Darragh Ó Sé: Dublin as far ahead of pack as they ever were

Mayo's costly errors and Dublin’s superior experience and bench meant only one result

Mayo’s Conor Loftus reacts to a missed chance as Dublin’s James McCarthy and Mick Fitzsimons look on at Croke Park. Just before half-time Loftus conceded possession via a quick sideline ball and within seconds Ciarán Kilkenny extended Dublin’s lead at the other end.   Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Mayo’s Conor Loftus reacts to a missed chance as Dublin’s James McCarthy and Mick Fitzsimons look on at Croke Park. Just before half-time Loftus conceded possession via a quick sideline ball and within seconds Ciarán Kilkenny extended Dublin’s lead at the other end. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

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We’re some load of straw-clutchers at the back of it all. Here and there since Saturday night, I’ve heard it said that the final showed Dublin are there to be got at. That Mayo gave the rest of the country a bit of hope for the road ahead. That Dublin don’t look so invincible after all.

That all sounds a bit of a stretch to me.

Mayo left every bit of themselves on the pitch and still came away with their biggest defeat to Dublin in a final. Every other time they’ve met them in a final in recent years, it was either a draw or they lost by a point. This was five points and the further it went on, the more it would have been. It’s a bad state of affairs when five points is seen as a sign of progress.

I can see where they’re coming from, fair enough. Mayo weren’t beaten out the gate. They gave Dublin a bigger test than anyone had given them all year. But again, we’re talking about an All-Ireland final here. What else would they be doing only testing the Dubs? Are we really going to accept that they’re so far ahead of everyone that giving them a game is a reason for optimism? That’s a very low bar.

We said last week that for Mayo to even get to level par against the Dubs, they had a couple of wrongs from last year that they needed to right. And in fairness to James Horan and his players, they did exactly that. David Clarke’s kick-outs were excellent, maybe the best I’ve seen from him. Lee Keegan got out from the full-back line and was able to affect the game further up the field.

We shouldn’t be overly surprised that either of those things happened. Yes, they were a worry for Mayo going in but Mayo have been here before. These are the top players in the country. They should expect to solve problems if they work hard enough on them and come up with a good enough plan.

That’s what the top level of intercounty football is about. You made a balls of it last year? Fine. Go and fix it. What’s the alternative? Shrugging your shoulders and telling yourself that the Dubs are superhuman and can’t be touched? No way. You’re good enough, go show it.

Mayo don’t buy into all this carry-on of the Dubs being some sort of alien force that can’t be got at. I’d say they nearly pulled a muscle rolling their eyes at Des Cahill’s tweet about the Dubs cleaning the dressing room after them. As if every other crowd who ever set foot in Croke Park are only muck-savages from the country who never saw a sweeping brush in their lives. Give me strength.

Take out the first 13 seconds and you could easily say that for 20 minutes they outplayed Dublin

The Dubs are an unbelievable team. Everybody can see how great they are. But if you’re playing intercounty football, it’s up to you to change that dynamic. Respect them before and after the game. Wire into them during it. I hear ye’re great lads to clean a dressing room.

Mayo have the right amount of disrespect for the Dubs. Enough to know they’re not beaten before the leave the dressing room. They managed to bring some chaos to the first half and they survived better in it than Dublin did.

Before Con O’Callaghan’s goal, they had eight scores to Dublin’s four. Take out the first 13 seconds and you could easily say that for 20 minutes they outplayed Dublin. I don’t know the last time any team kicked five scores in a row against Dublin. I’ll take a wild guess and say it was probably Mayo themselves somewhere along the line.

Bad decisions

In the final shake-up though, two things counted against Mayo. A couple of their younger guys made bad decisions at the wrong time. An All-Ireland final isn’t a place for learning on the job. It can happen and it can go right – Oisín Mullin and Ryan O’Donoghue showed that. But it can go wrong as well. And when it goes wrong in a final, it tends to cost you.

I thought Conor Loftus had a decent enough game, all in all. The move to midfield has been good for him this year because it has got him involved in the game a lot more than before. I always had him down as a middling Mayo forward – the kind that won’t let you down but isn’t going to shoot the lights out either. Switching him to midfield has been the making of him.

But even though he’s been around for three or four years, this was his first start in an All-Ireland final. Just before half-time, he got fouled out on the sideline on the Dublin 45. Mayo were a point down at the time but there was nothing in the game. They were competing on equal terms. Probably dropping a couple more shots into Stephen Cluxton’s chest than they’d have liked but you can’t have everything.

Loftus didn’t need to take a quick one. O’Donoghue didn’t need to be running into a sniper’s alley looking for a quick one either

Loftus got fouled out over the sideline but picked himself up to take a quick one. Ryan O’Donoghue came showing for it but Loftus got the kick all wrong and Jonny Cooper intercepted. You could see Diarmuid O’Connor take the head off Loftus as soon as he kicked it – even if the kick had been on the money, young O’Donoghue was one surrounded by five blue jerseys. They were going to eat him up regardless of how good the pass was.

When you give the ball away cheaply like that, everyone on the pitch has the same thought. Turnover! Cooper fed James McCarthy, McCarthy gave it to Brian Fenton, Fenton across to Niall Scully and Scully long to Ciarán Kilkenny. It took about 10 seconds for the game situation to go from a Mayo free inside the Dublin 45 to Kilkenny collecting on the Mayo 20-metre line. All the while, every Mayo player had his head down and was sprinting back the field to get in position.

By this stage, Kilkenny had been having a shaky first half. Paddy Durcan had stuck to him like glue and Kilkenny had to rush a couple of shots and had kicked two wides. But Scully’s ball to him was perfect, shaping away from his marker so that he was odds-on favourite to collect.

In that situation, he’s lethal. He’s built like a bull, so it’s very hard to get around him to get a hand in. But also he has a unique kicking style – he ducks his head when he kicks so it’s nearly impossible to get across him to get a block on it. Mullin his marker here and Chris Barrett came in to give a hand but Kilkenny ran on a loop and shook them both off to kick a lovely score.

Giving away a point like that is so demoralising because it’s just so needless. It’s not a lack of ability or a lack of skill. It’s just a simple failure to take care of the ball. Loftus didn’t need to take a quick one. O’Donoghue didn’t need to be running into a sniper’s alley looking for a quick one either.

I’d bet good money that the reason Diarmuid O’Connor was so annoyed was that he was going over to take the sting out of the play, to work possession and to make sure that Mayo created the last scoring opportunity before half-time. Creating chaos is great and it’s what Mayo thrive on but you have to know where you are in the game as well.

A turnover like that is a double killer because it means the rest of the team has to do the 100-yard dash to get into position. So Kilkenny kicks the point and Clarke goes to collect the ball for the kick-out and everyone is gulping in air trying to catch their breath. Mayo got up the field but ran out of ideas with Aidan O’Shea running into four defenders and as Dublin came out, Eoghan McLaughlin pulled and dragged at Scully for a tired foul.

Black card

The whole point is that, all of a sudden, Mayo were gasping for half-time. It didn’t have to be that way. Loftus is 24 and in him and Mattie Ruane, Mayo have the makings of a seriously strong and mobile midfield for the next four or five seasons. That’s the sort of heedless mistake he has to learn from.

Experience is a huge thing. Robbie McDaid’s black card was really naïve, a silly mistake to make in a final. Dublin were on the attack, he didn’t need to stand in Kevin McLoughlin’s line but he couldn’t help himself. In its own way, just as heedless as Loftus’s mistake. The difference was, Dublin got in for half-time immediately and worked out what to do next.

Johnny Cooper fouling Aidan O’Shea: Both in the semi-final and final the wily Cooper was caught isolated one-on-one and managed to foul his man without being sent to the sin-bin either time. Photograph: Dara MacDonaill/Inpho
Johnny Cooper fouling Aidan O’Shea: Both in the semi-final and final the wily Cooper was caught isolated one-on-one and managed to foul his man without being sent to the sin-bin either time. Photograph: Dara MacDonaill/Inpho

Robbie needs to use Jonny Cooper as his inspiration. Early in the second half, Cooper managed to foul Aidan O’Shea without giving away a second Dublin black card. I know from experience that if you play on the edge long enough, you become very good at working out how to stay just on the right side of it. No point playing on the edge if you don’t get a good idea of where the edge is!

In the semi-final and final, he was caught isolated one-on-one and managed to foul his man without being sent to the sin-bin either time. That’s as much a skill of defending as pulling off a good block or shadowing a fella out to the sideline. I’d say he got the surprise of his life though when David Coldrick only gave him a tick. It left him with another foul before he saw yellow – and in fairness to Johnny, he wasn’t going to let that voucher run out without using it.

So Dublin had that edge in experience and they were able to use it where it counted. But just as important was the advantage they’ve had all through this era – when Dessie Farrell looked at his bench, he saw better options than when Horan looked at his. I thought going in that Mayo might be in a better place on that score than in other years. But when you look at who Horan brought in as the game wore on, it’s clear that he has decided that none of the old soldiers are what he needs any more.

When Durcan had to go off, you’d imagine that if Horan thought Keith Higgins was anywhere near the player he was, that’s where he’d have turned. When Brian Howard was having such an impact off the bench at midfield, it looked a ready-made job for Tom Parsons. Horan obviously doesn’t see them that way now – which is fair enough, since he sees far more of them than anybody.

It does say something about the Mayo panel, all the same. The team that eventually beats Dublin will need to have match-winners coming off the bench. Mayo seem further away than ever on that score.

They gave the Dubs a game on Saturday night. But that’s not the same as actually threatening to win it. On that score, Dublin are as far ahead as they ever were.

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