I found myself in Dublin early on Saturday morning. It was a hectic week for Mayo supporters. The Super 8s did their job in the sense that the four best teams on the island progressed to the All-Ireland semi-finals. Furthermore, the only unbeaten teams have gone on to the final. But among the Mayo supporters, there was considerable disquiet at the fact that their team was playing its seventh game in eight weeks.
Obviously, Dublin also played last week but had the luxury of resting a host of starting players for what was a glorified challenge game against Tyrone. It’s true that Mayo’s path has been extremely tough. But you make your own bed, to some extent. If you lose your championship opener to Roscommon and also a match in Killarney, then that it is your issue.
Newry, Limerick, Killarney and Croke Park are all big journeys and involved late-night journeys home and, after that, they are immediately trying to recover for the next game. These are the disadvantages of not winning. If Mayo had won their first two Super 8s games, then they, too, could have fielded a reserve team against Donegal. They lost those natural advantages and thus found themselves in that must-win situation in Castlebar and were understandably depleted in terms of energy reserves for Saturday.
That's not to say the Super 8s system is perfect. In the programme notes at the weekend, I read John Horan writing: "We tweaked the system this year and that avenue remains open to us in the close season if the need exists." From that, I take it that there will absolutely be a tweak. But Mayo's is not a legitimate complaint because they lost two championship matches – and still lived to fight another day and to return, against all odds, to face another huge occasion against Dublin.
Saturday felt like an All-Ireland final, whereas Sunday felt like a national league final. There was a really tense, expectant atmosphere hours before throw-in on Saturday; the President was there and there was the red carpet introduction and the parade afterwards. So the evening had all the trappings of a final and the atmosphere was spine-tingling. And Mayo embraced that challenge brilliantly in the first half. They set the pace of the game and Dublin found themselves in their first knock-out match of the championship struggling to adapt to that pace.
Mayo have been playing with no safety net throughout the qualifiers. And that distinction told in the first 38 minutes. Mayo went in two points up at half-time. They had done so much right. But the reality was, again, that they should have been between five and seven points up. They didn’t exploit their advantage. If you look at the anatomy of Dublin’s six first-half scores, the only score they actually generated was Brian Howard’s point.
At 4.55 minutes in, there was a silly foul by Fionn McDonagh, converted by Dean Rock. The young Mayo man had ample coverage around him. McDonagh's inexperience led him to give away a scoring foul. Ten minutes in and another lazy, lean-in foul by Matthew Ruane gave Rock another routine score. On 13.30, Robbie Hennelly overcooked a handpass and it presented Paul Mannion with a gilt-edge goal chance: he got a point. Again, it came off a Mayo mistake. Then Hennelly puts down the kick-out and Mannion got a hand to it and Dublin got a point they weren't expecting.
At 27.10, another inexperienced tackle by Fionn McDonagh – just a little bit too aggressive – gave Conor Lane the opportunity to whistle a free. So Mayo gave Dublin a platform to feel their way into the game on the scoreboard. Frees conceded are usually a consequence of pressure. There was no Dublin pressure here. The transgressions came from two sources: young players with great potential who just have to figure out that you can't present a team like Dublin with gift scores.
Dublin knew the dream was dying here unless they got to the pace of the game – and quickly
And then the perennial problem: Mayo’s goalkeeping issues. Errors by the goalkeeper have been a consistent theme with Mayo in this decade. A goalkeeper must transmit calm authority to his outfield players: a sense that everything is going to be fine. But watching Hennelly the last day, you were just a small bit queasy that the sense of calm wasn’t there.
So at half-time, Dublin had two goal scoring chances but took neither. Mayo had to maintain that zero-goals policy and also stop giving away those frees. Meanwhile, Dublin knew the dream was dying here unless they got to the pace of the game – and quickly. This is their brilliance. They get inside the dressing room, they analyse, they reset and off they go.
Mayo were probably quite satisfied with their match-ups at half-time. But against Donegal, they were trying to stop three key players. I think you have eight critical match-ups when you play Dublin. Stephen Cluxton is a planning campaign on his own. Fenton, McCaffrey, McCarthy, Mannion, Howard, Kilkenny and O'Callaghan are the others who require constant watching. So when you are covering those guys, you are going deep into the roster of natural man markers with the athleticism and mental alacrity to do those jobs.
The task can become overpowering. Ten points was the biggest winning margin by Dublin over Mayo of this era. I think that confirms that Mayo peaked in 2017. Their arc is in descent. And Dublin, over those two years, have further honed their game. Their shot selection and execution around the D has improved incrementally. Look at a schematic breakdown of where they attempt to score from, and it will establish their shot-map easily: you will find they are getting close-in looks all the time. Bar the occasional Paul Mannion spectacular, they don’t really attempt these wow-factor scores. Instead, they manufacture brilliantly worked scores in which the finish, the actual shot, is the easiest part of the move.
But how do they achieve this? We don’t give them enough credit for their technical proficiency. As a team, Dublin have the best first touch in the game now. When they receive the ball, they are immediately in a position to use it. If, as a player, you need a bounce or a second touch when you take possession, then the distance between you and your tackler is reduced.
Watch Dublin’s players: they can receive and secure the ball in one motion, without breaking stride or needing to check themselves – and they immediately have the ball at the right height to give a foot pass or a hand pass. It’s a small thing but it buys them that extra second – and those seconds add up.
Then, their accuracy in front of goal is formidable. They nearly always score the scores they are supposed to score. It's as though only Mannion and maybe Kilkenny have license to go for the more ambitious ones. Their composure in front of goal is exceptional. They had four goal chances in the second half. They scored three and Hennelly made an amazing save off Brian Fenton for the fourth.
They rarely technically foul the ball. Clearly, they are well drilled and have a process and all that. But O’Callaghan’s understanding that he is one-on-one with Lee Keegan is not a process. It is instinct. He understood that this was not a point chance: it was a goal chance that is going to blow open the match. And then the coolness to take the goal on the near side on both occasions: it is a rare form of confidence.
Any bit of rebellion that Mayo may have had was drained out by this couple of minutes of patient recycling
Stephen Rochford said to me on Sunday that O'Callaghan passes the ball into the net. Plus, they may have the best goalkeeper and a player who may prove to be the best midfielder of all time in Fenton. It is some mix to have to deal with. I was interested in their game management after Lee Keegan's goal. I noticed that they there was a signal given and they went into a hand-passing drill back and forth to take the sting out of the game after that score.
Any bit of rebellion that Mayo may have had was drained out by this couple of minutes of patient recycling. This was only the 52nd minute. The 12 points in 12 minutes is over: they have the game won and they can control the tempo and just see it out. They were not about to get sucked into one of those helter-skelter closing finishes with which Mayo nearly caught them before.
But I want to go back to Dublin’s three goals. Goals provide a special energy – particularly in a full house in Croke Park. They electrify both the supporters and the team. I remember this as far back as 1985 when we played Dublin in a replay. The world can turn on a couple of goals. It is like being at the carnival and you stupidly decide to go for a spin on the waltzers and you are suddenly convulsed in this ride and you are left feeling groggy and queasy. That is what Dublin goals can do. And in 1985, I was at the other end of the field. Imagine what it is like for a defender. Dublin went for those goals in order to blow the game apart. It worked. After just 12 minutes of the second half, Mayo’s endgame plan was irrelevant.
The more I look at these big games, one measurement jumps out at me increasingly: the attacks-to-shots-to-scores measurement. In many ways, the modern metric revolves around accuracy: how many of your shots are flying over the bar? We saw it with Tyrone on Sunday: when the shots stop going over the bar, things grind to a halt. But interestingly, Dublin had 37 attacks. Mayo had 34. Then you drill further down down: Dublin got 26 shots away and Mayo got 24 shots. Again, no great disparity. But of those totals, Dublin were successful with 17 and Mayo just 11. It was 65 per cent against 46 per cent in terms of accuracy. And 65 is quite low by Dublin standards: they are often in the high 70s or low 80s.
We know for sure now that this is the best team in the history of Mayo football to not win an All-Ireland
I think that also stands as a short history of Mayo football. We don’t respect possession enough. And we don’t understand the accuracy requirement. You link that with the fact that we don’t foul clever and we are making life very difficult for ourselves. A tap-over free is worth the same as a Ciaran McDonald special. It’s as if we don’t get that in Mayo. In all other areas, Mayo and Dublin matched up very evenly. Wides, kickouts, blocks were all comparable. But the key one – accuracy – slanted heavily in Dublin’s favour. And the final score line told that tale.
We know for sure now that this is the best team in the history of Mayo football to not win an All-Ireland. They were hugely courageous in their pursuit. They tried their hearts out. They owe their county nothing. But fatally, we in Mayo have not been able to tidy up the things we needed to in those biggest games. Still, the quest goes on. It is like the Eagles line with Mayo football: you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.
We also know this is Dublin’s best-ever team – and they are 70 minutes now from a coronation as the greatest football team in the history of the GAA. That is something to look forward to, particularly now that Kerry are there to stand in their way. What other county could it be?
One technical issue hovers over this final: there is no question but that Stephen O’Brien’s black card against Meath will be rescinded and he will be available to play. Most people never read the body-collision rule fully: “. . . to deliberately collide with an opponent after he has played the ball away.” Well, the Meath guy with whom O’Brien collided had no football.
The second instance is for taking the opponent “out for the purpose of taking him out of the movement of play”. Again, there was no movement of play in this instance. So Stephen O’Brien will play. What the GAA should do is clarify this by Wednesday of this week and let both counties settle into the build-up of what truly is an All-Ireland final for the ages.