It could have gone any way. Mayo could have won it by four or five points, and lost it by four or five points. For many agonising moments in the final period of the game, they looked bent on presenting Dublin with an undeserved win. The game was rescued in the end by a cool and gritty defence.
Of the two sides, Dublin appeared the more unnerved by the event. Apart at all from any notion of vengeance, a win at McHale Park was essential to keep alive their hopes of a semi-final place in the league. In defeat they had a lot more to lose than Mayo.
But lose they did, in the most disappointing manner ... without scoring in the second half. Having built up a lead of five points at the interval, they looked on target to having their hopes realised. Their collapse in the second half will have renewed fears that a conviction deficit still haunts them.
Mayo, more than any, are well acquainted with that phenomenon. But the manner in which they overcame Cork the previous week, and Dublin on Sunday are clear indicators that they are growing in composure and poise, that they don’t let moments of crisis get to them.
There were plenty of reasons for that to happen on Sunday, especially in the final ten minutes or so as they pegged ball after ball wide in their haste to make secure the one-point lead that Conor Mortimer had gained for them in the 61st minute.
The Shrule man is never far from the spotlight in every game. His performances are almost always the focus of most after-match comment ... and Sunday was no different. Great players stoke criticism, especially if they deviate in any way from the high standard they have set themselves. In every game, Mortimer will almost always be centre stage.
On Sunday he was both hero and villain. Some of the four points he scored were of the classic variety. But some of his options were also questionable. Some of the chances he missed were mind-boggling. Critically, he scored the winning point. But he joined David Heaney, James Nallen and Aidan Kilcoyne in some atrocious shooting while trying to copper-fasten that lead and put the game beyond the reach of Dublin.
They never did. Right up to the final whistle, following three minutes of injury time, Mayo people in the crowd (estimated at around 15,000) squirmed in their seats, as ball after ball was screwed wide. In that situation it fell to the defence to preclude Dublin from revisiting the good attacking form they had displayed in the first half.
The Dubs got one chance to redeem their fragile character. It came after Conor’s final point, which had put Mayo into the lead for only the second time. In one of their few effective raids of the half, Jason Sherlock was fouled in the square, and Dublin awarded a penalty. Mayo hearts sank as Diarmuid Connolly placed the ball on the spot for the kick, but the ball from Connolly, a replacement for their customary free-taker Tomas Quinn, smashed off an upright and eventually went wide.
To bad luck they will attribute that miss, and bad luck also – in the dismissal of Conal Keaney – they will offer as a cause for losing. Keaney had been their best forward in the first half, and his sending-off for two yellow card offences four minutes or so into the second half was a blow from which Dublin never recovered.
Mayo took full advantage of Keaney’s dismissal. To Aidan Higgins, who had replaced Enda Devenney, the mentors gave full authority to act as sweeper, and he played that role magnificently. Indeed the defence as a whole grew in stature as the half progressed, and the Dublin forwards, so fluent and assured in the first half, lost their way.
Mayo had the upper hand throughout the opening quarter, at the end of which they had only one point to spare. Two goal chances had been on offer, one to Austin O’Malley, who failed to convert a stirring move involving Aidan Kilcoyne and David Heaney, the other to Mortimer, who opened a huge gap in the Dublin defence, but whirled the ball wide.
Heaney’s dominance significant in victory
DAVID Heaney and Pat Harte had the better of the exchanges with Darren Magee and Ciaran Whelan in that opening period against the wind. Heaney’s intermittent raids troubled the opposing defence more than the high ball delivered to Mortimer and O’Malley.
And then the trend of the game changed completely and Dublin, as if through some unrecognised stratagem, suddenly streaked ahead. In fact Mayo had created the opportunity for them to enjoy their brief period of dominance by allowing Andy Moran to roam too far from goal. In pursuing the Mayo man, Dublin’s David Henry had become an unexpected boon in the middle of the field, and the main source of their sudden spurt of superiority. The roaming of the corner back was of greater advantage to Dublin than Andy Moran was to Mayo.
All that changed after the break when Moran stayed put, effectively chaining Henry to corner back duties rather than acting as provider for his forward line. But he was Dublin’s inspiration in the second quarter, and it looked ominous for Mayo when they swung over six points without reply. Aidan Kilcoyne, from a free, did cut the deficit, but their five-point lead at the interval had Dublin purring in the dressing room.
They delayed emerging from the dressing room, having soaked up, no doubt, their manager’s reminders of what happened them in the second half of the All-Ireland semi-final. But they were dealt a severe blow by the loss of Keaney just after the resumption, and it was Mayo, not Dublin, that assumed almost immediate and consistent control.
Timely replacements by the bench also made a big difference. Aidan Campbell, having helped the county’s U-21s to victory over Galway the previous day, came in for Ger Brady and boosted the forward line. Alan Dillon’s entry in place of Austin O’Malley was another positive. Neither had much affect on the wastage that followed, but they added punch to the forward line.
The inspirational score came from David Heaney 13 minutes into the second half when the forwards were stuck deep in alarming wastage. Heaney, displaying man-of-the-match leadership qualities, tore through the heart of the Dublin defence, to bag a point that bore the message to his extravagant colleagues: that’s how it should be done.
If not leading to greater accuracy, that score did at least revitalise Mayo, brought more self-assurance to their movements, and the backs saw to it that Dublin did not recapture the pattern of the second quarter. Liam O’Malley, James Kilcullen and Keith Higgins in the full back line, snuffed out whatever danger Bernard Brogan, Tomas Quinn and Kevin Bonner posed earlier. Their success was reflected in the replacement of the Dublin full-forward line in the second half.
Billy Joe Padden was strong and reliable at centre half-back. Gardiner’s cutting runs were also effective and although Devenney has had better games, the potential to destroy a defence with his speed still exists. His replacement, Aidan Higgins, turned in another useful performance.
In goal, Kenneth O’Malley presented further evidence of his capabilities, but was forced to retire with a dislocated thumb in the first half. David Clarke stood in for the Ballinrobe man, and proved his worth also.