ago, a tragicomedy originated from the 2002 Saipan episode involving Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy titled ‘I-Keano’.
It was a tremendous success. If the Mayo story were to be told in a similar circumstance, I am not sure if it could be translated into a comedy satire.
No aspect of their journey since 1951 is or ever has been funny.
It is a classic Shakespearean tragedy akin to Macbeth or Antony and Cleopatra, only worse.
It keeps happening repeatedly.
This particular All-Ireland final had everything.
Mayo will feel hard done by with some of Joe McQuillan’s refereeing decisions.
Statistically, the margins were so close on the day that Dublin’s last score before half-time had more than a hint of luck about it.
Two Dublin players crashed into one another and somehow, eventually, a free was given to Dublin which Dean Rock duly dispatched.
This gave both Dublin and Rock a lift going in at the interval after an otherwise erratic enough performance in play and in free-kicks in the first half.
In another incident on 26 minutes, Dublin scored from a quick counter-attack after an incident where I felt Donal Vaughan was fouled in possession 30 metres from goal.
This is a two-point swing.
This is the numerical difference, which separates both sides on the day. The margins are that tight.
You can also make a strong case for a Mayo penalty with ‘was it or wasn’t it outside the small square?’ in the second half of Sunday’s duel.
I felt Keegan was clearly fouled in the penalty area. Even if Keegan was originally fouled outside the area, the advantage is surely the penalty. Again, this is a two-point swing.
Another victory for Mayo on paper. Like all tragedies, there is a touch of the self-destruct button in this story.
Mayo had the opportunities to really put some distance between themselves and Dublin.
Twenty-six years ago, Down went 11 points up against Meath in the All-Ireland final and a seemingly insurmountable lead nearly became a noose. Down made hay when they could and won the game.
However, last Sunday, Mayo were wasteful while Dublin didn’t return the same compliment. Ultimately, these missed chances would play a part in the end result.
While I feel that Stephen Rochford and his management team have done an incredible job in the last two years, I would never have substituted Andy Moran nor Colm Boyle (if both were uninjured).
Moran will always offer you a pass inside or a score when the game is in the melting pot.
He will tenaciously hunt down men in possession, an asset particularly useful when Dublin were playing ‘keep ball’ with minutes remaining of added time.
Boyle is always an outlet off the shoulder, a breaker of the defensive line and, as his first half point proves, is an extremely accurate kicker of the ball from the outside of the boot.
Again, these ‘what ifs’ will haunt the players and the sub-conscious minds of the management.
When you see the celebrations afterwards, Dublin appear to have expected to win. No leaping for joy from Jim Gavin and Stephen Cluxton. Just ruthlessly cold satisfaction.
Whether this mindset is genetic or inherent, would you bet against them returning in 2018 for a fourth crown in four years?
Jim Gavin’s attention will probably immediately turn to next year, such, it seems, is his philosophy. In doing so, consider how he will keep the players’ minds and legs fresh for the tilt at number four.
I think deep down, reading his body language, Gavin will feel that last Sunday was as close as they can come to losing a final without being beaten.
He will be annoyed that the Eoghan O’Gara experiment failed to deliver. Paddy Andrews was replaced early. He will be aware that Lee Keegan gave Ciaran Kilkenny a torrid time.
Gavin will also recognise that Mayo, who have been beaten by Galway and almost by Roscommon and Derry in 2017, are one decision or one kick of the ball away from being All-Ireland champions.
He will know that the vultures are circling, ready to start picking at the flesh off this current Dublin crop.
Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone will most likely return as the semi-finalists in 2018. But it will take a very special set of players to dethrone Dublin in 2018. Mayo have that special set.
They may not be winners, but that doesn’t make them losers either.
Maybe, just maybe, last Sunday will redefine what makes up the definition of a ‘great’ team.