Dublin were the best team but they were also quickest to spot where the boundaries lay
Mayo needed to realise that if there was bullying to be done, they had to be the bullies
Mayo’s Kevin McLoughlin is tackled by Micahel Darragh Macauley and Cian O’Sullivan of Dublin. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Mayo’s Alan Dillon loses possession under pressure from the Dublin defence
The first thing to say is that the best team won the All-Ireland. Dublin are the best team in the land bar none. Everybody had their day against them, everybody got a shot at taking them down and nobody succeeded.
On a basic level, they have the highest concentration of the best players in the country, all packed into the one team.
The top counties have a handful of players who would be considered among the best in their position in the country, but no county has as many as Dublin.
They have the best goalkeeper in Stephen Cluxton. They have one of the top three midfielders in Michael Darragh Macauley. They have two of the best half-forwards in Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly. And they have one of the best inside forwards of the past decade in Bernard Brogan.
At different stages of the championship, all five of those guys came through and led Dublin to victory. Add in the depth of their panel and that’s what wins All-Irelands.
At the heart of everything is Cluxton, who we can safely say is the best goalkeeper to have played the game. The confidence this guy has in his own ability is stunning. And the level of thought he invests in the game puts him so far clear of the rest. Moreover, it all comes back to his kick-outs.
Look what Dublin did to Aidan O’Shea on Sunday. If you’d been told beforehand that Cluxton was going to kick the majority of ball long, you’d have said there was a good chance of O’Shea having a big influence on the game. But he barely had any, purely because Dublin decided that to beat him they had to keep him running.
That meant Cluxton kicking balls into places where he would have to make 20- or 30-yard runs to get involved. O’Shea actually did pretty well for the first 15-20 minutes, but because of Cluxton’s influence he was out of legs by the second half.
That might sound like a simple enough strategy, but you can only do it if your goalkeeper is a good enough footballer. Most people reading this column know what it is like to kick a football. The most effective way of getting 60 yards (some 55m) of distance on a ball from the ground is to get under it and float it through the sky. But if Cluxton did that, he would have been giving O’Shea those extra few seconds to make up the distance. It would have defeated the purpose.
Instead, he had to strike across the ball to make it cut through the air. When you do that, the margin for error is reduced and if you aren’t good enough it means a level of accuracy is surrendered. But Cluxton missed nothing. Think about that. He wasn’t even aiming at a specific player but rather a patch of space into which they would run from 30 yards away. And he found his man every time.
This guy has changed football. How many players can you say that about? There’s no getting away from it. He’s removed high fielding from the game which, obviously, upsets me. And yet the way he’s done it is a joy to behold. Dublin’s players don’t have to catch ball above their heads because he hits them in the chest each time.
The goalkeeper was always the guy who wasn’t much of a footballer so he got thrown in goals at underage level. But Cluxton has turned that on its head. On top of his kick-outs, saves and organisation, he comes up the pitch and kicks crucial scores. He’s making it sexy to be a goalkeeper.
All the same, Mayo have to be disappointed with how they failed to turn the tide their way last Sunday. From where I was sitting, I thought they allowed themselves to be bullied. There were a couple of occasions where they didn’t seem to grasp the way the game was going and didn’t lay down the sort of marker required.
It was obvious from early on that Joe McQuillan wasn’t going to go mad with the yellow cards. He was calling plenty of fouls on Dublin, but that was because the players in blue saw their opportunity to push the envelope in the early part of the game and stretch the rules as far as they could. They saw that McQuillan was keeping his card in his pocket and knew they would get away with a bit before he lost patience.
At one stage, Connolly had a hold of Lee Keegan’s jersey in the middle of the field stopping him going for a kick-out. Another Mayo player came in to drag him away but Connolly grabbed hold of his jersey as well and dragged out of the pair of them. He was basically bullying them, annoying the hell out of them and getting on their nerves. It was a small incident and Connolly ended up with a torn shirt out of it, but the wider significance is the key here.
Because what struck me is that the response of the Mayo players was just too accepting. If there’s bullying to be done on the pitch, you’ve got to make sure you’re the one doing it.
One of the Mayo players needed to see what was going on there and take charge of the situation. Go in there, reef Connolly out of it and take the yellow card that comes your way.
Just to be clear here – I have no problem with Connolly doing what he was doing. He saw how the game was being refereed and recognised where the boundaries were. He saw his chance to get under the opposition skin and distract them. My problem is that no Mayo player could see that those boundaries were there to be pushed. Do you think Connolly would have been allowed away with that against Donegal’s Neil McGee?
Go back to the first Brogan goal. A high ball into the square and Robert Hennelly takes too long to come out and punch it, ending up in no man’s land. Now Hennelly went on to have an excellent game so I wouldn’t like to be too hard on him. But the hesitation in going for that ball came from not realising that there was an opportunity there to lay down a marker.
It may sound old fashioned but a goalkeeper has to be adamant that the area right in front of his goal belongs to him and only him. Later in the half a high ball dropped around the Dublin penalty spot and the one thing that Cluxton was damn sure about was that nobody was getting a flick on it ahead of him. As it happened, he even overshot it a little, but the point is obvious – my square, my ball, good luck to you if you think you’re getting in my way.
Bernard Brogan hadn’t been in the game at all. Rightly or wrongly, Hennelly had a chance to go and make sure it stayed that way. I’m not saying take him out but the chance was there to bully him. We all know that you can go for a ball heavily or lightly. But when their best forward is there? There’s no decision to make.
As soon as that high ball was coming in, Hennelly should have been thinking, “Right, this is mine and I don’t care who’s in front of me.” Even if it meant that Ger Cafferkey was collateral damage, that should have been man, ball and all. Make a statement, plant a flag. Shadow boxing’s over, lads. This is the game.
You dream of an opportunity like that, a legitimate chance to make the opposition’s best forward think twice about loitering on the edge of your square. In the context of a game where the referee had already made it clear that he was going to allow a certain level of physical intimidation, this was the time to take full advantage. Dublin’s players recognised what they could get away with; Mayo’s players did not.
I’ve been super impressed with Jim Gavin all year. Tactically, he got it spot on the other day and the way he transferred all the credit on to the players at the end was great to see. But I thought he made a mistake having a go at Joe McQuillan.
If I was Dublin manager after that game, the last thing I’d be doing would be giving out about the ref. If I was after winning two All-Irelands with him as referee, I’d be organising to give him the freedom of the city. Let him graze sheep on St Stephen’s Green, I wouldn’t be looking a gift horse in the mouth.
It was a big call by the GAA to give him another Dublin All-Ireland final after all the controversy in 2011. And I’d say it was actually hard on McQuillan to go in there and referee that game. He knew well that people would be looking at him to see what way he reffed Dublin and to be honest I think he changed a little as the game went on.
There were frees that Mayo got in the first half that they stopped getting as the game proceeded. On a few occasions in the second half, Mayo forwards ran into traffic and got bottled up. You could see them waiting on the whistle but the whistle never came. And a few of them looked to be definite fouls.
The cribbing over Dublin’s fouling late in the game is probably inevitable, but we all know it’s the reality of the game. As great a player as Peter Canavan did it to the Gooch in 2005. If Kerry had done the same to Kevin McManamon in 2011, there’d be another All-Ireland down here and nobody would feel in the least bit bad about it. You push the rules as far as they can go.
I wouldn’t blame McQuillan either; the system is to blame. Teams play to the rules they’re allowed. If you know that all you’ll get is a yellow card for a rugby tackle then you’ll take a yellow card. And you will keep doing it until you can’t.
Think of it this way: there is no more controversy about scores now that Hawk Eye is in. Okay, there was the one in the minor hurling semi-final but that should only be a blip. The point is, how often do you see players roaring and shouting at the umpire now? Hardly ever. They pushed it and they pushed it because they thought it would do any good. Now that it doesn’t they don’t push it anymore.
Same with the cynical fouling. I ’d actually encourage players and managers to exploit the weaknesses in the system until such time as the system is changed. It might get worse before it gets better but if so, then it’s a necessary evil.
However, in the end we shouldn’t take away from the Dubs. They were the best team all year and gave us super football. They’ve an ambitious body of players and a manager who has set his targets high.
They will replenish and refresh over the winter as well with other young players that will come through. They have the players, money, backroom staff and manager.
The sky is the limit.
And yet when the other counties look at it, they’ll see a benchmark that’s worth going for. Dublin will find that things won’t go their way the second year. Jim McGuinness wasn’t long into the championship this year before he was talking about his players being targeted. Someone else always has you in their sights.