One of the last players to leave the field on Saturday evening was Keith Higgins of Mayo. The Ballyhaunis natural is 30 years old and still has future seasons. But he has journeyed through a lot of campaigns and as he lingered on the pitch for a few seconds, one wondered if he was pausing for a final look around.
How much can the human spirit take? What was noticeable, though, was that Johnny Cooper, Dublin's feisty corner back, doubled back on his route so he could shake Higgins's hand. It was a defender's salute.
Paddy Andrews, who had given the performance of his life in the Dublin forward line, also made his way to Higgins. Andrews held his hands out as in sympathy, as though to say that he wished, in different circumstances, that it could be different. They embraced and then the Dublin men left Higgins to his pain.
After another epic semi-final saga of redemption – and loss – for Mayo, it was a classy moment of sportsmanship that was in complete contrast to the vaguely poisonous brew of tension and anticipation that bubbled throughout the six days between the draw and the replay.
The various disgraces of Gaelic football make for regular pulpit-bashing lectures, and Saturday evening’s match, particularly the clean, solemn point-for-point nature of the first half, felt like a retort from the players on both teams. This is what we do. We can play the game.
Against all odds, the replay was completely free of rancour and spite. Much of this was down to the demeanour as much as the performance of referee Eddie Kinsella, who swept through Croke Park like a brisk new teacher into a schoolroom.
Straight away, the schoolboys knew he was not to be trifled with. Loose and late tackles earned cards. Any back chat resulted in the ball being moved forward. Even Kinsella’s body language – the speed with which he mimed his decisions – infused an urgency into the match and it flowed wonderfully in the first half. So often held up in shame against hurling, it was a day of vindication for Gaelic football.
But what happened? Was this latest defeat as straight forward as a Mayo collapse? There can be no doubt after Cillian O’Connor bundled home that 42nd-minute goal, Mayo had the chance to write history. It wasn’t just that they landed the first goal or that they led by 1-11 to 0-10. It was that Dublin had been stalling since half-time.
Kinsella made his only poor call of the game, calling Colm Boyle's excellent strip as a foul, to give Dublin their first score of the half, a free from Dean Rock. But they had lost their bearings. The sight of Paul Flynn leaving the field early must have given Dublin supporters the shivers.
If this had been a boxing match, the sense was of one fighter staggering around the ring on unsteady legs while the aggressor followed, his lead arm cocked to deliver the crushing blow. For reasons the Mayo management and players now have all winter to establish, it never came. "We turned over easy ball in the middle of the field and it cost us," Noel Connelly would say on Saturday evening, when they began to take down the green and red bunting for another year.
“We had opportunities to go five and maybe six points up and at this level, that might have been enough.”
What Mayo required here was not the bravery and honesty they have demonstrated in spades, but a display of coldness and clarity. They just had to stitch on one or two more points. They couldn’t do that. And the realisation of that hesitation – or failing – quickly filtered through the stadium.
People will talk about Kevin McManamon’s starburst of a goal when this match is remembered, but it was the 54th minute point by James McCarthy, loping up field and steadying himself before letting fly that let it be known that Dublin were not done here. It took Dublin two matches but just five minutes to beat Mayo. Once the Dub’s scrambled home their first goal, the same fog entered Mayo heads and Dublin took advantage.
And this wasn't just about a Mayo meltdown. The response from the sideline – the swift introduction of Michael Dara Macauley, Michael Fitzsimons, Alan Brogan and McManamon – changed the game. It is rare in Gaelic games to see four substitutions made in such rapid succession and Jim Gavin's response to the prospect of another calamitous All-Ireland semi- final exit was impressive.
In the end, Dublin’s turnaround was so comprehensive that he was able to call Diarmuid Connolly ashore so the home supporters could give him an ovation in response the booing he was treated to throughout by the Mayo contingent. Connolly cut a subdued figure by his own standards and didn’t score, even during the 2-4 combination that left Mayo for dust. That brief period was a return to Dublin as originally conceived by Gavin: as an unstoppable running force.
“We always encourage guys to go for it,” was his response to McManamon’s spectacular 67th minute goal. “That is the mantra. I am pleased that he did because we have seen at training that he has the technical competency to take that shot on. It is the way we play. We do what we do. There is a bit of risk involved in what we do. The rewards are there too.”
So Dublin return to the All-Ireland final as a less easily categorised team than the one that claimed All-Irelands in 2011 and 2013. The game has changed since then and if they are to add a third, they have to unlock as sticky and defensively astute Kerry team as ever visited Croke Park in September. Dublin, too, are more cagey and conservative in disposition than they were three years ago.
But it became clear on Saturday evening, after they threatened to buckle, that all-out attack is where their true spirit lies.