House on fire. After six years of unbroken domination that at times left the rest of the country in despair, Dublin, All-Ireland champions 2015-2020, went down in flames on a rainy night in the capital.
It was appropriate that they fell to Mayo, the county that had offered Dublin the toughest challenges and suffered repeated heartbreaking outcomes over the past half-decade.
In the end, the sight of Dublin in disintegration was shocking. The All-Ireland champions struck 0-10 in a first half in which they presented the illusion of the old control and decision making. But over a wild and extraordinary hour, the most voracious scoring team of modern times would manage just another 0-4 in 62 minutes of football.
The champions failed to score entirely in the third quarter when referee Conor Lane whistled for the water break, a fact that would have been inconceivable in any summer over the past decade. And they just about held on as the Mayo youth division ran through them in waves in the last quarter, suddenly aware that there was nothing to be frightened of here.
A nerveless 45 by Mayo goalkeeper Rob Hennelly edged the game into two periods of extra-time but something within Dublin – whatever essence it is that makes a team believe it is immortal – had already been broken on the field. They knew it. Their opponents sensed it. Then, the realisation spread to the chilly darkening stands. If there were still newstand boys and evening editions, what a clamour! Extra! Extra, read all about it.The old palace was being ransacked before our very eyes.
These two have served up a series of rich classics to be savoured over the years. This was more elemental and darker. For 55 minutes, this was an awful game of football, played on a squally, unsettling night of spitting rain and spiteful transactions.
As the tea-time kettles whistled around north Dublin, a question might have formed in the minds of the public. Where is the All-Ireland championship? Where is the big sprawling majestic spectacle that has, for decades formed the backdrop of Ireland’s summers?
There was something uneasy about this Saturday evening in the minutes after six o’clock as the Dubs, still the champions perpetual, briskly ran through their power-and-possession game. What did this say about the state of the game if Dublin were simply going to cruise to another final?
The memory of what Mayo had done to the sacrificial lambs of June – obliterating Sligo, putting up a frightening score against Leitrim – put a chill into an already unseasonable August evening. Mayo are, by all accounts, light years removed from the rest. But here, over the first 30 minutes, they were snatching at ghosts and struggling to read the riddles of the Dublin movement and composure. With the Kerry-Tyrone semi-final in a precarious and compromised place, the championship itself seemed to be on the precipice.
But Mayo under James Horan are nothing if not stubborn. Few teams are as bloody minded in shaking off their own shortcomings. They had excuses to fold the tent here. As usual, much of the focus was on Aidan O'Shea: where would he play; how would he lead?
The big Breaffy man trotted into the edge of the square at the start and then spent most of the game waving at his team-mates in the hope they’d find him the ball. When he did win a possession and a free shot with a mark, he thumped a terrible wide from 13 metres, to the gloating delight of the Hill. He never quite recovered from that moment and Horan took the huge and hugely courageous decision to substitute him with 50 minutes gone.
It was a massive moment in what goes down as Horan's finest hour to date. Without O'Shea, Mayo had to go and beat the unbeatable without their figurehead. And new faces emerged. Tommy Conroy transferred the electric talent he has long shown on localised fields to the biggest game of his life. Ryan O'Donoghue must have ran a marathon as well as striking 0-5 over the evening. The Mayo back division, led by Pádraig O'Hora and Lee Keegan, put in a monstrous hour and snuffed out the fading light of the most feared attacking unit in the game.
There is always something terribly lonely about watching a great team humbled. The realisation that this is what was happening here came late. There was a suspicion, as the cognoscenti had sagely agreed in podcast and print all week, that Dublin had become that most delicate of things: vulnerable.
They looked anything but in the first half. There was the imperious Fenton catch, there the inevitable backdoor scores from O’Callaghan and Kilkenny, there was Scully and Murchan buzzing and moving and there, too, was the bass chorus of the Hill, content that nothing had changed, nothing was over. It was, in fact, the westerners who looked stricken and suddenly searching for an identity through the first half.
It was 0-10 to 0-4 at the break. The big place felt eerie during then, with all the funfair sounds but none of the atmosphere. The first half deepened the sense that Dublin had finally roused themselves to the necessary business of extending the legacy.
Time and time again, the Mayo young ’uns learned to their cost that you don’t take the ball into contact against Dublin: the tackling was rapacious and firm. Fenton settled into conductor at midfield as Dublin simply toyed with their opponents in possession. They held the ball for 61 per cent of the time as the Dublin fans clapped politely and nodded appreciatively as the champions switched the ball and used the tramlines on the field and never once allowing the pent-up Mayo men to deliver the hit they yearned to do.
And yet. It was only 0-12 to 0-7 on the hour mark. The champions, playing into that treacherous breeze towards the Hill, had stalled. If there was a turning point, it was when Diarmuid O’Connor sprinted to save a stray Rob Hennelly free, fly-kicking it back infield for Kevin McLoughlin to fire one of his efficient scores.
All night, the Mayo faithful had been waiting for a moment, any moment, to light their fire. This was it. After the restart, Jordan Flynn clipped another score and then Evan Comerford, advancing with the ball and searching in vain for a blue shirt, was called for over-carrying. It wasn't really the goalkeeper's fault but it was impossible at that moment not to remember the missing number one. It was only then that the Dubs fans had visions of Stephen Cluxton. O'Donoghue potted the free and then Conroy landed another true beauty. Mayo were back in comfortable country: rampaging, chasing down a lost cause, running down a dream.
Suddenly, there was only one team on the field. It was all green and red. They tore through the fragmenting memories of the Jim Gavin years. The closing minutes of the champions' defence was not particularly gallant: it seldom is.
Desperate to halt the westerners flow, they went down injured, the committed several wild tackles and had the great James McCarthy, the nucleus of this whole thing, and Tom Lahiff black carded in the unruly closing period of extra time.
By then, Mayo were in a 0-17 to 0-14 lead and were completely in control: revelling in the night. There was almost a grace note goal when Conroy, in fabulousness mode by now, sent O’Donoghue through but he never fully gained control of the shot. It didn’t matter. Late in the night, Horan had the presence of mind to bring O’Shea back into the game. It was a classy gesture to a player who owes his county nothing and will have further big shouts in his county colours.
The one problem with the story of this rivalry and all its riveting stories was that the outcome was always the same. Could it be a true rivalry if Dublin kept winning? This might just have made all that hurt worth it.
What a night for some of the veterans – Keegan, Patrick Durcan and Hennelly himself as they celebrated. Of course, they are past masters at winning semi-finals, this crew. Write them off. Strike them down. Count them out. And still they turn up, back in an All-Ireland final: to hell with '51 and all that fatalism.
And now: that distant sound you hear coming is not just the south wind blowing. It’s the men and women of Kerry, licking their chops. Mayo won’t care. You live for these days, these nights.