The Championship

Aaron Kernan: Everything will go mental until All-Ireland replay

Dublin's Paul Mannion is blocked by Mayo's Diarmuid O'Connor during last Sunday's All-Ireland senior football final at Croke Park
Picture by Colm O'Reilly 

THE general consensus ahead of last Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC final was that, for Mayo to have any chance of winning, they would need to produce 70 minutes of manic football - something we hadn’t seen this season.

However, it was thought this alone would still not be enough, that Dublin would also need to produce a below par performance, something else we’ve failed to see for a considerable length of time. Even if you go back to their last Championship defeat - the All-Ireland semi-final against Donegal in August 2014 - they played well on that occasion and created a huge amount of scoring chances. It was their naive defending of Donegal counter-attacks which cost them in the end.

While the weather and underfoot conditions contributed to the poor execution of skills, at times, I found it an absorbing contest. The atmosphere at Croke Park was bubbling nicely long before throw-in and, when both sides arrived onto the field at the same time, hopping off one another as they made their way towards the cameramen, the tension and excitement cranked up another notch.

I was wondering to myself if it happened by chance, or had Mayo planned it but, as it turns out, it was the Dubs who missed their timeslot for arrival and caused the coming together. As Mayo have lost all seven of their All-Ireland finals since their last triumph in 1951, I didn’t really care if it was planned, I was just glad to see they were ready for confrontation and not prepared to take a backward step in any situation.

It was clear from early on Mayo had their homework done, they had their defensive match-ups spot on and the fact no Dublin player scored until the 31st minute of the first-half shows this. Mayo were ferocious in the tackle and no Dublin player was afforded time or space in possession.

What was most impressive and cannot be underestimated was Mayo’s ability in one-on-one situations to slow up Dublin attacks and force them backwards. That took more than just hunger and desire. It took confidence and trust from their management team to do their job and it also took every ounce of their physical make-up to continually thwart the Dublin running machine for almost 80 minutes. They chased every seemingly lost cause. Diarmuid O’Connor’s heroic one-handed diving block on Paul Mannion after 50 minutes was a perfect example of this.

They also showed remarkable mental strength on a number of occasions, an area where many questioned them in the past. For Mayo to regroup at half-time and unleash wave after wave of attack for the 15 minutes of the second-half, the period when Dublin usually bury their opponents, spoke volumes about their ability to play in the now and not to feel sorry for themselves.

Both teams had moments late in the game they won’t want repeated when they meet in the replay. The players from both camps will need thick skins, though there will be a few more home truths told among the Dubs who, by my reckoning, lost the personal battles by two-to-one.

I have not been fortunate enough to be in the same position as those players at county level, but I have at club level, where I drew All-Ireland finals in 2007 and '12. My immediate reaction on both occasions was relief, as we got another chance, but it didn’t take long for frustration to kick in, as every single mistake I made ran through my head and the whole occasion became an anti-climax.

Our 2012 draw against Garrycastle draws parallels with Dublin’s situation. On that occasion, we too were going for two in-a-row, our form had been excellent for the two years previous and we went in as strong favourites. On the day, we produced a completely flat performance and just about did enough to deserve a draw. 

Garrycastle were the aggressors from the throw-in, while we stood back thinking we had a divine right to win the game because we were the reigning champions. On our journey home from Dublin that evening, our management encouraged us to socialise as a group with our supporters when we returned to our clubhouse to blow off some steam before we would begin focusing on the replay the following day. It was a good call because the build-up to finals don’t tend to be much fun as there is too much at stake and everyone is on edge.

Once we got our heads around the disappointment of our performance, we set about ensuring there would be no repeat. We only thought we were ready the first day and, for the two weeks following the drawn game, we challenged each other in every arena possible - team meetings, training sessions and our final in-house game - to be sure every man starting knew just how privileged he was to get that position.

As we burst onto the Kingspan Breffni Park pitch, we ran straight past the waiting cameramen and drilled a few balls wildly towards the goals before making our way back for the official photograph. As we approached the bench, we were met by the Garrycastle team making their entrance. A few players from both sides met head on like raging bulls but, this time, we were not going to back down. It might only have been a picture, but we would not be waiting for anyone. Nothing was going to put us off performing that day. On this occasion, we didn’t wait for it to happen, we made it happen. We won by 15 points.

The challenge for both these sides over the next 11 days is purely mental. Are Mayo going to soak up the plaudits now they’ve rid themselves of the ‘choker’ tag, or are they prepared to dig even deeper to get their hands on Sam? Surely, this Dublin team, and their forward unit in particular, cannot be as poor again. Can they show the character to put this blip behind them and go on to claim the greatness that’s at their fingertips?

Either way, I can’t wait for part two.

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