Our eyes did not deceive us. Last Saturday we spoke here about the suspicion of new vulnerabilities within the Dublin team. That night, we got our answer in spectacular fashion.
The tell-tale signs of Dublin’s decline were there. But they weren’t obvious. Their weaknesses were contained within the underbelly of the team. The explanation for their defeat is not down to physical or technical decline. I believe Dublin still have speed, strength and aggression and skill in abundance.
In fact, I thought Dublin's older players like Mick Fitzsimons and James McCarthy were still exceptional in their lung-busting, covering runs in the second half as Dublin fought to keep control of the night. But those signs of deteriorating collective power against Wexford and Meath and Kildare were mercilessly exposed by Mayo over the last 15 minutes of normal time. By extra-time, Dublin were all out of reserves. It's a reverse process: gradual decline and then a sudden fall.
If they had met a more cautious team, Dublin might have limped and managed their way to another final. What Saturday required was a team prepared to ask the hard questions. Enter Mayo. Dublin scored 0-4 from half-time to the end of extra-time. That is the story in the nutshell.
People said afterwards that it was incredible to see their scoring rate stall. But it was entirely credible. Their kick-out came under pressure. It started to implode. After that, everything fell apart. You have to wonder where Stephen Cluxton’s thoughts are this week. Would he have been able to keep Dublin together? Would he have been able to find the open man with one of those pinging restarts to the wing to just keep Mayo at bay? And what now? He hasn’t said he is retired. Will he return next year?
There was a clear discipline issue as Dublin surrendered their crown. They became very aggressive and there was a cynical nature to their play and a dangerous element also. We were behind the tackle on Eoghan McLaughlin by John Small and it was bad. He wanted to hit the Mayo player as hard as he could and it was high. It was shoulder to head. It was shoulder to chin. It was the worst of a series of incidents. There were high tackles around the neck and hand trips and people being dragged down.
In a way, that didn’t surprise me either. When the wheels start to come off, people do things they don’t normally do. All of that wildness came out because they had to find another way.
Remember: Dublin were disciplined in the first half. When they had those protracted periods of possession, they had Mayo where they wanted them. When they ended up inside the final third with the ball, they created a box of space by leaving two of three players inside the 14, another two or three outside the 45 and then a few receivers along the flank.
So if you can visualise a box of Dublin players of 40x50 metres around the Mayo defensive shape, you can picture what they were trying to do. And they were quite happy with that, keeping the ball out of contact and looking to exploit the space and make lateral runs and make a scissor pass for the receiving player to pop over the bar – 0-10 to 0-3 and looking assured: it was an excellent strategy. But when Mayo turned up the heat, Dublin forwards stopped stepping up. It became messy. It was a far cry from Niall Scully putting his hand up to initiate the start of a new play.
I know the impact of the bench has been well covered. That famous Dublin bench is no longer there. For me, that is not the full story. For me, the important part of the equation is that the players on the pitch know that those reserves aren't there. When you have Diarmuid Connolly or Michael Darragh MacAuley biting at your heels, it keeps you fresh and motivated and sharp. But who was there to truly threaten those Dublin starters? That very deep level of responsibility was diluted. So by extra-time, we were witnessing two things at once: the making of Mayo and an historic team in freefall.
What of Mayo? Here they were, missing Cillian O’Connor, the man who was responsible for 50 per cent of their scores last year and their best player of this year, Oisín Mullin. To many, those absences meant that they didn’t have a chance.
There is one reason why they were able to overcome those losses: James Horan. He has done an astounding job with this Mayo squad. His chief achievement is that he has instilled a belief system that is absolute. This group believes they can – no, will – win every game. They believe in themselves with an intensity that is formidable. They believe they can survive those individual losses with togetherness.
You could see it after McLaughlin left the field. Eoghan gave Mayo huge forward thrust and aggression. They lose him and what happens to the group? They actually grow stronger. James made the decision to take Aidan O’Shea off after 48 minutes. It was a big moment. When the spiritual leader isn’t firing and he is removed at a critical point in the game, that forces everyone else to accept the responsibility.
The others realised that it was on them to make this happen. And guys like Tommy Conroy and Ryan O'Donoghue very quickly started to play brilliantly. Also, Pádraig O'Hora, Enda Hession and Lee Keegan were absolutely in the ears of the Dublin forwards. We could see it from our seats in the studio. The real battle was won when the ball was elsewhere. They were dominating their players physically when the ball was at the other end of the field.
Those three guys created a platform for attack because they had the work done before the ball even arrived. Whatever the message from the manager was, it sent them into battle with incredible focus. And Rob Hennelly had a day of redemption really. I think everyone in the stadium admired what he did with that season-saving kick. Perseverance is everything in sport.
And how Mayo persevere! They were two different man-of-the-match awards on Saturday. Young O’Hora said it was one of the best days of his life. Keegan was also beaming – with a but. The senior player knows that this mission has not been completed. And that senior brigade became grounded again very quickly after the event.
Mayo did not play to their potential here for a long time. You can interpret this in two ways. Either they didn’t hit their potential for an hour and still beat the unbeatable. Or: if they repeat that in the final, the opposition team will be out of sight by the time they hit stride. Either way, it was a seismic evening of football. The sky has cleared – maybe.
Is there a big change in football coming, where the Sam Maguire will begin touring the counties again? Or will Kerry merely slip into Dublin's place and initiate a new period of dominance? They are posting the kind of frightening scores this summer that look familiar.
If Dublin hadn't lost in 2014, they would most likely have eight All-Irelands in-a- row. It has been a long, long period of dominance. I don't believe they are going to disappear. I don't. But they have reached a crossroads. It is not just about Dessie Farrell or the players: it is also about the top brass in Dublin football. The key question for Dublin now is how they respond to the sight of another team lifting the cup they have owned for most of a decade.