They always say that the last thing a good boxer loses is his punch. He might get old, he might slow, he might get it tight to make the weight. But he’ll still be able to find your jaw with an uppercut if you leave it open for him.
I thought all year that however much Dublin came back to the pack, their ability to close out tight games would be the last thing that would desert them. To beat them, I thought you would need a last-minute goal, something that gave them no time to respond.
If you had told me nothing about this All-Ireland semi-final other than that Dublin would be leading by two with 73 minutes on the clock, I would have bet the house on them seeing it out. I don’t think I’m too different to anyone else on that score.
I always remember Philly McMahon saying one time that when the Dubs hear the stadium announcer saying there’s going to be four minutes of added time, they automatically want it to be more. They want to keep playing for another hour, keeping going until the lights get turned off. Because they know – and the opposition knows – that they’re only going to get stronger, that they’re not going to do anything stupid and that if anyone is going to keep piling on the scores, it’s going to be them.
All the way through their years of dominance, Dublin were the ones who decided what was what
The most shocking thing about Saturday night for me was the realisation that those days are gone. When the announcement came that there were seven minutes of added time to be played, it was the Mayo crowd that roared. Even when Dean Rock kicked a free to push the Dublin lead out to two, Mayo kept coming and Dublin wilted. They were like a two-mile horse going up in trip. They were dying for the line to come and save them.
It was noticeable too that lots of the Dublin players didn't want the ball. For Evan Comerford's kick-outs in that late spell of normal time, the trap Mayo wanted to set was obvious – they gave Comerford Davy Byrne as an option and pushed up on everyone else. They couldn't have been more clear about what they wanted – give the ball to Byrne and we will hound him. And because no other Dublin players came looking for it, Comerford had to do what Mayo wanted.
Isn’t that some turnaround, when you think about it? All the way through their years of dominance, Dublin were the ones who decided what was what. They made sure of it by demanding the ball, by going to pre-set plays, by finding their team leaders in times of stress. That didn’t happen here.
Instead, Davy Byrne was receiving the ball running for his life back towards his own goal. And because of the rule that came in last year, he wasn't allowed to give it back to Comerford, who was the only Dublin man looking for it. Byrne was in big trouble and it was Tom Lahiff who sprinted back to give him an option.
When they break it down in the days and weeks to come, Dublin will want to know why it came down to those players to dig them out of trouble. For all the changes, they still have their big five. They still have Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny, James McCarthy, Con O'Callaghan and Jonny Cooper. Cooper was gone off by that stage but the other four have been well fit to call a kick-out down on top of themselves plenty of times in the past. Where were they?
Comerford played well for most of the game on Saturday. But we have to face facts too – he was playing in his first All-Ireland semi-final. So was Lahiff. Of all the Dublin players on the pitch, they were the only ones who hadn’t experienced this level of competition before. And now the crowd was roaring and Mayo were coming flying at them.
That's where, in the past, Dublin have been cool and collected and where their biggest players have stood up and demanded the ball. But Comerford actually stood soloing at one stage waving his hand towards him to try and get someone to come and take the ball off him. Brian Howard eventually did but Mayo kept chasing them and chasing them and it ended with the ball going out for the 45 that Robbie Hennelly eventually scored.
When before have you seen any of this happening? When before have you seen McCarthy being stripped of the ball more than once in a game? When before have you seen Kilkenny kick a Hail Mary into the square and hope for the best? These are some of the best players ever to play the game but they lost their composure at the one time we have always seen them keep it in the past.
It’s really only when you see them not do it that it’s brought home to you how unbelievable they were at seeing games out for so long. We took for granted the fact that they would automatically do the right thing at the right time when they had to. But sport is sport and humans are humans. You could see in their body language near the end and through extra-time that they were sick to the back teeth of having to live up to their own highest standards.
The Dublin players aren't all that old but they've had years and years of always having to do the right thing
Doing the right thing all the time is so, so difficult. I think that gets lost a bit when people look at dominant teams in any sport. Because let’s be honest about it – there’s a bit of comfort in playing for a team that isn’t expected to win everything.
Now, that can be a weaker county in GAA or a mid-table team in soccer or whatever. You can strive all you like personally but at a certain level, you know that there are people around you whose expectations aren’t at the very top of the sport. Call it being realistic, call it whatever you want. But there’s a fall back there for you, if the mood takes you.
That hasn’t been the case in Dublin football for most of the past decade. Either you do the right thing or they will find somebody to take your place and do it instead. And I think what we are seeing here is just an accumulation of years. The Dublin players aren’t all that old but they’ve had years and years of always having to do the right thing. When that slips, it’s very hard to force it back into place.
To me, that’s why they lost their discipline on Saturday night. The Dubs always played on the edge but they nearly always knew how to stay on the right side of it. But when they weren’t able to do the right thing and make the right decisions towards the end of normal time, you could see them losing patience with themselves as much as anything. So they went around belting Mayo players, like prisoners on a jailbreak looking to take out as many guards as possible before they were dragged back to their cells.
I heard Jim Gavin on the radio on Saturday morning and he was talking about reading Nietzsche and practicing stoicism and all this stuff. I had to roll my eyes, in all fairness now. Put it this way – if I was managing Dublin, I'd be very stoic too if I could throw a jersey to Stephen Cluxton and Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion and tell Diarmuid Connolly to sit on the bench and tell Bernard Brogan he wasn't good enough to make the 26. By God, I'd be the best stoic you ever saw in a day's walking.
But with the best will in the world, it’s not easy being stoic when you’re looking around for bodies and they’re just not there anymore. Gavin’s Dublin team was always regenerating and turning over players, with new ones pushing the old soldiers out of the way. That hasn’t happened in the past couple of seasons, especially in defence.
Who in the Dublin defence is worried for his place? As long as they are fit to play, their back six is always Fitzsimons, Byrne, Cooper, McCarthy, Small, Murchan. Howard might swap with McCarthy in certain games but otherwise, that’s their back six. Three of those players have been there for a decade or more. Are they looking over their shoulder in the way they had to under Gavin? I don’t think they are.
Look at how Tommy Conroy was able to barrel through for his points in extra-time. He just put his head down and his ears back and rattled through them. In times past, Cian O'Sullivan would have been there to inform young Conroy that this was an unwise thing to be doing with his life. But instead, this time Conroy looked up and saw Philly McMahon and thought, 'I'll have a piece of you, my man'.
When I saw Philly getting taken to the cleaners like that, it put me in mind of him doing the same thing to Colm Cooper in the 2015 All-Ireland final. It was a reminder that the wheel turns for us all in the end. There's always someone younger, faster, stronger, hungrier, whatever. There's no disgrace in it.
The three teams that are left will know well that this is an All-Ireland to go and win while Dublin are licking their wound
That’s ultimately how I look at Dublin losing on Saturday night. There was no disgrace in losing to Mayo. Dublin’s six-in-a-row was an amazing achievement and it will stand the test of time.
And they won’t fall far. They have more players than anyone else, more resources, more of everything. The three teams that are left will know well that this is an All-Ireland to go and win while Dublin are licking their wounds because they won’t be licking them for long.
That said, every conversation in Kerry over the past few days has been tinged with a bit of regret that we didn’t get to be the ones that brought the curtain down. But if we’re all honest with ourselves, we know well that only one county really deserved to do it.
Mayo brought the fight to Dublin for years when none of the rest of us could lay a glove on them. It’s only right and proper that they were the ones who got them in the end.