Dublin show true grit to claim place among all-time greats
Mayo heartbroken again as champion’s iron resolve gets them over the line
Diarmuid Connolly holds the Sam Maguire aloft in front of Hill 16. Connolly’s penalty, fired past Mayo’s substitute goalkeeper David Clarke, gave Dublin a lead they would not surrender. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
It has been Dublin’s year of invincible splendour. After another roaring, exhausting heavyweight exchange in Croke Park, Dublin wake up this Monday morning still the All-Ireland champions. They separated themselves from Mayo by the narrowest margin and so take their place among the finest teams to ever play this game.
Dublin came into Saturday evening’s replay, a glorious spectacle played under both autumnal and electric light, under converging pressures: to justify their position as championship favourites, to atone for their performance in the drawn game and to keep the Sam Maguire for a second consecutive winter.
And they found a way. Through iron will and occasional flashes of their luminous attacking repertoire, they coped with another hurricane of Mayo intensity to become deserving All-Ireland champions on a score of 1-15 to 1-14.
What a shining year of football and life for Jim Gavin and this Dublin team. They not only defended and claimed the county’s 26th All Ireland title, they won a fourth consecutive league without losing a game in either competition. The rest of Ireland threw everything it had at Dublin: week in and week out, they were every team’s big-game trophy.
And they shrugged off every best effort. They were, in the end, indomitable.
This nature of this campaign required unflinching toughness more than flamboyance and through spring and summer, they had that in abundance.
“I think to go all the season without losing a game is . . . a reflection of their application, their intensity and their intentfulness,” said Jim Gavin.
Bits of tin
“The way we look at it, we ask that group to be the very best. That’s all we ever strive for. If we get bits of tin along the way, that’s been a good day’s work.
“But each time they represent themselves at training, events that have been along to, they are socially conscious as well and that makes you proud of them. It makes you proud of their families who rear them and of their clubs who coach them. We just put a little bit of polish on them.”
Gavin is being ridiculously modest here: the Air Corps man’s influence in moulding the mental and tactical profile of this team has been profound.
On Saturday evening, as the sun fell across the city rooftops, Gavin looked genuinely happy but you sensed there was a small part of his mind already turning towards next season, when Dublin will attempt to emulate Kerry’s 1984-86 crowd with a three-in-a-row bid.
Hard to imagine right this now, but Mayo football once knew days of three-in-a-row All-Ireland bids. What are Mayo, who finish as faraway and as close as ever, to do from here?
It was repeated as fact that the Dublin forwards machine would respond with furious vengeance and righteous anger to their pale effort in the drawn match.
Except that this time, the Mayo backs held Dublin’s starting forward unit to 0-4 from play.
Once again, the challengers were brilliant at choking and stopping Dublin from slipping into that fabulous attacking rhythm of theirs.
But other things went against them. Weird, inexplicable things wandered into Mayo headspace in yet another All-Ireland final. No, the county is not cursed. But it has had its cosmic share of bad luck.
The decision to replace goalkeeper David Clarke with Rob Hennelly was so leftfield and unexpected that it had an unsettling effect and demanded an instant question: why? It seemed linked to the rumoured injury to Cillian O’Connor but when the game started, there was no evidence of that.
Hennelly is a fine goalkeeper but he had been held in reserve for most of the summer and the decision to start him in such a nerve-wracking game against a team which specialises in interrogating goalkeepers placed ferocious pressure on him.
The 44th-minute ball which Hennelly spilled, leading to his black-card tackle on Andrews and Diarmuid Connolly’s ruthless penalty, was the culmination of a rough afternoon for the Breaffy man and the images of his distress after the match were awful to behold.
“We did our analysis with Dublin and they were pushing four guys inside and were trying to cut off our short kick-out and were getting more reward off that,” Stephen Rochford said of the reason for the change.
“We felt that was something they were going to maximise further and Robbie’s kick-out gave us more length and option.
“I’m extremely proud of all the Mayo players. I thought they left every sinew of energy out there. It’s matched by a huge amount of disappointment. To lose by the smallest margin probably makes it hurt a little bit more.”
Connolly’s penalty left Mayo down by three points, 1-11 to 1-08, and although they clawed their way back with a combination of blind courage and muscle-memory, they would trail for the remainder of the final and finished that tortuous solitary point behind the champions.
Referee Maurice Deegan had a tough afternoon too, resembling at times a teacher with a nervous disposition trying to control a class of sugared-up teenagers on a visit to the Natural History Museum.
In fairness, he had a near-impossible task given the combustible relationship between the teams but while both sides suffered from officiating which was at once fussy and permissive, Mayo fared worse, particularly through the black-card decision against Lee Keegan, who lit up the evening with a brilliant first-half goal.
But for all that, Dublin were simply that bit too good in the crucial, thin-air moments and the classy ease with which Cormac Costello stepped in from the shadows to fire 0-3 when scores were hard to come by illustrated everything we know about the Dubs: they just have so much. Too much. When you play against Dublin, things fall apart.
This latest All-Ireland loss places a splendid Mayo squad in a terrible predicament. They have no choice but to go at this again but the extent of their anguish on Saturday was uncomfortable. The Dubs knew they been put through a war and the scenes of respect between the players after it was over reflected what has become an enthralling rivalry.
“I said going into the game there is only the bounce of a ball between us and that remains the case,” said Gavin.
That’s true. It’s just that Dublin, through craft and iron-clad self-belief, ensured that the ball bounced their way. They chased greatness all year and made it theirs when the hour came.