This is the age of Dublin’s empire and no end in sight
Money and population debates can rage, but thirst for success can’t be ignored
Dublin celebrate with the Sam Maguire after beating Mayo to win the All-Ireland SFC. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
The keepers of the record books are calling for new nibs, for more ink. On Saturday, the Silent Night All-Ireland football final ended just as everyone thought it would. Dublin are champions for the sixth successive year. Mayo banished and valorous again. It was Dublin’s 30th All-Ireland and as they continue to gobble up championships like Pac Man, they are closing in on Kerry’s all-time haul of 37. James McCarthy and Stephen Cluxton claimed their eighth Celtic Cross as starters. The new season is just around the corner. This is the age of Empire.
It was a first title for Dessie Farrell as senior manager, who has now guided his county to championships at all grades. And he was delighted and modest. But already the talk will turn to Dublin completing a 10-in-a-row, a feat that seems more likely than not. And the arguments over how to control Dublin’s omnipotence will rage. Their latest title came in a winter in which they never fully peaked.
On Saturday, a gorgeous winter’s night in the city, they absorbed everything Mayo had to throw at them – a force field of fury and athletic intent and determination. And then they clinically finished the game out when the Westerners were exhausted. It ended 2-14 to 0-15. For those few of us scattered around the ghostly cathedral, it was like watching an exorcism. The champions just expelled the unruly spirit and then gave thanks to everyone. For once, the grave tone of Cluxton’s annual captain’s speech suited the occasion as he paid respectful reflection to the suffering wrought by the pandemic.
But on it goes. Jim Gavin sat at home watching the game – unless it was he piloting the helicopter hovering over HQ before throw-in. Jack McCaffrey was doing his thing elsewhere. Diarmuid Connolly was somewhere in the city. No odds. Like the Liffey, Dublin keep rolling into the night.
The population and money debates will rage. But when a 39-year-old (Cluxton) and a 31 year old (McCarthy), both of whom carry vivid memories of being toyed with by other big teams, are the exemplars, it would be plain ignorance not to recognise the insatiable thirst for excellence that drives this group. Mayo have that zest, too, of course, and in buckets. That’s why, once again, they pushed Dublin into an uncomfortable place. But it wasn’t enough. And it was the fine details, not the big stuff, that killed them.
When the definitive story of this period of Dublin football is written, one imagines that the name of Mark Ingle will feature as a key cameo. The Killester man has been instrumental in Dublin basketball for yonks. Jim Gavin had the imagination – and confidence – to invite him in to coach on aspects of field sports not covered in traditional Gaelic football coaching – namely spacing and movement. Ingle came in just after Dublin’s 2014 defeat to Donegal and his last “chat” was before the replayed final against Kerry last year. His fingerprints are still all over Dublin’s warm-up drills, and were evident too in the two goals through which they deconstructed Mayo’s latest All-Ireland bid.
The first was a nightmare for Mayo. All of their games against Dublin seem to feature a moment which is, to use the old CJH phrase: grotesque, unprecedented, bizarre and unbelievable. This game will be remembered as The One With The Goal After 13 Seconds. Both of Dublin’s goals were avoidable. The second is understandably being lauded for the explosive skill and power of Con O’Callaghan. But it is also demonstrative of the kind of basic defensive mistakes which this Dublin collective have learned to exploit – in all teams – again and again.
The disaster for Mayo was not when O’Callaghan gave the wonderfully combative Oisín Mullin the slip with one of his dummy-hop moves. And even after he found Niall Scully completely unmarked to the right of David Clarke’s goal, Mayo could have dealt with the situation. Fatally, three Mayo defenders blindly rushed towards Scully and the ball, failing to notice that O’Callaghan was accelerating through them - in the opposite direction – to the far post. Scully floated a flat pass before the Mayo defenders could converge and O’Callaghan smashed the ball home with his fist.
The common factor in both goals was Scully, who has achieved the rarest state in team sports: one of inconspicuous brilliance. The Dublin management probably love all the punditry acclaim for Brian Fenton and Con and the boys of summer because it allows Scully to operate under stealth. He created both Dublin goals, scored a point with his only shot and won the free (which Paul Mannion converted) which essentially decided the All-Ireland. He moves about the field like a tidy mechanic, oiling the wheels, telling others what to do and pretending to be just a workman.
The evening proved, once again, that nobody knows anything. The hot knowledge was on the impending disaster awaiting Mayo on both kickouts. Instead, Clarke was immaculate in his restarts and Mayo’s athletic middle third sector made life uncomfortable for Cluxton. Take away those goals and the much vaunted Dublin scoring power had been seriously neutralised by Mayo.
The problem was that in putting themselves in a position where they could go and chase an All-Ireland final, trailing by a single point 2-9 to 0-14 after 55 minutes, they were gassed. Their goose may have been cooked when Paddy Durcan was replaced at half-time with an injury: Mayo simply couldn’t afford to lose a player of his pedigree and experience and big game temperament.
Particularly against a team who have the luxury of bringing in two current All-Stars, Brian Howard and Mannion – both of whom scored. Mayo’s scoring rate slowed to a trickle – just a single point over the last 20 minutes of the game. Indeed, once Dublin pushed into a 2-14 to 0-15 lead, they also finished scoring for the day with a full 12 minutes of time left. It didn’t matter.
It’s their game now.