FACES IN THE CROWD
Niamh McNea (11) from Mulranny and Kate Henegan (10) from Castlebar were supporting Mayo at Croke Park.
Fortune favours brave Mayo men
OLD myths took a hammering on Sunday. Walter Mitty dreams were cast aside in a frenzy of excitement as Mayo football at last wriggled free from an almost timeless warp of defeatism. Character was reshaped. Honour restored. Records came tumbling down. For the first time hot favourites Dublin experienced championship defeat at the hands of an irrepressible Mayo.
It was a victory crafted not from the hard-man tactics which the experts claim are so essential to success, but from heart and flair, and a belief unrivalled by Mayo teams in decades. As if something detonated inside them they grabbed control of a game slipping from them and methodically dismantled Dublin’s self-assurance . . . and their seven-point lead.
And wasn’t it fitting that the game should have been won by the courageous decision of one of their greatest performers. Almost from the left sideline, an angle unsuited to a left foot, Ciaran McDonald gracefully split the posts for the winning point, . . . and Dublin were irreversibly doomed.
Those final minutes will have been forever seared into the memory. Willpower was paramount. Mayo risked life and limb to frustrate Dublin’s last stand. Legs, arms, heads, nothing from their reservoir of bravery was immune. Hearts jumped out of chests in unison.
Mayo had grabbed the initiative before a ball was kicked when they chose to warm up at the goal in front of Hill 16, territory the Dubs felt was their exclusive privilege to use for pre-match kick-abouts. Mayo, first out of the tunnel, refused to leave when the Dubs arrived. In the process the Mayo dietician was grounded by the kick of a ball from a Dublin player, an official wrestled with John Morrison, and the seeds of frustration were sown in Dublin minds. That first mental skirmish was won by Mayo.
If, as Mickey Moran claims, that it was the players’ decision to take that prematch course of action, it revealed a maturity in the team for which they had not been given credit, and the self-assurance and firmness with which they went about holding Dublin scoreless for the first seventeen minutes while they built up a four-point lead underscored the extent of their psychological development. The track of Mickey Moran’s coaching is surely imprinted on that evolvement.
It was to be tested to the full again and again throughout the seventy-three minutes. All the time little acts of inspiration were being played out all round the field. Mayo were standing up to Dublin, trading skills, outfielding them and outrunning them. And when Conal Keaney smacked home Dublin’s goal in the 23rd minute and Ray Cosgrove shot them ahead with a point, no panic seized their minds. Their football was measured and composed.
We had expected Dublin to chase like greyhounds for the first half an hour. But it was Mayo who set the pace. Aidan Higgins, James Nallen and Peadar Gardiner drove the play forward convincingly on the wings while in the centre of the field Ronan McGarrity and Pat Harte won most of the duels with Ciaran Whelan and Shane Ryan.
Midfield was a foothold. Whelan and Ryan were expected to out muscle the Mayo pair. Mayo’s games with Laois had provided most people with the wrong impression. Because those games lacked the doggedness that they say is needed to win, conclusions were drawn that Mayo were too fragile for Dublin. No imbalance in the physical exchanges was evident, however, between McGarrity and Harte and Whelan and Ryan on Sunday. Both were excellent.
Forced to retire following a nasty tackle round the neck by Whelan, Mayo replaced the Ballina with Barry Moran, who was a little unlucky and perhaps not long enough on to compensate for McGarrity’s loss.
He eventually made way for Aidan Kilcoyne who moved to the attack with David Brady replacing Billy Joe Padden. Brady acted as a kind of anchor man at midfield, doing nothing spectacular, but positive and solid and useful in every ball that went through him. David Clarke, picked him out intelligently with his kickouts. In the absence of McGarrity, Harte assumed the mantle of midfield leadership with impressive fielding and kicking.
All of the changes made were astute, none more than the replacing of Michael Conroy with Kevin O’Neill. The Davitts’ man, who is better than his performance on Sunday would suggest, made way for a man in whom this writer did not have a lot of faith. It is to Mickey Moran’s credit that he brought the former Knockmore player in from the cold, and O’Neill’s performance on Sunday was a huge compliment to the manager’s judgement.
Players stood up and were counted
DUBLIN’S two goals were no fault of keeper David Clarke. He had done his bit in stopping a bullet from Alan Brogan, in the first half, only to see the rebound poked into the net by the inrushing Conal Keaney. Nor was he at fault for the second which came at a time after the break when Mayo looked to have shot their bolt. Clarke was called on many more times to avert danger, and you felt assured by his confidence on the ball.The goals ought to have been killer blows, but it was how Mayo reacted that left you in such a flush of excitement. They would have gone through a wall for possession. McDonald, Alan Dillon and Conor Mortimer were magnificent. If Dublin’s rotating forward line was beginning to find gaps in the Mayo defence, their own defence had no answer to the weaving assertiveness of Dillon, the sprightly sprinting of Mortimer, and the ever supportive presence of McDonald.
Alan Brogan, Conal Keaney and Jason Sherlock were Dublin’s danger men, and it took some heroic defending, and no little luck to keep them out. Once the ball smashed off the bottom of the crossbar, another time the head of Aidan Higgins took the full brunt of his gallant intervention, and on other occasions David Clarke denied them.
David Heaney had another fine game at full-back. His strength was an invaluable asset in front of the goal. His catching and clearances were safe and positive. Dermot Geraghty’s sturdy presence was highly effective in the right corner and Tomas Quinn enjoyed scarcely a moment of happiness on him.
Dublin concentrated for some time on the high ball to the forwards from which they got occasional good results, but never enough to destabilise the Mayo system. In the other corner Keith Higgins was confronted by his most difficult opponent in many a day. Alan Brogan, who started on the ‘forty’, was Dublin’s best player and it seemed for a while that the Ballyhaunis man was running out of steam. But Higgins is at his best in attacking mode, and his sallies up field helped to spread and take the sting from the Dublin forwards after Mayo embarked on their second resurgence, in the second half.
Aidan Higgins, James Nallen and Peadar Gardiner were fast and alert. Dublin were not able to rein in the breaks of Higgins and Gardiner, and Andy Moran was sprung from the bench in the second half to replace the retired Nallen.
It was Moran who scored the goal that inspired Mayo’s recovery. In fairness, Ger Brady, whose strength and penetrating runs dug deep into Dublin’s psyche, and Alan Dillon had carved two points off their deficit of seven before Moran struck in the 51st minute. For Kevin O’Neill’s exquisite pass Moran got ahead of Shane Ryan, and was turned by the defender before sweeping the ball to the net with his left foot.
The stadium thundered into new, raucous life with that goal and the game spun and twisted in heart-stopping fluctuation. Aidan Kilcoyne, a rising Mayo star, picked up vital ball from midfield breaks and ran at the heart of the Dublin defence, Dillon, O’Neill and Mortimer fired over magnificent points to regain the lead by the 56th minute. An uninviting draw seemed inevitable when Brogan clipped the equaliser four minutes from the end of normal time, but that elegant left foot of McDonald, the second of two masterly scores, opened the door to another final for Mayo.
Indeed Dublin sub Mark Vaughan had two chances to even it up again but one from a ‘45’ was swept away by Clarke as the ball dipped dangerously, while the other from a free on the other wing was driven badly wide by the same player. Only then did the extent of Mayo’s achievement fully dawn.
The fury of their tackling, their heart, their composure and disregard for their own safety have been the missing package of their failed attempts for All-Ireland success in the past. Whether they are able to repeat those characteristics in the final is another matter. We’ll enjoy this victory in the meantime. And we’ll keep cool heads. Someone once wrote that valour was a gift. “Those having it never know whether they have it until the test comes. And those having it in one test never know for sure if they will have it when the next test comes.”