Tables turn as Mayo’s bench makes the big impact on Dublin

Defending champions usually had the explosion in reserve but not this time

Mayo’s Pádraig O’Hora and Enda Hession celebrate at the final whistle of the All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Dublin. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Mayo’s Pádraig O’Hora and Enda Hession celebrate at the final whistle of the All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Dublin. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

In the 48th minute James Horan substituted James Carr for Aidan O’Shea. In the welter of pre-match analysis and chit-chat, the verdict was that a Mayo victory would be dependent on a monstrous return from the Breaffy man. But it never happened. It wasn’t entirely his fault. Deployed at full forward, Mayo struggled to get any ball to him in the first 35 minutes. He hit a shocking first close range wide from a mark after 10 minutes and after that just struggled to find his role in the game. It happens. Afterwards, James Horan said he had been training through injury. O’Shea kept warm during injury time and returned to the action in the 91st minute, by which time Mayo had taken control of the night.

It felt like a significant moment and one that may liberate O’Shea. For years he has accepted the role as hod carrier-in-chief for Mayo dreams and, more often than not, the brickbats on All-Ireland days have fallen short. Here, Horan made it clear that the captain didn’t have to be all things to everyone all the time. As Saturday approached, word broke that Oisín Mullin, the young footballer of the year and Mayo’s breakout defensive star, was out with injury.

The setback was enough to convince many people that Mayo couldn’t win without him. But over the evening, the deepening strength of the Mayo squad became apparent. Horan made 10 switches over the game and two periods of extra time. He was adventurous from the start, introducing Enda Hession after just 27 minutes, deciding that Darren McHale, who has had a fine championship, couldn’t get to the pitch of this. Hession’s forward thrust was sensational. So too was Brian Walsh, a late omission from the starting team. Darren Coen and Jordan Flynn came in when the game was at boiling point and each landed a famous point during Mayo’s late, perfectly timed surge. Brendan Harrison, the classy Aghmore defender, was introduced, ending a nightmarish spell with injury and Conor O’Shea had a very solid return after coming in after 64 minutes.

Mayo got the fuel they needed from their bench. In the years when Dublin were indomitable, the strength of their bench was always their calling card. When these two counties engaged in the epic All-Ireland final of 2017, it was Dublin’s reserve guard which Darragh Ó Sé, on these pages, identified as the key difference. At the time, Dublin had Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly, Paul Flynn, Cormac Costello, Michael Darragh McAuley, Kevin McManamon, Niall Scully, Evan Comerford, Eric Lowndes and Darren Daly on their bench.

Disappeared

It was an absurd proposition: a bench loaded with former footballers of the year and, in Connolly, the most explosive talent the city had produced in 40 years. But one by one, those names have disappeared. 2021 was the year when Cormac Costello, who had excelled in the role of impactful substitution, was an automatic starter. The irony was that Dublin had been more needful of his ability to come in cold and turn a game. All summer. Dublin failed to get any meaningful return from their bench.

On Saturday night, it caught up with them. Mayo’s incoming players made conspicuous contributions at both sides of the field. The substance of James Horan’s repeated emphasis on the squad was demonstrated here. Meantime, as Dublin’s leading players began to fade, the lift from the reserves was not there.

Seán Bulger’s point at the start of extra time was the only score contributed from the bench. Costello, substituted after 61 minutes, was sent back in after 84 minutes in the hope that he could slip into his familiar role. His late attempt at a goal when the champions trailed by three, blocked by Paddy Durcan, proved to be the end-game for Dublin. It was another reason, in the end, why Dublin’s run ended.

At their best, they had the most formidable reserve unit in the history of the game, a crack commando unit that no other county could match. It’s unlikely to be seen again - in Dublin or anywhere else.

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