There is a lot of public sympathy around for Mayo after yet another case of close but no cigar. I guarantee you though that if you did a survey of intercounty players from around the country, sympathy would be in short enough supply. You think players in Tyrone or Galway or Monaghan or Kildare are crying any tears for poor Mayo? Not a hope. They’re looking at that game on Saturday and saying, “How many chances do ye need?”
After I watched that game, I thought of the old Clint Eastwood line from the movie Unforgiven. Gene Hackman is on his back with Eastwood's gun pointed at him and he's going, "I don't deserve to die like this." Eastwood looks back and says, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."
That’s it with Mayo. They’ve been there year after year, they’ve got all the experience in the world and still they haven’t learned how to get over the line. You might think that for consistency and bravery alone, they deserve that All-Ireland. But deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
Mayo got themselves into a four-point lead with 15 minutes to go in an All-Ireland semi-final. You only deserve to go through if you manage the rest of the game in the right way. It’s about players making the right decisions at the right time. It’s about realising where they are in the game and what they need to do next and – very crucially – what not to do. Dublin were able to manage the game once they got ahead but Mayo should never have given them the opportunity.
The first Dublin goal should haunt Mayo. I had to watch it back a couple of times because I nearly couldn't believe what I was seeing. It started with James McCarthy kicking a fine point to get Dublin back to within three points. When the ball went over the bar, Mayo's goalkeeper Rob Hennelly took off his gloves and bent down to tie his laces.
At the same time this was happening, Mayo took off Barry Moran and put on Alan Freeman. If this was Mayo trying to take the sting out of the game, it wasn’t a bad move. Between McCarthy’s kick going over the bar and Hennelly kicking the ball out, 50 seconds were used up.
But the more times I watched it, the less convinced I was that there was anything deliberate here. I’d say it’s far more likely that Mayo just wanted to make their substitution and Hennelly’s laces did actually need to be tied. Because if it had been a delaying tactic, then he surely wouldn’t have done what he did next.
Eddie Kinsella was obviously getting onto Hennelly to hurry up. You could see Hennelly holding his hand up as if to say, “Yep, no bother ref, I’m coming.” The problem for Mayo is that Hennelly continued as if he actually meant it. Instead of composing himself and getting himself set to produce the kick-out he wanted to, he was in far too much of a hurry to keep the referee onside.
So much so that he took the kick-out before he had both of his gloves back on. He set the ball on the tee with his right glove on and his left glove tucked under his oxter. He stepped back to start his run-up with the velcro from his right glove dangling and holding his left glove in his hand. He went ahead with the kick-out even though he obviously wasn’t ready.
This might sound like a small thing. But to me it proves beyond all doubt that the one thing Mayo needed at that point in time was the one thing they didn’t have. Composure is about being in control of your situation. Hennelly was allowing somebody else to dictate the situation to him. It’s about thinking clearly under pressure but on this occasion, Hennelly’s brain was obviously scrambled.
Composure allows you to focus on what’s important. I always remember a Meath v Dublin game from years ago that was close late on and Meath had a free about 50 yards out. Brian Stafford placed the ball but it was always going to be a bit far out for him. Colm O’Rourke knew this so he made a run out to show for a short one but Stafford wasn’t ready for him so he went back.
Now, in that situation, Stafford and O’Rourke both could have decided that they’d missed their chance. Stafford was a great free-taker so nobody would have held it against him to decide he could have a go at it. And O’Rourke had already shown his hand by going short so it was going to be more difficult for him to try it a second time. Not alone that, the crowd was roaring for them to hurry up.
But because they had composure, they both were able to focus on the key point – there was a better chance of O’Rourke kicking it over the bar from 40 yards than of Stafford doing it from 50. So he came short for it again, got out in front of his man and split the posts on the turn. They blocked everything out and did what had to be done.
How could Hennelly kick that ball out holding his glove in his hand? Why did he do it? Because the crowd were screaming at him? To hell with the crowd! What good are the crowd to you come Monday morning when you’re drowning your sorrows and dodging down back streets in Mayo looking for a quiet corner to cry into your pint? The crowd can wait.
Maybe it was because the ref was hurrying him up. But again, so what? Hennelly had his glove off – he had a total duty to tell Eddie Kinsella that he needed another few seconds. If Eddie had anything to say about it, the Mayo players needed to be in his ear reminding him that he’d already been harsh on them for giving Séamus O’Shea a black card. You don’t want to give him too much lip and make him throw up the ball but you have to get him to say, “Okay so, kick out the ball and we’ll get on with it.”
One way or another, Hennelly had to take control of the situation. He is the one player in the Mayo team who hasn’t had to do any running, whose body is as fresh now as when he walked out onto the pitch, who isn’t panting or sweating or trying to catch his breath. He has a responsibility to his team-mates to be the one who is thinking clearly. And instead, he kicks the ball out holding a glove in his hands.
You only needed to see where the ball went to know that his mind was frazzled. Every team needs a go-to kick-out. This is what training is for, this is why you do all those months of slogging. You do it to develop certain fail-safe moves to suit certain situations. I don’t know what Mayo’s go-to kick-out is but I know this – it isn’t a high, hanging ball to Kevin McLoughlin in the middle of midfield and him sandwiched by Cian O’Sullivan and Michael Darragh Macauley.
The consequences were disastrous. O’Sullivan batted it down, Macauley gathered it up, Paddy Andrews switched it to Alan Brogan who put Brian Fenton in the clear and
tidied up Fenton’s scuffed shot. None of the Dubs took a hop or a solo, they just moved the ball on because they knew this was their chance. From Hennelly’s boot to Brogan’s, the whole thing took a total of 13 seconds.
That’s the knife-edge these big games are on and that’s how quickly things can turn upside down. As Brogan wheeled away, Aidan O’Shea gave Hennelly a roasting for the kick-out. Hennelly gave him a mouthful back but what really stood out for me was the fact that as he did so, he was doing up the velcro on his gloves.
This was a perfect situation for Dublin now. A Dublin goal is always a huge thing. The crowd expects it, the team expects it and the longer a game goes without it, the more nervous they all get. But a Dublin goal that comes from a bad mistake by the opposition – that’s double their money.
Because now, every Dub in Croke Park sniffed blood. Less than a minute later, Hennelly dropped a kick-out right down on Macauley’s head and Dublin worked it up to Brogan who turned Ger Cafferkey to put Philly McMahon in for the second goal. Goodnight Irene. Mayo had one job – to stop Dublin scoring goals. But because they lost their composure when it mattered most, Dublin scored two in a minute. Catastrophic stuff.
And then Dublin killed the game. They were patient and organised and full of movement. They waited for overlaps and players looping back around for another pass. Above all, they kept the ball and killed the clock. One long move ended in a point. They shut the game down not through any amazing pieces of skill or any big moments of bravery or anything like that. It was just simple composure.
Win the game. That’s your job. That’s what you do all the work for. Get ahead, stay ahead. Identify the opposition’s strengths and stop them. The only way Mayo were going to lose in that last 15 minutes was if Dublin got a goal – as it turned out, they got three and they didn’t have to work overly hard for any of them. That’s just unforgiveable from Mayo.
I laughed when I saw all the stuff after the hurling final about how Jackie Tyrrell had turned everything around for Kilkenny with his half-time speech. I'd be fairly sure Jackie is laughing at it himself. The bald truth of it is that however great Jackie's speech was – and I've no doubt it was mighty – it wouldn't have made a blind bit of difference without the ability of mature players to make the right decisions at the right time on the field of play.
That’s why it’s hard to have too much sympathy for Mayo. Apart from anything else, I’m sure they don’t want anybody’s sympathy anyway. They must know in their heart and soul that they have no excuse here. They have the experience and they have the ability. By now, they should have developed a way to recognise the crucial stages of a big game and worked out how to shut it down.
Until they do that, they will always find somebody too good for them.