Dublin's desire to dominate led to serious indiscipline
LAST weekend's meeting of Dublin and Mayo had all the makings of a classic. Both teams play the game at great pace and have looked like potential All-Ireland champions all year.
In recent years, the semi-finals have given us brilliant games of football, with last year in particular providing us with the three best games of the year. The drawn match last Sunday failed to live up to expectations, though. Despite that, it provided so many talking points, although most were on the negative side.
As a Tyrone man, it would be easy to highlight the negative aspects of the game and use it to defend my own county. However, I would never want to vilify players or criticise teams for biased reasons. Football, and sport in general, is meant to be a source of positivity and I would rather point out how indiscipline affected a team's performance.
To be successful at county level, you need to play with real aggression and physicality. When you get to the latter stages of the Championship, the mental edge you can gain from dominating the physical game is vital. Brian Cody spoke to the Tyrone team in 2008 and he told us the Kilkenny players wanted to bully their opponent. Both physically and mentally, they wanted to dominate so their hurling ability would win out. The key, though, is that Kilkenny play with total discipline.
Last Sunday, both teams were responsible for ensuring the nasty elements of the game dominated, but it did appear Dublin wanted to stamp their authority on the game from very early on. However, you have to consider the mindset of Dublin leading into the game. They were heavily criticised after last year's defeat to Donegal. Their management team were labelled as tactically naive. The players were told they were too soft when the opposition really put it up to them.
Dublin's waltz through the Leinster Championship and the quarter-final win over Fermanagh did not answer any of those criticisms. The Mayo game was the first real opportunity to prove the critics wrong. While trying to physically dominate Mayo, they fell into trap of allowing their discipline to go out the window. Teams want to play right on the limit of the rules, but it is very easy to cross the line - like Dublin did last Sunday.
It would not be an exaggeration to say Dublin could have had five players sent-off in the match - Stephen Cluxton, Philly McMahon and Jonny Cooper could all have received straight red cards to join Diarmuid Connolly, while Cian O'Sullivan's second half yellow card should have been his second of the game.
Joe McQuillan has come in for plenty of stick since the game and there is no doubt he got some major calls wrong. However, there was so much going on during the game it was next to impossible to referee. I would put more of the blame on the linesmen and umpires, who should have helped him to punish some of the off-the-ball incidents.
A few early yellow cards could have been a warning to the players. Jim Gavin will reinforce the need for his team to maintain their discipline in the replay. Aside from the major incidents, they tackled with a lack of patience and far too much aggression inside their own 45-metre line. Mayo really struggled for scores from play, but Dublin give up far too many scoreable frees, which Cillian O'Connor ruthlessly punished.
Dublin played the best football in the match and had the game virtually won when seven points up. The Mayo defence struggled, at times, to cope with their pace and movement. A lot of teams are now conceding the opposition kick-out, but it was a dangerous ploy from Mayo. Dublin are superb at carrying the ball and the range of scorers they have in their forward line makes them extremely difficult to defend against.
Mayo had a significant height advantage in midfield, but allowing Stephen Cluxton to go short throughout the first half didn't capitalise on the advantage. In the second half, they pushed up and we saw some unusually poor kicks from Cluxton. Physically, it is tough to pressure the kicks, but I would expect Mayo to attempt to force Dublin to go long more in the replay.
There had been so much hype around Aidan O'Shea in the build-up to the match, so it was no surprise Dublin focused their defensive game-plan around nullifying his influence. What was surprising was that Mayo took so long to shift the focus of their attack away from O'Shea.
They failed to utilise the strong running from defence that has been such a dominant part of their attacking game in recent seasons. Only once the game seemed lost did Mayo attack at pace and in numbers from the back. Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle and Lee Keegan are all fantastic ball-carriers and they punched holes in the Dublin defence in the last 10 minutes. If they get their running game going early in the replay it will force the Dublin sweepers to come out and should allow for more one-on-one opportunities for O'Shea.
Replays are very difficult to predict and this one is no different. Dublin played the better football in the drawn match, but the number of frees they conceded cost them victory, along with a lack of composure in the closing stages. Dublin can certainly improve their discipline, but the loss of Diarmuid Connolly is a big blow.
Mayo would appear to be the team with the greater room for improvement. Diarmuid O'Connor was their only starting forward to score from play and it is unlikely his older brother Cillian will be given as many opportunities from placed balls. Whether the lack of scores from play is down to a poor performance or a continued weakness in Mayo football is the decisive factor.
The need for Dublin to bring their level of aggression down a few notches, a greater variety in Mayo's attacking play and the loss of Connolly will combine to edge Mayo to victory.