GAA Football

John McEntee: Plaudits must go to two great teams

Mayo's players contemplate another All-Ireland final defeat Picture by Seamus Loughran

A FRIEND once compared losing a football final to failed attempts at courting in the Carrickdale Hotel. His words were, “you might not have got the lady but at least you got to dance.”

Dublin and Mayo served up a spectacle fitting of an All-Ireland final.

It was edge of your seat stuff from start to finish, totally enthralling and exhausting. Our grief was palpable. At the final whistle, a stricken lady from Derry who was sitting in the seat behind, tapped us on the shoulder to pass on her condolences, “Oh, we’re not from Mayo, we are from Armagh,” was our reply.

Admittedly, I have a tacit connection with the team with my twin brother being involved in the Mayo management team.

I have a great love for this annual occasion as it is one of the rare times we in the six counties get to form a real emotional bond with our southern friends.

Over the course of 70-plus minutes, my orange blood gradually dyed green and red and as we drove home afterwards, I felt as though it was my own county who left something behind on the dancefloor of Croke Park.

For the Derry and Mayo supporters, the drive home was long and silent.

Now that the dust has settled it is time for the post mortem to commence.

One-point losses are often the most difficult to digest. They suggest your team has been pipped at the post, that the winners may not have necessarily been the better team but rather the luckier team.

Often there may be merit in this thought process but what use is it after the event? Experience has taught me that there can be large margins between losing by one point and winning by one point.

A number of key things stick out for me.

The most obvious is the understated value of a deadly accurate free-taker in the modern game. This is a specialist role. It requires nerves of steel, perfectly honed technique and an absolute conviction in your striking ability. We often hear commentators say that kicking from the ground is easier as you are kicking a static object, there is a point of focus which blocks out the many distractions and perhaps most crucially, the technique used is the same, irrespective of the distance from the goals.

Dean Rock said as much in recent interviews. Scoring under pressure is the marker against which free-taking is measured.

I admire Cillian O’Connor’s leadership qualities and his confidence even when the small things are not going his way. However, on Sunday the clear winner was Dean Rock who opted to strike his long range frees off the ground. It is this characteristic above all others which pencils him into my Allstar team.

A second observation which contributes to winning is one’s ability to close out a game. Mayo went two points up with 10 minutes to go.

Their defending was top drawer and they continued to create scoring chances.

Sadly, they did not capitalise on these opportunities. Dublin, on the other hand, got level with Mayo then stormed ahead in the dying minutes of injury-time. Joe McQuillan was going to give Mayo one more opportunity to draw level.

Dublin have been in this position before. They knew what to do. Man for man, they abandoned their ‘pretty boy football’ image and simply wrestled Mayo’s six defenders two midfielders and three half-forwards to the floor. From a Dublin fan’s perspective, it was a spectacular tactic.

As a quasi-neutral, I was horrified. Two minutes later when my logical brain was re-engaged I found myself admiring their winning attitude and disciplined application of the way in which the order was executed – a nod to the leaders of 1916.

In many ways Jim Gavin’s men don’t just replicate history, they make history.

Much has been said about the strength of Dublin’s bench. Sunday proved this. Their subs, with the exception of Flynn, made a positive contribution and without them the three-in-a-row would not be realised.

None of their performances were of a level to indicate they were deserving of a starting place which would not have been missed by managers all over the country.

I may be clutching at straws, but there might be hope for the rest of the country. In many ways it vindicates Gavin’s decision to start them all on the bench.

Mayo too emptied their bench, but with the exception of Diarmuid O’Connor, they were largely anonymous.

Another point which separates winners and runners-up is the ability to finish stronger.

Weak teams will stay with the great teams after 30 minutes, good teams will be in the shake-up with 15 minutes to go.

When great teams play great teams, it is often injury time when the better team eventually gets that one half-yard of space to score the winning point or to conjure up that winning free. Two great teams played out this memorable final to bring to a close another season of fond memories.

I’ll finish with the words of Cillian O’Connor, the Mayo captain, at their post-match gala: “Dublin are worthy champions because they beat great men.”

Comhghairdeas Átha Cliath.

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