A drama in 10 acts: Remembering Dublin and Mayo’s greatest battle

Dublin’s Kevin McManamon celebrates at the final whistle of the 2017 All-Ireland final. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

The 2017 All-Ireland final was 42 minutes old and Dublin were a point ahead. They had dominated the exchanges in the seven minutes since half-time. Paul Mannion had exploded into the game, scoring a point and sending Dean Rock away for another. Kevin McManamon and Diarmuid Connolly had come on at half time, the latter sending the former in for a score with their first involvement. Dublin were rolling now.

It hadn’t been happening for Mayo since the restart. Their only score had been a Cillian O’Connor free. Aidan O’Shea, after a monumental first half during which he was involved in eight of Mayo’s nine points, was starting to get bottled up and turned around. He over-carried on the edge of the Dublin D, to lusty roars from the Hill behind the goal.

Sitting in the stadium, everyone could feel the tide turning. Mayo had had their go, they hadn’t made enough of it and now Dublin were gonna Dublin all the way to the three-in-a-row. What we didn’t know was that an already thrilling final was about to go onto a higher plane altogether. That Mayo were gonna Mayo too.

II

Let’s go back and set a scene or two. Even by their usual dizzying standards, Mayo’s summer had been a tombola spin. Derry had them all but beaten in the second round of the qualifiers, only for Conor Loftus to plant a goal from the gods late on. They needed extra-time against Cork a fortnight later, wobbling with the line in sight.

They needed a replay to get past Roscommon and the same again to prevail over Kerry. The final was their 10th game of a summer that had thrashed around like a severed power cable. Red cards, black cards, extra-times, it had everything. Including, memorably, Aidan O’Shea playing full-back on Kieran Donaghy in the Kerry games.

Dublin’s road to the last game of the summer hadn’t been quite as long or winding but there had been no shortage of incident either. Lowly Carlow had done what so few Leinster teams had managed under Jim Gavin and actually laid a glove on them. Connolly had earned himself a 12-week suspension for pushing a linesman, laying on the summer’s biggest non-Mayo subplot.

As DermoGate bubbled in the background, the Dubs got on with business. They tidied up another facile Leinster title - the first team ever to do seven-in-a-row - before demolishing Monaghan and Tyrone to make the final. The display against Tyrone was a masterclass, a virtually perfect execution of the plan Gavin and his brains trust had been putting together since losing to Donegal in 2014.

All that was left was Mayo. They were always what was left.

III

“We had a 24-hour headstart,” says Stephen Rochford. “Our replay against Kerry was on the Saturday and Dublin beat Tyrone on the Sunday. As a management, we were spread all over the country so we met in Athlone early in the week and talked for three or four hours about the gameplan we would put in place.

“With Dublin, you always knew pretty much who 13 of the players would be. You can aim for match-ups then but you’re never going to be able to orchestrate 14 match-ups across the pitch. Ciarán Kilkenny had become their main man through that summer and so we were always going to put Lee Keegan on him. Our question then was, ‘What if they start Connolly as well? Do you make that a job for Paddy Durcan?’

“But most of all, because it was always so fluid when Dublin and Mayo played, players were going to constantly find themselves in different positions picking up different players. So it was a case of everybody got ready for anybody. You could never tell what was going to happen.”

IV

At their pre-All Ireland camp in Carton House, Dublin prepared for all eventualities. That was who they were, that was what they did. Paul Flynn had missed a huge chunk of the year recovering from back surgery but he was in there pitching in those final weeks, pushing for a spot. Maybe not in the team but certainly off the bench. He wasn’t the force he had been but All-Ireland finals always saw the best of him.

“I was in a really good space,” he says. “I had that pep in my step that players get after they come back from injury. I was flying in every squad game and I was really pushing to play in the final.

“And then Jack McCaffrey went down after three minutes and I was sent on to replace him. We talked about preparing for all eventualities but this was just such a bolt from the blue. As I ran on, honestly I didn’t feel ready.

“James McCarthy went back to wing-back and I came on in midfield on Aidan O’Shea. I hadn’t played midfield in years and here was now suddenly playing on Aidan. It switched about a bit as the game went on and I spent a good bit of time marking Tom Parsons too. Positions got lost. It’s always been that way against Mayo.”

V

Why Mayo? All these years, all these battles and the question still stands. Why was it that Mayo were able to match up with Dublin at their best when nobody else could? The consensus answer always tends to be that they were a physical match in a way other counties just were not, athletic and aerobic enough to match Dublin stride for stride. But on the pitch, in the arena, there was more to it. So much more.

Lee Keegan celebrates scoring a goal in front of Hill 16. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Lee Keegan celebrates scoring a goal in front of Hill 16. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

“Tactically, the two teams’ styles complimented each other,” says Flynn. “Their energy source was that half-back line and we always had to make sure that we came at them in that area and didn’t let them get up a head of steam. They were so good at creating chaos out around there, which meant that there was always going to be that bit of space inside for Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor.

“And the other thing was, we were psychologically well-matched. What I mean was that our big thing under Jim was to always play in the present tense. You don’t project forward, you don’t worry about what’s gone. But Mayo could disrupt that. They could decode it. They got these huge waves of momentum. I loved playing Mayo and I feared it.”

VI

Tom Parsons always wore a watch playing for Mayo. Regardless of the weather, he always wore gloves and tucked in under the flap at the wrists, he wore a watch. The occasional referee spotted it and made him take it off but most of the time, nobody noticed or even thought to look.

“I broke down the game into five-minute segments,” he says. “Every game. I would look at my watch and give myself the next five minutes of pure effort. And when I got to the end of the five minutes I would decide whether to keep going or to put my hand up and come off. I did that all the way through the game.

“It was a tool I used to get through games because especially in those big games, after five minutes you’re absolutely out on your feet. If you’re looking up at the clock and thinking there’s another 65 minutes of this to go, you get lost in that thought. I concentrated on winning the next two minutes, the next five minutes.”

By 2017, Parsons was 29 and in his heyday. Putting his hand up to come off never came into it. This was Mayo’s fifth championship match against Dublin in three years, each of them an All-Ireland final or a semi-final or a replay. Across those five games, only Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor played more minutes for Mayo.

That day, the minutes whizzed past like intercity trains. Con O’Callaghan, 83 seconds into his first All-Ireland final, skins Colm Boyle and flicks a finish past David Clarke with the outside of his boot. Mayo score seven of the next nine points. They lead by one at half-time, disappointed it isn’t more. Dublin blaze out from the restart. Three rat-a-tat scores. A point up on 42 minutes. Visceral stuff. Relentless.

“It was the most ferocious, intense, highly-skilled game I ever played in,” Parsons says. “Neither team could breathe on the ball. There was nowhere on the pitch that was safe to control the ball and take a moment. It was all one-v-one battles and the absolute key to it was that we were constantly testing each other’s skill levels. It meant that there were lots of errors, lots of turnovers and yet still a really high skill level on both sides.”

VII

Just so we can get it down on paper, literally just for the record, there follows a list of things that happened between the 42nd and 53rd minute of the 2017 All-Ireland football final.

42:07 - Stephen Cluxton saves from Jason Doherty, whose follow-up is blocked by Philly McMahon. Cluxton fouls Doherty and O’Connor pops the free. Dublin 1-8 Mayo 0-11.

44:18 - David Clarke saves from Mannion, who is rampant now. Mannion collects the rebound, swaps passes with Flynn and kicks point off his right foot. Dublin 1-9 Mayo 0-11.

45:33 - John Small mistimes a shoulder on Boyle. Everyone knows he’s already on a yellow card. Everyone knows he’s about to be sent off. Everyone knows Mayo are about to play the last half-hour with a man advantage.

45:35 - Donal Vaughan hops over Boyle and clotheslines Small. Mayo’s prospect of a man advantage has lasted precisely two seconds. Vaughan has to go as well. Straight red.

50:27 - Brian Fenton clips a point at the Davin End. It rounds off a two-minute-25-second passage of play during which both teams have possession multiple times and the ball doesn’t once go dead. Dublin 1-10 Mayo 0-11.

52:06 - Fenton fouls the newly introduced Diarmuid O’Connor. Cillian O’Connor points the free. Dublin 1-10 Mayo 0-12.

52:40 - From the kick out, James McCarthy loses O’Shea and powers up the field to curl in a point on the run. Dublin 1-11 Mayo 0-12.

53:22 - From the kick-out, Parsons feeds O’Shea and Mayo start a move that ends with Keegan burying a goal past Stephen Cluxton. Mayo 1-12 Dublin 1-11.

In the space of 11 minutes, there had been two point-blank saves, two red cards, a Mayo goal into the Hill, five points scored from five points attempted and not a single wide.

VIII

The last 20 minutes were heart-stopping. Mayo managed to forge two points ahead. Dublin never panicked. Mannion capped a storming second half with his third from play. McCarthy steered in the equaliser. By the 70th minute, the sides had been level 11 times.

Cillian O’Connor stood over a free on the left-hand side. Not easy but makeable. He didn’t curl it enough and came down off the post and bounced out. An inch to the left and it would have fallen over the bar.

It ended how it ended. Connolly was immense in the endgame and he finally drew the right foul in the right spot. Chris Barrett, otherwise heroic, got his angle wrong on an attempted shoulder and Connolly accepted the gift and went down.

Everything else is lore. Rock’s free. Keegan’s GPS. Kilkenny and Cormac Costello leaping on their nearest man to drag them to the ground for the kick-out. Clarke out over the sideline. Dublin eat the clock. Game over.

Lee Keegan throws his GPS at Dean Rock as he kicks the winning point. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Lee Keegan throws his GPS at Dean Rock as he kicks the winning point. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

IX

In the harshest light, the difference that day was that Dublin were cooler when it mattered. Mayo always used emotion as such potent fuel, feeding off their supporters, trampolining to greater heights off the noise and fervour.

But whether it was Vaughan’s red card or O’Shea’s outside-of-the-boot wide after Keegan’s goal or Stephen Coen trying to thread an impossible needle with their last attack, it failed them at crucial times. Say what you like about Kilkenny and Costello, they were clear-eyed in the moment.

“Mayo always wore their heart on their sleeve,” says Flynn. “It was why they were regularly able to rattle off three or four scores in a row. It’s why they were able to overwhelm teams, including us at times. But emotion is a double-edged sword. It is great for getting you back into a game that you might have looked out of.

“But where it’s not all that helpful is if you’re too emotionally charged when it comes down to the end of a close game. You have to keep emotion out of it at that point. You have to stay present. And I just think they lost their way a little at times.”

X

It was never as good after that. You never stand in the same river twice. Players started to retire, managements moved on. Dublin powered on to the six-in-a-row, Mayo fell in the Newbridge Or Nowhere game the following summer.

When they’ve met since, Dublin have really only needed to tap the accelerator to ease clear. Mayo look to be coming again so maybe it will be different today. Maybe it won’t. One way or another, we’ll always have 2017.

“You are only defeated if you give up or if you don’t perform,” says Parsons. “That wasn’t how it was that day. You couldn’t regret anything from it because everybody gave everything. That game, although we lost it, it has enriched my life.”

Not just yours, Tom.