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Dublin move out of Mayo’s grasp to cement place among footballing greats

Champions win 27th All-Ireland – and have Kerry’s record in their sights

All-Ireland champions: Dean Rock kicks Dublin’s winning point against Mayo. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile via Getty

Ah, this September song. Dean Rock is weighing up the moment, eyeing the Canal End posts judiciously, taking cognisance of the breeze, of his heartbeat, of the players’ voices around him and of the lull in the crowd. It seems wrong, somehow, that such an incredible contest – less a football match than a collision of equal will and hunger and athleticism – should spin on a placed ball, but there it is.

Just two minutes earlier Mayo had a chance at the other end, and although Cillian O’Connor’s strike was true the angle was devilishly tricky, and it came away square off Stephen Cluxton’s post and bounced unmolested in the small square, stunning everybody until it was smuggled clear by the sky-blue defenders. These are the fine lines.

Later Jim Gavin will say that the pull of history and of claiming three All-Irelands in a row was never a subject over the season. “What has gone in the past is in the past. We never referenced it. Never.”

For a large part of this All-Ireland final the defending champions seemed to feel the pressure as they responded to one minor crisis after another

That may be true, but old ghosts and memories will infiltrate the day anyway, and for a large part of this All-Ireland final the defending champions seemed to feel the pressure as they responded to one minor crisis after another.

Jack McCaffrey gone on a turned ankle after just nine minutes. Just one point from play after 20 minutes. Mayo marauding through midfield and their full-forward line scoring 0-6 from play, including 0-3 in another scintillating turn by Andy Moran. Lee Keegan shadowing Ciarán Kilkenny into the unseen margins of the game and popping up to score another screamer of a goal in the second half. Aidan O’Shea magisterial for 50 minutes.

There were reasons all over the field for a thought to creep into Dublin minds: maybe this is not our day.

Sporting greatness

But doubt, that old culprit, seems banished from this group on their way to claiming sporting greatness. Think of how they have turned the old order on its head since stunning Kerry with that All-Ireland raid in 2011. A single-point win over Mayo in 2013. A dogfight in the rain over Kerry in 2015. A draw and a one-point win over Mayo again in 2016. And now it comes down to this kick.

Folk memory will recall this blue wave wiping out all in its wake, but the more accurate truth was that there were moments in all of these finals when Dublin could have buckled. When, exactly, did this contest begin to spin in their favour? It is hard to overestimate the significance of that mad 47th minute when Colm Boyle was clattered by John Small, who in turn was grounded by Donal Vaughan.

Dublin lost Small to a second yellow, but Joe McQuillan, whose emotional style of refereeing can lead to mysterious calls, issued Vaughan a straight red. The Ballinrobe man is the like the escapement of a wristwatch: so much of his hidden work makes Mayo tick. It was hard to imagine the remaining 14 getting home without his presence and athleticism.

There will be a brokenness, however temporary, in Stephen Rochford’s gallant demeanour after the match

“It would be easy for us to jump on that,” a disconsolate Stephen Rochford will say afterwards. “These things happen. I genuinely didn’t see the incident. I was looking to get a sub in. But today isn’t about sendings-off. We came second to a better team in the All-Ireland final on the day.”

That was about it. Where this era of football leaves this Mayo has yet to be decided. But there will be something uncomfortable about bearing witness to the evident distress of the splendid Lee Keegan when the streamers fall and the cup has been raised. There will be a brokenness, too, however temporary, in Rochford’s gallant demeanour after the match.

Torturous one-point defeat

For Mayo another one-point defeat is nothing less than a torture. What more could they have done here? They can berate themselves for not finishing those six fine chances they engineered in the first half, when they were lording it. They can hold themselves culpable for a missed pass here or a free conceded there. But to do that is to demand perfection from themselves. It’s an unreasonable demand, but maybe that’s all that would have beaten this Dublin team.

When one element isn’t working for the champions Jim Gavin merely exchanges it for another – Kevin McMenamon here, Diarmuid Connolly there, MD Macauley when legs were beginning to buckle. Such is the wealth.

Even after Keegan’s thunderbolt, even after Mayo pull two points clear in the 63rd minute and Croagh Patrick is beginning to tremble, the champions keep on coming

Even after Keegan’s thunderbolt, even after Mayo pull two points clear in the 63rd minute and Croagh Patrick is beginning to tremble, the champions keep on coming. Scores for Paul Mannion and James McCarthy, who has become the towering figure on the field as this final is up for grabs. Then the equalising point coolly fisted by Dean Rock. Five draining minutes at deadlock and then Rock again, setting himself after Diarmuid Connolly has won a bread-and-butter free. Rock sets himself, and nobody believes he will miss.

“That composure piece has been the hallmark of these guys,” Gavin will say. “I thought it was terrific throughout the game. It was very tight in the first half, and particularly when they went two points ahead they had the crowd behind them. There is a perception that they had momentum, but in the last quarter we probably outscored them four points to one. That just shows how much present the players were in the game.”

Dublin roar

Rock’s free is nerveless, and it will win Dublin their 27th All-Ireland title, 10 behind Kerry in the all-time list. Gavin’s insistence on staying in the here and now means they won’t fret about that. But it’s hard not to see them eating into it, regardless of the imminent coming of the Kerry wunderkind David Clifford, who nailed 4-4 in the minor final today. Stephen Cluxton, in his 91st championship match, has borne eyewitness to this Dublin roar.

“Putting on the jersey, you appreciate every day you get to do that,” the inscrutable Parnells man will say in explaining the why of it as he sat beside Gavin. “It’s not so much victories and defeat. The players I hold in high regard. Those that don’t have All-Ireland medals I still hold them in high regard. I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve learned a lot from playing with different players. This group of lads really want to win it. That’s what we saw today.

“I’m just holding on to my jersey. I have to chat with this man here, see if he wants me for next year. Once January comes around I’m going to be battling against another goalkeeper to try and win the jersey. That’s just the way it is.”

The bottom line is that Mayo’s warriors will be back, hard as that is to imagine just now

The bottom line is that Mayo’s warriors, too, will be back, hard as that is to imagine just now. “Life goes on, and it will go on,” Paddy Durcan of Castlebar will vow. “It will hurt for a while, but we will put the heads down and come again.”

He is probably steeling himself for that sentiment as he watches Dean Rock’s free float through the stadium and Dublin, the champions, move just out of their grasp and on to an untouchable place.