Kevin McStay: Dublin keep heads to survive Mayo onslaught
All-Ireland champions show composure that deserted the underdogs in key moments
Both teams left the arena with massive credit. Every play after the Keegan goal was a championship play, and it was fascinating.
Going back to start, after 1.23 – one minute and 23 seconds – for Con O’Callaghan, a young fella in his first All-Ireland final, to even think of taking on Colm Boyle in that first play is extraordinary. He dropped it from his left to his right and produced one of those brilliant training-ground finishes that young lads take on and against probably the best shot-stopper in the country.
The defence gets caught because Donal Vaughan, who’s playing sweeper, gambles that O’Callaghan will be turned back in his direction by Boyle, and when that doesn’t happen the forward is clean through.
By dropping it early he doesn’t give Clarke a chance to set himself. It proved the highlight of his final, but he never stopped working and had a good match. Everything about it was super, and you imagined that it would hurt Mayo, but to their huge credit they just got stuck in, and the goal didn’t throw them off.
They won six of the Dublin kick-outs and were in a good place in relation to the tempo of the game, but they’re not taking the scores they should be taking. There were wides from Jason Doherty, Paddy Durcan, Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor, a couple of bad ones: those were big plays Mayo should have been taking three or even four points out of, and it means they aren’t taking what they should out of the first half.
An old problem
It’s an old problem, not making the most of possession. Mayo are brilliant at getting it but don’t make the most of it.
At half-time Dublin were probably thinking, we are under huge pressure. They had to change the kick-out strategy before the break, because they know they’re getting murdered on the long restarts, with Mayo taking at least three marks.
Jason Sherlock had to go in and have a word, and this is where everything changes and Dublin switch to going short. They win 11 out of 11 in the second half, going short on the 20 left and right and guaranteed possession.
For Mayo it’s good to be ahead, but they should be about four ahead, and Dublin still had a bench to run out – and Kevin McManamon and Diarmuid Connolly both had an impact. McManamon really took the game to Mayo, and Connolly kicked a magnificent point.
Dublin settled, but Mayo’s scores dried up, and there’s 15 minutes when there’s no scores from play and Cillian O’Connor is keeping their heads above water. Dublin are two ahead, and it’s by this stage 14 a side, and you think Dublin are about to kick for home. Then Lee Keegan makes a leadership move.
He makes 100m of a support run; he’s on his own 45 when the kick-out is taken. Now Mayo are in front but – and this was really significant – Dublin’s tempo and energy are now fully engaged.
The pivotal moment – although you can argue that to an extent, because the Keegan goal comes afterwards – is the red cards. Mayo have the free, and John Small is definitely being sent off on a second yellow, so there’s no need for Vaughan to do what he does, but these are highly charged moments, and he does what he does.
Mayo get back ahead even after this, but one of the scenarios they did not want was a 14-man match in Croke Park. In hindsight everything is reflected on, and it was just a one-point defeat. The winter talk will be that they could have had a man advantage for nearly half an hour. It’s a big moment but not necessarily decisive.
It’s an awful pity for Donal, who’s given incredible service, but I thought he would have held his composure a bit more. Then that sort of thing happens.
The late frees are contentious. The free against Fitzsimons was a big call for Cillian O’Connor’s late free, and it may have had a lot to do with Joe McQuillan in awarding the decisive free.
I was disappointed with the Mayo positioning for Cillian’s free. As a young corner forward, from the age of 11 or 12, you’re taught to watch the post, and late in the match when pressure is on, and that’s an outcome you have to anticipate, but they were caught a bit flat-footed.
The free for Connolly was also questionable. He knows he can’t turn back, because Parsons is there, and so he solos into Barrett, who has been having an exceptional game.
You’d have to wonder in that circumstance, when Barrett was playing and tackling so well, why he’d do something as rash as commit a foul like that when his brain is working and he knows what’s on the line.
Rock still had to kick the free, and after two minutes’ delay he composed himself and did it. It was a great display by him, particularly after a shaky start, and also James McCarthy and Paul Mannion in the second half.
One aspect of the finale that struck me was – and I think the referee had a decent game under very difficult circumstances with the amount of blocking and holding off the ball – that the ending of major games is totally unsatisfactory.
There are no angels here, and Mayo would have done the same if a point up, but there are fellas putting their arms around defenders and taking the yellow, and that’s a minute off the clock. Overall there was a lot of holding on both sides, but the closing minutes of big matches are becoming just a blizzard of black cards and yellow cards.
Dublin are a phenomenal team. Three in a row is an amazing and historic effort, but Mayo showed again that they don’t see them as unbeatable. They threw everything at them. But you have to admire Dublin, because they did what they always do. Their composure and ability to win are remarkable.
They’re not invincible, but they’re so hard to beat – and they’re still champions.