Mayo’s defeat to Dublin in the All-Ireland SFC final is already last year’s news. Fancy that, the gulls are still picking at the turf in Croke Park so fresh are the divots left by the boots of O’Connor and O’Callaghan, yet here we are counting down to a new season that will see inter-county teams return to collective training on January 16. In Mayo’s case, that will be only four weeks since the newest addition to their collection of Croke Park disappointments.
I can’t speak for the players but the upset among the rest of the Mayo GAA fraternity didn’t feel as severe this time, a bi-product perhaps of the notion that the chance of beating Dublin was ridiculously miniscule anyway. But notions are simply that, notions.
So here’s another. For every expert or pundit (they’re not necessarily one and the same) who said it couldn’t happen, that a sixth successive All-Ireland crown for Dublin was inevitable and that there was no possible way Mayo would be able to halt the procession of the city slickers, they were wrong. Mayo could have. Aidan O’Shea could have been that man hoisting aloft the Sam Maguire Cup six days before his Christmas dinner. Mayo could have been the team crowned 2020 All-Ireland senior football champions. We could have been celebrating – two metres apart, of course – the one-in-a-row.
Dublin are beatable, granted by the very, very few, but beatable. Mayo, even in defeat, proved that. The majority of post-final analysis focused on what Dublin had done to avoid defeat, chiefly how Dessie Farrell rolled out some exceptional talent off the bench, as opposed to focusing on the things that Mayo had done which, by their own standards, amounted to very sloppy play, and which contributed as much to their downfall. Little things when added together can carry significant weight.
The Mayo players, the newer ones in particular, have been lavished with praise – and deservedly so, let it be said – for how they stood up and became very relevant in the championship just passed, but nor do they need to be shielded from their shortcomings that made Dublin’s mission a hell of a lot easier than it should have been.
Three times in the first half Mayo took shots at the Dublin posts that dropped into the arms of goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton, first from only 20-metres by Mattie Ruane in the fifteenth minute when to have converted off his left boot would have levelled the match. Ryan O’Donoghue under-hit his kick in the 27th minute and instead of Mayo hitting the front for a second time, Dublin raced straight upfield where Con O’Callaghan pointed to send his side one clear instead. A 34th-minute chance for Tommy Conroy to level the scores landed into Cluxton and a minute later Ciaran Kilkenny was bisecting the Mayo posts to give his side a two points half-time lead. Coupled with the schoolboy concession of the opening goal that had arrived as quick from the throw-in as stands the world record for the men’s 110-metre hurdles, and a wide from a 35-metre free by Cillian O’Connor that looked a gimme by his standards, especially since the championship’s all-time top scorer had already struck seven points by that 29th minute, and you get a sense of the sort of responsibility Mayo themselves had to take for the state of the scoreboard at the interval, where Dublin led 2-6 to 0-10. But there’s more; think back to the eleventh minute and it was a basic five-yard hand-pass from Kevin McLoughlin that didn’t reach its target which relinquished possession for Sean Bugler to become the first player other than Dean Rock to score for Dublin, or to the 35th minute when from a promising attacking position, Conor Loftus kicked a sideline ball straight to the opposition who immediately punished his indiscretion with that final point before the break by Kilkenny. All that error in just one half, against the greatest ever, and yet you’re still bang in the mix.
Yes, Dublin had their errors too, and their four first-half wides actually amounted to one more than Mayo’s total for the game, but more is always going to have to go right for the underdog, and that simply didn’t happen in the case of Mayo. Substitutes Darren Coen and James Carr, in the second half, increased to five the number of times men wearing Green and Red dropped scoring attempts short into Cluxton, so contrast that with the fact that Dublin didn’t kick a single effort into the arms of Mayo goalkeeper David Clarke for the entire 77- or 78-minutes, and those Mayo misses alone, never mind everything else that has been mentioned, paint a different complexion to the five-point margin that separated the teams at full-time.
But all we’re left with is the I-told-you-sos of the know-it-alls who predicted Dublin’s win.
But maybe not all the mistakes were on the pitch. How was it, especially when advertising before the match that his side was going to have to take risks if wanting to pull off the unlikely, that James Horan didn’t demand a more adventurous approach from his players in that opening period of the second half? Two points behind but with advantage of an extra man for 10-minutes, it was frustrating and confusing that Mayo didn’t rid themselves of the shackles and just have a cut, like they had so impressively when 15 on 15 in the first half in response to the set-backs of Dublin’s two goals. Before Robbie McDaid’s return however, 14-man Dublin had twice been able to extend their lead to three points with scores from play by Niall Scully and Brian Fenton whereas Mayo relied on a free by Cillian O’Connor and a pointed mark by Stephen Coen just to restore the two points margin, before O’Connor eventually narrowed the gap to the minimum, but again from a free.
Indeed with so much made about the impact of Ciaran Kilkenny and his role in fashioning the Dublin victory in the final quarter, it’s interesting to note that by the 58th minute Ryan O’Donoghue was the only player other than O’Connor (Dublin men included) to have raised two white flags from play yet it was at that stage that Mayo management chose to withdraw the Belmullet man – after which Kilkenny came good to score his only two points of the second half and help push the Dubs onwards to victory.
And then there’s the perennial question of Aidan O’Shea’s role. When the inter-county season resumed in October and O’Shea spent one full game tormenting the Galway team in Tuam Stadium with his presence in front of their goal, it looked like Mayo football finally had its light-bulb moment. Alas, game by game, minute by minute, yard by yard, the Breaffy giant absconded, whether by choice or instruction, back out to the middle third of the pitch and only for the briefest of spells during the third quarter in the All-Ireland final did he position himself at the edge of the Dublin square. And still in those fleeting moments there were fouls against him by Mick Fitzsimons and Jonny Cooper which resulted in two handy points for O’Connor in the space of only three minutes. Why, oh why, has it not become a permanent thing? Who drives that conversation in the dressing-room?
The sight, in the final minutes, of O’Shea lobbing in a free from midfield towards where it feels like an entire county believes he should be, transported us straight back to the final moments of other recent All-Ireland final losses.
Yes, we keep on coming back but do we ever learn?