What’s another year?
Long wait goes on as Mayo fall short
AS the ticker-tape fell from the rafters of the Hogan Stand and the fireworks flew into the sky, the Mayo players and management watched on from their vantage point in the middle of the field. Heartbroken. Crestfallen. Broken.
For the second time in twelve months, Mayo’s best had not been good enough and they were relegated to the role of spectators as Stephen Cluxton climbed those famous steps, lifted the Sam Maguire Cup, and addressed the natives.
All that had really changed since last September were the colours of the winner’s jerseys. Apart from that, it was a scene that the Mayo players knew only all too well.
The record books will show that Dublin carved out a one point victory on a broiling day at Croke Park, but the final scoreline conceals most of the narrative of an eventful afternoon.
Afterwards, James Horan cited ‘basic errors’, ‘composure’ and ‘a failure to convert scoring opportunities’ as being the main reasons that his team came up short.
There areas were certainly a factor, but there were many other issues too that proved costly in such a game of inches.
The better team on the day certainly won; Dublin’s tactical approach and defensive set-up kept Mayo’s forwardline to just 1-2 from play, while Stephen Cluxton’s ability to pick out team-mates from restarts, and the brilliant scoring economy of Bernard Brogan left Mayo chasing the game for long spells.
Brogan, who was well-marshalled for the most part by Mayo’s All Star full-back Ger Cafferkey, still ended the game with 2-2 from play; his goals, one in each half, doing huge damage to Mayo’s hopes of ending the long wait.
On a day of small margins, they made a huge difference.
At the other end, Mayo had major problems when it came to penetrating Dublin’s defensive shield and converting possession into scores.
Too often the ball failed to stick with the inside forwards, and despite plenty of honest endeavour and perspiration, Mayo were unable to engineer the type and frequency of scores that had been flowing all summer.
And yet, a few minutes into injury-time at the end of a frenetic match that didn’t live up to its lofty expectations, Mayo only trailed by two points.
We may never know what exactly was said to Cillian O’Connor by referee Joe McQuillan almost four minutes into stoppage-time, just before O’Connor elected to slot a close-range free over the bar, and leave just the minimum between the sides.
Unfortunately, the Cavan official blew for full-time on the kick-out, and the rest is history.
On a day when Mayo’s performance fell well short of the high standards they have set themselves, they played their best football in the first half.
However, they only led by a point at half-time, 0-8 to 1-4, and there was a real concern at that juncture that Dublin were poised to make their move.
James Horan’s side had taken the initiative early on and they led by 0-4 to 0-1 after 12 minutes with Andy Moran, Lee Keegan, Keith Higgins and Cillian O’Connor (free) all posting scores into the Railway goal.
Memories of previous poor starts in All-Ireland Finals were fading fast, but Mayo were rocked back on their heels minutes later when a long high ball into the Dublin full-forward line saw Bernard Brogan beat Robbie Hennelly to the punch, and the net bulged in front of Hill 16.
The sides were level: game on.
Mayo’s responded in a positive fashion, reeling off three points in a row from Seamie O’Shea, Cillian O’Connor (free) and the marauding Lee Keegan to go 0-7 to 1-1 ahead again.
However, for all their territory and possession they weren’t able to open up enough daylight and a string of scores from Brogan, Cluxton (’45) and Eoghan O’Gara left the bare minimum in it at the break.
Dublin had played in fits and starts, but were within striking distance. Mayo seemed out-of-sorts.
The second half went by in a blur, as the game lost its shape, became scrappy, very physical, and the two teams chased around the field in search of possession and scores.
Dublin took the lead for the first time three minutes after the restart, and crucially they were never behind again.
Jim Gavin’s side were 1-9 to 0-9 up after 50 minutes, and keeping Mayo at arm’s length, when sub’ Mickey Conroy played in Andy Moran and the Mayo captain, who led the line superbly, fired in a brilliant goal.
Stalemate again, and the huge crowd of Mayo fans erupted in an effort to try and inspire their team to greater heights.
Unfortunately, the renaissance never got going as Dublin hassled and harried them out of their stride, continued to blot Mayo’s key players out of the game, and struck for the all-important second goal on 53 minutes.
It came when Dublin sub’ Denis Bastic broke through the centre, unmarked, and delivered a pass which Bernard Brogan palmed to the net.
The stadium shook, the damage had been done.
Dublin added just three further points in the last 25 minutes as Mayo gave chase, but all they could muster were five points from frees from Cillian O’Connor.
Scores from play were conspicuous by their absence as Mayo failed to make any inroads against Dublin’s take-no-prisoners style of defence.
It was the story of the half in microcosm; Dublin dictating the terms and Mayo trying manfully to match them.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end, and who knows when the story will be continued.
That is a question for another day.