THE EYES HAVE IT Mayo manager James Horan shakes hands with Dublin's Jim Gavin after Saturday’s All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile
Mayo fought the good fight but Dublin are on a different level
THE dream is over.
For those Mayo players who decide to depart at the end of this year, their dream of winning a coveted All-Ireland is sadly at an end.
For those younger lads who remain, the dream won’t have died in their hearts. James Horan won’t feel there is no hope.
As he said afterwards, if they fail to try and learn from Saturday night, it is ‘a hopeless cause’.
Mayo GAA Inc have to do all they can to continue to challenge, to improve. Even if, to many this week, it feels like a hopeless cause. Flying the white flag is not an option.
The scale of the climb in front of them is huge though. Mayo will continue to be relevant, to be competitive, to refresh themselves, evolve.
They have not become a bad team overnight. Indeed they haven’t regressed that much from 2016 and 2017. In some ways – squad depth being one – they have improved.
And that is the most depressing part of it all.
Mayo continue to push themselves to the limit and beyond and Dublin continue to cruise away from the pack to a level never seen before.
No other county can compete with them right now. We include Kerry in the All-Ireland Final.
Sure, Mayo can point to fatigue from their fixtures schedule and a malfunctioning third quarter as factors that did for them. Perhaps if those factors weren’t present this game might have went to the wire.
Might have been close.
So much had to go Mayo’s way for them to win this game. Eamonn Fitzmaurice wrote a dossier in The Examiner on Saturday on what had to happen for Mayo to win. It was a long list, and all the factors had to fall Mayo’s way.
It is worth reminding oneself that this is not a Division 4 team trying to ambush a Division 1 team. This was what had to happen for Mayo – the team who have been more competitive than anyone else against Dublin – to catch them on the hop.
The romance in sport is believing that on any given day anything can happen.
That romance is an illusion in Gaelic football right now.
A giant killing act used to be a glorious thing in the GAA. Clare winning Munster in ‘92, Leitrim winning Connacht in ‘94. Right now the biggest giant killing act in this decade would be Kerry, with all of their 38 All Irelands to their name, stopping the five-in-a-row. That’s how much of a long shot it is. That’s where we are at.
Game at a crossroads
ANYONE who thinks there is not a huge problem in Gaelic football with the dominance of this Dublin team is either a fool or trying to take you for one.
This is an incredible Dublin team and managed by one of the most remorseless and ruthless managers we’ve seen. Dublin’s brilliance in the 12 minutes after half-time was just staggering.
But there is a real fear that this is not just cyclical. That when Messrs Cluxton, McCaffrey, Fenton, Kilkenny, Mannion and O’Callaghan depart, they won’t be replaced.
We argue the above six are Dublin’s main men. Cluxton is almost 38 but the rest are 26 or younger. When Dublin won their breakthrough All-Ireland in 2011, McCaffrey, Kilkenny and Mannion played in the All-Ireland Minor Final loss that day. Fenton, incredibly, wasn’t in the squad. Con O’Callaghan was 15.
Dublin have continued to evolve and grow through the decade.
There is so much they are doing right in terms of coaching and their organisation as a county board. They are blessed with some great personnel behind the scenes and some great footballers on the field.
But you cannot separate that from the numbers game. The natural population advantage Dublin have – a population of 1.35 million, a population which has almost doubled in the last 60 years.
And the considerable funding leg-up the GAA gave Dublin earlier this century. The GAA needed a strong Dublin, we were told. Absolutely, it is great to see more people playing our great game but the consequences for the inter-county championship have been stark.
The naysayers reply that Kerry footballers also went within touching distance of five-in-a-row.
Their five-in-a-row dream was crushed by Offaly in 1982. Kerry are not enriched with the same population riches and their dominance was in a different era.
Fewer teams had aspirations of dining at the top table back then.
From 1969 to 1990 not alone did no Ulster or Connacht team win an All-Ireland, but only once in those 21 years did a team from either province beat a Munster or Leinster opponent. That was in the 1973 All-Ireland semi-final when Galway beat Offaly.
That year aside, the only years Ulster and Connacht counties ended up in an All-Ireland Final was every three years when the draw pitched Ulster versus Connacht in the semi-finals.
And they lost every single final.
Prior to this current run of Dublin, we were living in arguably the most competitive of eras of Gaelic football.
From 1990 to the start of this run five summers ago, only once did any county retain an All-Ireland, Kerry in 2007. It was considered nigh on impossible.
So you have to – you can’t not – admire Dublin’s brilliance.
But it is beholden of us all right now – not in the future – to ask questions because the dominance of Dublin is a huge problem for the GAA if we really want a competitive All-Ireland football championship for years to come.
If this dominance we are currently witnessing happens to be an apparition; if ten different counties win the next 25 All-Irelands (as was the case from 1990 to 2014), I will gladly hold my hands up.
But I don’t expect to need to.
One of James Horan’s hardest tasks this winter will be convincing players who he feels have much more to give to stay on if they feel an All-Ireland is beyond them.
Think of the cross-country effort the Dublin-based players make. It is all with a view to the holy grail. Is that level of belief still there?
Can it be?
This is not Clare or Fermanagh or Sligo we are talking about. This is Mayo, arguably the second best team of this decade.
It is to this team’s immense credit that they kept Dublin honest for so long this decade. But let’s not kid ourselves. The gap has grown vastly and it is hard to see who from this group will still be around when, if, this dominance dips to three out of every four All-Irelands rather than what we are currently seeing.
Mayo have punched heavily above our weight this decade. And will continue to do so. But the odds are stacked against them.