Mayo’s underlying vulnerability evident throughout the summer
Even as Mayo were growing over the summer, there were some nagging questions
Mayo manager James Horan after last Sunday’s All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin. Photograph: Inpho
Another September leaves more questions than answers swirling through the atmosphere of heartbreak and defiance and wistfulness in old Mayo. Last Sunday’s All-Ireland final merely presented them with a new way of experiencing the lasting hollowness. It doesn’t matter whether they are destroyed in an All-Ireland final or lose it by a single point.
The theories and the questions and the rumours will circulate and the mystery of how they are to win this infernal competition remains as unknowable as ever.
But one thing is beyond dispute. Mayo could have won that game. It was there, awaiting a suitor. They lost by a point. Early in the first half, when the Mayo defence collapsed to neutralise a break by James McCarthy, they were awarded a free which was kicked straight to Diarmuid Connolly who snapped it over the bar. That was a giveaway point by Mayo.
And in the second half, after Michael Dara Macauley burst through to force a fine save from Rob Hennelly, the umpires awarded Dublin a 45 even though the ball clearly deflected off the midfielder before it crossed the end line. Stephen Cluxton pointed with his usual efficiency.
Cancel out those two scores and Mayo are All-Ireland champions. And Bernard Brogan has been roundly applauded for his economical finishing but my bet is if you talk with Hennelly and Ger Cafferkey they will be adamant the first goal should never happened: two-on-one for Mayo with a dropping ball into the square is just a bread-and-butter chore for defenders of their quality. Unless Dublin had LeBron James hanging about on the edge of the square, that ball should have been cleared.
Like all losing managers – particularly those from Mayo – James Horan will have little difficulty in locating verbal and written opinion of what he should have done better and earlier and what not during the match. Freeman’s substitution; Richie Feeney’s non-appearance; not dealing with the heat-seeking missiles which Cluxton was launching towards the wings; not throwing a big man onto the edge of the square . . . the charges are coming thick and fast.
Horan will deal with them with that inscrutable smile of his. Had Mayo managed to stumble over the line on the right side of the scoreboard, then none of that stuff would be mentioned and all the focus would be on Dublin: how you can’t – as Alan Hansen once said – win anything with kids, how Jim Gavin made a mess of his substitutions, how the Dubs take the wrong options. But the Dubs got there and that the county board is confident of finding a shirt sponsor willing to pay €2.5 million tells would-be contenders all they need to know about the next 10 years.
But what of Mayo? In the build-up to this final, the common feeling about the team was they had done everything right all summer, setting a bossy tone with the lecture they delivered in Salthill. It is largely true. But even as Mayo were growing over the summer, there were some nagging questions trailing them. Only Alan Mulholland and the Galway players can say for sure how much that humiliation had to do with the performance of the home team. How happy were they with the goals they coughed up? Donal Vaughan’s wonderfully-timed sprints through the gaps in Galway’s defence illuminated Mayo’s play that day.
And they continued to be a feature of the Mayo game all summer. The trouble was that some team was always going to cut off those paths and check Vaughan’s runs. And that team happened to be Dublin on All-Ireland final day. Mayo’s expulsion of All-Ireland champions Donegal has been labelled as the performance of the summer.