Sunday's All-Ireland final will be spoken about for many years because all of us in Croke Park left the stadium wondering if we could believe – or trust – what we had seen. The game was pitched into such a realm of strangeness, from the weather through to what happened on the field that it was like a deception.
As I flew back to Glasgow on Sunday night, I kept asking myself that question: just what happened out there?
All weekend, the build-up in Dublin was hugely expectant. I have never experienced such a demand for tickets. When I got a taxi in from the airport on Saturday, I got chatting to the driver who was a true Dubs supporter; genuine and knowledgeable, he had gone to see them in every game in the championship. And he could not get a ticket.
I took his card in the hope I could get him a ticket but I wasn’t able to locate one. On Sunday, the one thing that struck me was that the crowd was up around Croke Park really early. It was as if both sets of supporters couldn’t wait.
Last week here, I suggested that Mayo needed to go somewhere primal. There was an element of that in the jostling and pushing when the teams took to the field, but I don't feel it was contained in Mayo's overall performance.
My sense is that Dublin's underwhelming display is attributable to something within themselves more than what Mayo did to them. I don't think it is a coincidence that Dublin's last poor performance was in last year's All-Ireland final, even though they won then.
So much happened in the first half alone that it became difficult to break down and categorise. The critical man-to-man match up featured, as expected, Mayo's Lee Keegan picking up Diarmuid Connolly. Lee is a huge part of Mayo's attacking threat. The task of shadowing Diarmuid is considerable: he has been the best footballer in Ireland all summer. But Keegan is up there with him.
So the impact which both players can have goes a long way to shaping the dynamic of the game. There was a lot going on between them both off and on the ball: it was an intense and riveting confrontation.
It seemed that Lee edged their battle because Diarmuid has this unique array of power, running, strength, agility and that ability to kick off both feet, so it is a huge achievement to hold him to a single point. He is a frightening proposition and the way Lee coped with him was impressive.
However, that containment comes at a cost because they lost what Lee can offer to Mayo's attack. I felt Mayo started brightly and ran straight lines and forced Dublin to deal with that. They used Aidan O'Shea as an inside threat and he made himself a big, disruptive presence on the edge of the Dublin D. They were at the pitch of the game and their defenders – Colm Boyle, Brendan Harrison and Kevin McLoughlin – were so sharp and alive to everything.
Then came those two bizarre, unforgettable goals. I was sitting beside James Horan for the first one. We were both in the Sky studio. The first goal happened and James's head went down. I just said something about it being really bad luck. James said: "That's an understatement."
When the second one went in, we were all stunned and I said: “James, I know you’re not going to like this but you do have to question the concept of this curse.” It was said in jest, but I had this sense that James never, ever stopped believing, which is indicative of the spirit within the squad.
Apart from those freak goals, Dublin had a serious amount of possession. But they were too methodical and not supporting the ball with attacking runs. They were cautious. Why? I was thinking about the Donegal game, when they knew they would face 14 men and that it would require huge patience and discipline and recycling. They were excellent in how they executed that and found the gaps to garner scores against Donegal.
But has that system or formula somehow seeped into their play? I felt I could see traces of that methodology in the Kerry game even though they kicked 0-22.
For me, the hallmark of previous Jim Gavin teams was their lightning transition into attack. That has slowed since the Donegal game. They are happy to recycle and wait. So there has been a shift that seemed very pronounced on Sunday.
Things you work on in the training ground can morph into other things. Dublin look at the Donegal game and say: ‘Look, we went down to 13 men and we still controlled the game!’ And then that drifts into your mindset and you become a more controlled, stilted version of what you were originally were.
The threat that Dublin have presented is that of a torrent: wave after wave of attack generated by Stephen Cluxton’s laser-issue restarts. When you played Dublin, you were in for a busy day. Against Mayo, I felt they were too safe and methodical. At times I was urging them to go on.
In normal circumstances they are a fountain of support running and varied attack. They threatened at times here and just as in last year's final, it was often the final ball which betrayed them. We also shouldn't forget that Brian Fenton drew two important saves from David Clarke.
Still, Dublin only kicked 0-4 points in the first half and were ruffled: we saw Bernard Brogan kick a ball straight into the air. Dean Rock had a bad wide.
The key question is why. Mayo went man to man with Dublin all over the pitch, apart from Kevin McLoughlin. They didn’t set up a bank of four and force Dublin to play through them. So the question is: did we witness a brilliant defensive job by Mayo or was it a consequence of conditions and of Dublin being too lateral and conservative and not providing the runners, which has been the blueprint of this team?
I’m not convinced that what happened to Dublin was down to Mayo. Yes, Mayo were competitive in the game. But they weren’t bringing anything new. They were just doing what they had done before but with even more hunger. And once Dublin doubled up on Aidan O’Shea, I felt Mayo needed to go with at least two big men inside.
Ironically, the black card changed the game in Dublin’s favour. I felt it was a mess of a call. Two guys run into each other and hit each other’s shoulders. It wasn’t a third-man tackle: it was just machismo on both players’ part and McCarthy paid a heavy price. It beggars belief. That card needs to go.
But weirdly, as if this game needed more weirdness, the change brought Dublin back in to it through Paddy Andrews’s two points from play. He got the engine started. So by half time, it was hard to weigh up what we had just seen.
Regardless, it was double scores at half time. In fairness, Mayo’s response was excellent and spirited in the second half. Their moral courage is beyond reproach. But I would ask this again: what did they do differently?
From the Donegal 2012 final to Sunday is eight big knockout championship games and I would ask: what have we seen from Mayo that is different apart from the sweeper system? They haven’t managed to win the All-Ireland so it stands to reason that they must do something different.
People will say they held Dublin to a de facto 0-9. I don’t believe that the core truth of the game is about that. What we saw from Dublin was false, for whatever reason. Ninety-nine percent of the time a team will revert back to its average mean. The champions were below average on Sunday. It’s the old saying that the favourite wins the replay. I think on October 1st, they will kick a lot more points.
Mayo were nothing if not brave. They thundered into the second half and scored 0-4 in five minutes. It was an inspirational burst. Then they kind of went missing offensively again, which is replicating a pattern throughout their championship. I scribbled a note: “Fifty minutes gone. Game in balance. Who wants it? “
What I was really saying was: this is Mayo's opportunity. Yet from that minute to the 74th, Dublin controlled the game. Mayo didn't bring the fire or the big hits. They were just treading water. I felt Paul Mannion did well for Dublin and you could see him or Eoghan O'Gara starting and Kevin McManamon reverting to impact substitute.
Yet Dublin were still labouring in attack. It was still cautious and defined by lateral passing. They are not afraid to go back the field. Interestingly, there were a number of attacks when they didn’t have the bodies inside to kick the ball into. That was something we used to struggle with in Donegal sometimes: your forwards make runs and when the ball doesn’t come in, they end up straying out to the 45.
That almost never happens with Dublin because the two corner forwards play on the byline and the full forward on the top of the D and they make 50-metre sprints across goal. There was a conspicuous absence of that on Sunday. Again: why?
I thought Dublin looked tired in the last 15 minutes. Had they won, they would have fallen over the line to their All-Ireland title. It is a long time since the Hill was so quiet. It is an All-Ireland final and they had nothing much to cheer about.
However, when the match was in the balance, some of the Mayo decision-making was catastrophic. I was thinking: they need to get the ball to a marquee forward to drop the shoulder and slip inside and kick the ball over the bar. Just do simple things well.
Dublin have guys who could pop up and make those incisions and tag those scores on. They took control of possession and found a way to kick themselves into a three-point lead at the end of normal time. John Small was excellent in the second half and Jonny Cooper too. Donal Vaughan was a shining light for Mayo: had they won, he was the man of the match.
So: 70 minutes gone. And the board goes up and shows seven minutes just as Cillian O’Connor scores a free. And Dublin decide: let’s just keep ball. And the longer you watched them do this, on a treacherous surface, you felt they would slip or make a mistake and cough it up. Yet they didn’t. Their handling was very good and their composure was what we have all come to expect.
Then Vaughan steals in for a huge point and Dublin still try to manage the clock. Then came the sideline ball and with 30 seconds left, having kept the ball from the 70th minute to the 76th, Connolly decides to kick for a score. I can’t get my head around this: a short sideline pass and they keep it and they have the All-Ireland.
After the shot goes wide, they fail to push up on the kick-out quickly enough and the ball goes out to a Mayo player on the Cusack Stand side and then it goes into the centre. There are 25 seconds left in the All-Ireland final and I notice that four Dublin players don’t sprint back. I’m thinking: 15 behind the ball. Just survive for 25 seconds and it’s over.
Instead, Mayo came through the middle. It was a magnificent point by O’Connor under pressure, but I couldn’t believe Dublin didn’t shut them down.
Why? That’s a big question. Was it because they were out on their feet?
I asked a question here last week: can Mayo keep Dublin to 16 points? And if they can, what would that game look like? So they kept them to 0-9 and two own goals. But Sunday didn’t look like the game I had imagined in my mind. I didn’t see anything new or leftfield from Mayo.
I thought I might see two innovations: an off-the-hook, ultra-intense mentality. Don’t get me wrong: some of the defending was lion-hearted and their recovery from the brink of another bleak All-Ireland defeat was hugely impressive. But I just didn’t see the fire and gung-ho positivity that might have carried them to victory in the last 15 minutes of normal time. That only became visible when the cause was almost beyond their grasp.
And why not try something different? Why not go with not even two but three monsters at the edge of the square: O'Shea, Barry Moran and Tom Parsons? Bombard the square for a while and have the rest of the Mayo side defending as a unit of 12. Just see where that would bring them.
And if that doesn’t work, have something else up your sleeve. I didn’t see that. I just saw that familiar, very tenacious and honest Mayo team but nothing new. And I am fearful that Dublin will return to the norm in the replay and instead of kicking 0-9, they will kick 0-19. If it is a dry day, that will facilitate a higher scoring average.
Over the next fortnight, Mayo need to find a way to drag Dublin into the trenches because Dublin are vulnerable when they are brought there. I wouldn’t be heaping too much praise on Mayo just yet. They’ve earned themselves another chance. But: they have another chance.
So can they come up with something? That’s why I was talking about that primal dimension. Take Dublin back to that place when Brogan is skying the ball and Connolly is blasting the ball wide and they are addled. But I am not convinced that Mayo will do that in the replay. I feel it will be the same set-up: Aidan going in full forward and Andy and Cillian in the corner and Kevin McLoughlin playing sweeper.
I don’t believe that will be enough. I think Mayo are saying to themselves: “We are as good as Dublin. We are good enough. We stick to our principles. We’re going to win this because we are as good as Dublin.” And, yes, you have to believe in yourself. But you also have to accept that that is not quite true. Pound for pound, Dublin carry more offensive threat than any football team in Ireland.
That doesn’t mean Mayo can’t become All-Ireland champions. I just have a gut conviction that Mayo need to introduce something new and unexpected to finally shift the dynamic fully in their favour.
Only the two teams really know what happened out there. The rest of us have to wait for a fortnight for the true answers.