IT ALL ENDS IN TEARS Mayo’s Diarmuid O’Connor is consoled by Dublin’s Stephen Cluxton after Saturday’s All-Ireland SFC Final replay. Pic: Sportsfile
IT hasn’t been easy these last few days living through another nightmare. So much courage, so much brilliance, so much quality of heart and mind mocked by the whim of one mystifying decision!
But how easy it is to lay blame, how much more difficult for those who have to shoulder the burden ... and the reproach of fans whose memory of a fascinating duel will forever be clouded by one calamitous slip.
It was a cruel end to a championship that had brought so much joy to all of us, that has taken us on a carousel of hope and apprehension, had us on the edge of our seats through every game that followed that Connacht semi-final disappointment in June.
It had everything it promised, an All-Ireland final replay worthy of the occasion. It see-sawed dramatically, no quarter given, no quarter asked. And if Mayo once more bowed to what has become an inevitable sequence of painful final defeats, some comfort can be gleaned from knowing that Mayo are the second best team in the country.
Their goal was the highlight of a first half sparkling with breathtaking exchanges. Supremacy alternated in the electrifying atmosphere, Dublin swinging into an early lead, Mayo scaling it back with growing self-assurance.
Having drawn level for the first time in the 12th minute, Dean Rock nudged Dublin ahead again with two of his total of nine points, seven of which came from frees.
Tremors from the buzz that greeted the next score shook the stadium. Seamus O’Shea, in brilliant form in the middle of the field, delivered positively and accurately to his brother Aidan.
Escaping the clutches of Cian O’Sullivan, Aidan lured two further defenders out of position. Into the vacuum stormed Lee Keegan, and before Dublin realised the trap into which they had walked, the ball from Keegan’s right boot was caressing the back of their net.
That bit of class was not fully reproduced after Keegan was black-carded. From a poor kick-out, Dublin won possession and in trying to avert the danger, Keegan’s restraint of Connolly was punished.
It was perhaps a black-card infringement, but no more contentious than some of those that had gone unpunished. The trip on Andy Moran for instance, the felling of Aidan O’Shea on the edge of the penalty area, and Bernard Brogan’s blatant foul shortly after his arrival on the field are glaring instances of inept adjudication.
No game goes by without several conflicting black-card decisions. Inconsistency and incorrect interpretations by weak referees have led to a clamour for its abolition, and this writer joins the queue calling for its riddance.
Keegan’s loss was incalculable. He had been on song, annulling the challenge of Connolly and scoring a goal of classic proportions. Mayo suffered for the want of his vision in the closing stages of the titanic struggle.
The other single impact on the outcome was self-inflicted ... a penalty awarded to Dublin five minutes into the second half after Robbie Hennelly dropped the ball and fouled Paddy Andrews in the process. From the spot kick Connolly squeezed out Dublin’s only goal, beating David Clarke, who had replaced the luckless, black-carded Hennelly.
The incident has led to a chorus of moans about the obscure decision of management in replacing Clarke at such a significant stage in the championship. Because of its consequence, it is pertinent to ask of management – who has not put a foot wrong all season – how that change was arrived at.
IN the light of excellence elsewhere, a kind of spell was cast over our senses. In every corner of the field, Mayo effort was relentless. For long portions of the game they had the edge, refusing to bow to whatever Dublin threw at them.
The passion of their fire in defence was stoked by some brilliant interventions. All six backs drove on until it seemed they had nothing left to give ... and yet were still giving it.
Paddy Durcan radiated maturity and leadership above his experience. His two points were secured at vital stages. On the last occasion Kevin McManamon fell under his spell. This time it was the turn of Paddy Andrews to be rendered ineffective by the clawing tentacles of the Mitchels man.
Brendan Harrison’s growing stature was confirmed in his refusal to be turned, his timely interventions, and the experience of Keith Higgins was invaluable especially when Keegan left the field.
Colm Boyle was again heroic in driving Mayo forward and Donal Vaughan left nothing to be desired up to the moment he was injured and eventually forced to retire.
No one could accuse Seamus O’Shea of being anything less than at his very best in the middle of the field. We never fail to marvel at the work rate of the Breaffy man. Here again he was quite magnificent ... and not a stray pass delivered for the entire 70 minutes.
Beside him Tom Parsons never flagged in his attempts to open the Dublin defence and together with O’Shea had much better of their duels with Brian Fenton and Paul Flynn.
Michael Darragh MacAuley did demand greater attention when he replaced Paul Mannion in the second half, and sub Cormac Costello scored three vital points. Yet neither player re-directed Mayo’s concentration from their own gallant efforts.
Aidan O’Shea was of course the attraction for Dublin up front, and in the first half in particular was in the form of the old destructive O’Shea … in full flight. His luring of three Dublin defenders out of position for Keegan’s goal left no one in doubt about his value up front. The pity of it was that Keegan was not around to re-create that work.
But let it be said that Stephen Coen, who replaced the Westport man, showed all the signs of being more than a peripheral player next season.
It looked as if the inventiveness of Mayo’s effort was about to be rewarded when Cillian O’Connor stepped up for a free that would send the game into extra time. It was a long shot from a difficult angle and his effort went wide, the only blemish on an otherwise excellent return of nine points by the captain.
This, too, was Diarmuid O’Connor’s, most industrious and productive of his last few games, and if the return of Andy Moran and Jason Doherty was less than in previous encounters, their presence was always a source of nuisance to the Dublin defence.
Kevin McLoughlin’s workload was again undertaken in a positive and very successful defensive role especially in the second half, and Conor O’Shea, who replaced Vaughan, may soon grace the first 15.
So Mayo’s crucifixion continues. But this is a Mayo not yet done. Theirs has been a noble fight. In Islandeady church on Sunday, candles were lit in thanksgiving to the players for six years of uplifting football.
No, it is not the end; there is better to come.