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Hailing a magnificent effort

Sean Rice

Seán Rice

WE’LL cry tomorrow. But let us first acclaim a magnificent effort. No praise, no commendation, no gallant effort can lessen the pain that sears through the consciousness of our footballers. There is no kudos for second best.
The records will not tell us that for the past two years, Mayo are the second best team in the country, or that they rescued a championship once again from the brink of boredom.
The statistics will not reveal that Mayo alone offered a serious challenge to the dominance of Dublin, that no other county – not Kerry, not Tyrone, no one – came so close to stalling the metropolitan machine.
It will be of little comfort to Mayo to know that they have shared with their conquerors seven places on the team of the year selected by those who like to call themselves experts. Experts who all year hadn’t given Mayo a hope of running Dublin close.
But we will remember the singular intensity Mayo brought to this All-Ireland and how vulnerable Dublin looked in the first half in the face of Mayo’s blistering counter-attacks.
As green and red smoke mingled with blue smoke from the Hill, the prophets of doom must have nodded in self-congratulation watching Con O’Callaghan waltz through the defence and side-footing the ball into the Mayo net.
Only two minutes had passed when that blow was delivered. But before long the Dubs were in retreat, as the tough tackling of the Mayo defence snuffed out the threat of O’Callaghan and Ciaran Kilkenny and Eoghan O’Gara and dissolved the lead their goal had established.
O’Gara had started in place of Niall Scully and took up position in front of the Mayo goal. It was a decision aimed at disrupting Mayo’s plans. Being in the mould of Kieran Donaghy, Mayo management might have been tempted to revert to their game-plan against Kerry, starting Aidan O’Shea at full back.
They needn’t have worried. They Mayo defence more than capably clamped down on the dangers the Dublin front line posed, and Aidan O’Shea was allowed the freedom of Croke Park to parade his array of skills.
And how well he conducted the play. Dominating the middle third, the big man was in magnificent form, brushing aside every tackle and delivering true and intelligently.
He was supported by the thrusts from the defence – especially those of Donal Vaughan, Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle, all spreading the play from wing to wing, all almost disdainfully invading Dublin’s space.
Andy Moran, Vaughan and Kevin McLoughlin soon had the teams on level terms. And when Dublin reclaimed the lead and Cillian O’Connor and Andy Moran had shot Mayo ahead by the 20th minute, the champs knew they were in a match, and packed Croke Park in a cracking final.
From there to the end of the half, it was cat and mouse stuff. Mayo had a lead of a point at half-time, and the manner in which they had taken the game to the Dubs, their confidence on the ball, their disregard for reputations, left this reporter with a feeling that at last it might be their day.
Predictably, Dublin had Mayo men singled out for special attention. Cillian was in their firing line; Keegan, Higgins, Andy, Aidan and McLoughlin were also targeted. But Aidan and McLoughlin were irrepressible, and the heart shown by Chris Barrett, Paddy Durcan (who started instead of Diarmuid O’Connor), Brendan Harrison and Boyle reflected a mindset of steel developed from years at the top.

A mountain not yet scaled
BY the 40th minute Dublin had re-taken the lead. They had called Diarmuid Connolly and Kevin McManamon from the bench at the interval and the two boosted their attack. But not before Jason Doherty, as ever working diligently, drew a magnificent save from Stephen Cluxton which led to Cillian’s point from a free.
It would not have been a match completed though without the stamp of Lee Keegan, and true to form, the Westport star produced that touch of class in the 53rd minute when, from an educated pass from Andy, he left Cluxton grasping fresh air in the Dublin goal.
Just before that at the other end, the introduction of the Dublin subs had begun to put greater pressure on the tiring Mayo defence. Paul Mannion (moved to full-forward) and McManamon (running wide on the left) set up dangerous situations. But David Clarke on more than once occasion sprang into action to deflect danger.
And in those hectic, scary minutes Chris Barrett was a powerful stumbling block, absorbing much of the danger Dublin posed. Throughout the 78 minutes the Belmullet man stood brave and defiant, and some of his interceptions and smart clearances drew rounds of applause from the Mayo fans.
A turning point in the game was the dismissal of Donal Vaughan for a blatant foul on John Small. The Dublin centre back was being dismissed for a heavy tackle on Colm Boyle. Vaughan’s unnecessary intervention also earned the wrath of the referee.
The Dubs’ James McCarthy contributed significantly to their win in the second half from midfield. Mayo midfielders Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons more than held their own until both tired.
Keegan’s goal had lifted the hopes of Mayo fans but the revamped Dublin attack was visibly draining their energy. To a standing ovation Andy left the field having once again baffled his critics with an inspiring display especially in the first half. He had given everything.
We had doubted those qualities when Stephen Rochford in taking charge placed his trust in Andy. And how well the Ballagh’ man has repaid that confidence.
Conor Loftus endeavouring to fill his shoes, was his replacement, and is a star of the future. Ger Cafferkey came in for the cramping Keith Higgins, Diarmuid O’Connor for Seamus O’Shea, Stephen Coen for Boyle; David Drake for Doherty and Danny Kirby for McLoughlin.
No change was undeserved, and it looked more and more like a game heading for another replay when Cillian tossed over Mayo’s final point a couple of minutes before the end. The captain had a few uncertain moments in the first half with his accuracy, but there was no denying his work-rate or his huge contribution.
Deep in injury time, Dean Rock came to the rescue of the champions with a point from a free, and Mayo’s fate was sealed once again.
So another year of delirium has come to an end and the mountain has not been scaled. But although the dream has taken a battering, no one has died.
And let us pay tribute to Stephen Rochford and his team for the manner in which he has guided Mayo this season, for his valour in the face at times of so much criticism. In their final hour, his charges reflected their faith in him and were, to a man, wonderful representatives of this old county.
So let’s cry tomorrow.

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