GOLDEN MOMENT Mayo’s Lee Keegan celebrates his goal against Dublin in last Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC Final. Pic: Sportsfile
IT’S all over, and it’s all about to begin.
We’d known for some time that unless Mayo’s endless championship summer culminated in All-Ireland success, it was going to hurt when the music finally stopped.
But that still hadn’t didn’t make the final whistle last Sunday evening any easier for the Mayo footballing fraternity as Dublin celebrated their three-in-a-row of All-Ireland titles after a compelling match unfolded in front of a full house at Croke Park.
Some Mayo players fell to the ground with exhaustion and sheer disbelief while others wandered aimlessly towards their colleagues as reality began to take hold.
A match where they had played so well for so long, and where they had led by two points after 63 minutes, had ended in the most heartbreaking of fashions.
Dublin free-taker Dean Rock emerged as the hero of the hour, nailing a free nervelessly into the Davin Stand in the sixth minute of injury-time after referee Joe McQuillan seemed to harshly penalise Chris Barrett for a foul on Diarmuid Connolly.
Mayo tried in vain to muster up one last scoring chance, or to engineer a last-gasp shooting opportunity, but they were unable to do so.
Instead, Dublin held out to extend their unbeaten run over Mayo in league and championship to 11 games and frank their reputation as the best team of a generation.
The aforementioned Joe McQuillan was a name on everybody’s lips before, during and after Sunday’s game as both teams finished with fourteen men; Dublin’s John Small dismissed after being booked twice and Mayo’s Donie Vaughan joining him after taking exception to Small’s crunching tackle on Colm Boyle and receiving a red card for his high tackle on his Dublin opponent.
Vaughan’s departure thirteen minutes into the second half robbed Mayo of a ball-carrying, line-breaking spare man and changed the dynamic of the match.
However, six minutes later the stadium was shaken to its foundations when Lee Keegan (who put the shackles on Ciarán Kilkenny all day) came charging upfield to lash in a goal at the Hill 16 end.
Cillian O’Connor and Andy Moran both played key roles in a score that was as brilliant as it was inspirational, and Mayo led by 1-12 to 1-11 when the cheers died down.
There were still 25 minutes to play though and the fun was only getting started.
First, Dublin’s half-time substitute Diarmuid Connolly fired over the equaliser before Kevin McLoughlin replied at the other end.
Then, Dean Rock broke through to level the match for the ninth time before Mayo moved up through the gears again.
A sublime pass from Kevin McLoughlin on 60 minutes set Cillian O’Connor up for a brilliant lead score before Diarmuid O’Connor, who also came in off the bench, won a free which his brother converted to nudge Mayo two points up on 62 minutes.
At that very moment, it seemed that anything was possible. Dublin were being asked the hard questions and Mayo’s best display for years had been produced on the biggest day.
But Jim Gavin’s team showed just why they are the best in the business right now down the home straight, rattling off three quickfire points from Paul Mannion, Jack McCaffrey and Dean Rock in the space of three minutes to retake the initiative.
The match was heading for injury-time at that stage, but Cillian O’Connor stepped up to guide over the leveller on 68 minutes to set up a grandstand finish.
The Mayo captain also had an opportunity to edge his team ahead in stoppage time but his left wing effort hit the post, and rebounded to safety.
Minutes later, Rock steered over a 38-metre free at the other end to ensure Mayo snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
On reflection, Stephen Cluxton’s save from Jason Doherty’s goalbound shot earlier in the second half proved decisive although David Clarke did likewise to deny Paul Mannion moments later.
It was that sort of contest, a classic championship match that seldom paused to catch its breath.
The game started in a welter of excitement with Dublin’s flair forward, Con O’Callaghan, slaloming his way past Colm Boyle and through the Mayo defence to poke the ball beautifully past David Clarke and into the net.
Hill 16 erupted in front of O’Callaghan as he wheeled away in celebration, and the ghosts of All-Ireland finals past surely flashed in front of Mayo supporters’ eyes.
But they needn’t have worried. This team was never going to panic and they simply rolled their sleeves up and got stuck in.
It took Mayo thirteen minutes to get back on level terms as the O’Shea brothers and Tom Parsons took control of midfield.
A breathless, frantic first half lasted forty minutes and as both teams sprinting down the tunnel, Mayo led by one point — 0-9 to 1-5.
All nine of Mayo’s scores came from open play, three from the magnificent Andy Moran, two from Jason Doherty, and one each from Cillian O’Connor, Donie Vaughan, Kevin McLoughlin and Colm Boyle.
In hindsight, Mayo needed to be further ahead at the break given the brilliance of their collective play and the individual heroics of Keith Higgins, Chris Barrett, Aidan O’Shea and company.
But Dublin never let their fierce rivals get out of sight, and their decision to roll out their big guns from half-time onwards eventually tilted the balance.
It was predicted in advance that ‘a grain of rice would tip the scales’ and so it proved once more.
S Cluxton; M Fitzsimons, P McMahon, J Cooper; C O’Sullivan, J Small (0-1), J McCaffrey; B Fenton (0-1), J McCarthy (0-2); D Rock (0-7, 3fs), C O’Callaghan (1-0), C Kilkenny; P Mannion (0-3), E O’Gara (0-1), P Andrews.
Subs used: P Flynn for McCaffrey (8, inj), D Connolly (0-1) for Andrews (ht), K McManamon (0-1) for O’Gara (ht), B Brogan for Flynn (65), N Scully for O’Callaghan (68), C Costello for Mannion (74).
D Clarke; C Barrett, B Harrison, P Durcan; L Keegan (1-0), C Boyle (0-1), K Higgins; S O’Shea, T Parsons; K McLoughlin (0-2), A O’Shea, D Vaughan (0-1); J Doherty (0-2), C O’Connor (0-7, 4fs), A Moran (0-3).
Subs used: D O’Connor for S O’Shea (51), S Coen for Boyle ( 56), C Loftus for Moran (63), D Drake for Doherty (70), D Kirby for McLoughlin (75), G Cafferkey for Higgins (75).
Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan)