Tipping Point: Mayo will have enough chances, taking them is another matter
Strip everything else away and accuracy is still the deciding factor in Sunday's final
Andy Moran reacts to a missed chance in last year’s All-Ireland SFC final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
In a former life, the heroic lady whose dubious pleasure it is to have her life tangled up in mine – for better, for worse, for richer (ahem) and so on – was an arts editor. One year, as December closed in and newspaper dogs everywhere reacted with Pavlovian obviousness by dredging up the good and bad of the 12 months just gone, she hit on the idea of getting her reviewers to review their own reviews. What did they think they got right, what needed further inspection, what couldn’t they bear to ever allow assault their ears and eyes ever again, that kind of thing.
This clever conceit was an outside-the-box tweak on the usual drudgery of Top 10s and Bests & Worsts. And like any good idea, it inspired mostly just rampant jealousy in the rest of us. Certainly, there isn’t a sports reporter alive who wouldn’t fancy taking a second swing at the odd match report. The great English sportswriter Simon Barnes always leaned on that Samuel Johnson quote about the dog walking on its hind legs when it came to writing on-the-whistle reports – it’s rarely done well but you are surprised to see it done at all. Amen, brother.
If given a go, a personal choice from this corner would be the drawn All-Ireland football final between Dublin and Mayo last year. On the day, the general sense of the game sitting up on the seventh floor of Croke Park was discombobulation. Almost nothing anyone had predicted had come to pass. And almost nothing that came to pass had been predicted.
It was the day of the two Mayo own goals. Of the Mayo forwards outscoring the Dublin ones. Of Dean Rock’s place-kicking short-circuiting after an almost spotless summer. Of Mr Dependable Seamie O’Shea giving away four balls in succession in space of five second-half minutes.
And so when it came to putting together a piece that made sense of it that day, the temptation just to throw your hands in the air and announce that there was none to be found proved too strong. The report in Monday’s Irish Times said that the game defied logic and was – in what feels now like an outrageous cop-out – “just chaos”.
On rewatching the game last week, it was clear that any criticism from this quarter of the Mayo management for over-thinking things must come across as pretty rich. The drawn final of 2016 wasn’t unduly chaotic – it was actually just a desperately average game. The weather was so miserable, the footing so uncertain, the interactions so laced with niggle that if it had been a third-round qualifier in mid-July, it might not have been allotted much more than a cursory five minutes on The Sunday Game.
To make eight chances in the opening 10 minutes of an All-Ireland final against Dublin is dream stuff. To only take two of them just isn’t going to get it done.
We went to town on the Dublin forwards afterwards, such was everyone’s level of shock at their inaccuracy. But lost in plain sight was the deadliest truth of the game from a Mayo point of view – their own shooting in the first half when they were so comfortably the better side was equally atrocious.
Yes, the two own goals kept Dublin breathing but Mayo had enough chances early in the game for them not to have mattered. After just 10 minutes, for instance, Mayo had only taken two of eight scoring opportunities in the game. To make eight chances in the opening 10 minutes of an All-Ireland final against Dublin is dream stuff. To only take two of them just isn’t going to get it done.
Kevin McLoughlin’s own goal went in after nine minutes and from there until the final whistle, Mayo were never once ahead. Gaelic football is a game that keeps updating itself like a hi-tech phone’s operating system but first principles have never been too far out of vogue – when you’re better than the other crowd, inform them of the situation via the scoreboard. The basic fact of the day was that Mayo didn’t do that. Any ancillary strangeness only mattered in that context.
Jackie Tyrrell had an killer line in his column on the Galway hurlers last Friday when he said it’s not okay not to win again next year. Seems pretty straightforward on the face of it but sometimes even the obvious things are worth saying out loud. There is a comfortable chair there for any Galway player to settle into if he fancies it from here on out. Winning does that.
Jim Gavin doesn’t do comfy chairs. Maybe he suspected that too many of his older players were getting too accustomed to their spot and that drawn final only made his mind up for him. One way or the other, it’s possible that only nine of the team who started that drawn game last year will start on Sunday. If Diarmuid Connolly comes in, it will likely only be 10. Four of the five switches-in are significantly younger than the switches-out. It’s not okay for Dublin not to win a third title in a row.
Is it okay for Mayo not to end their famine? Again, seems pretty straightforward. No, obviously. But then, as with so many aspects of this Mayo side’s adventure since 2011, the normal rules are prone to a little bending here and there. They’re already assured of their status as one of the most universally admired teams never to win an All-Ireland. They will be lifelong heroes to their people regardless. At this point, Mayo supporters want them to win one for themselves more so than for the wider public.
Six days out from another chance though, Stephen Rochford and his team must know that a repeat of last year won’t be okay. Two from eight in the opening 10 minutes can’t be okay. Not against a Dublin team that looks to have improved in the meantime and has a pissed-off cavalry waiting to come off the bench.
Nobody gets a redo in life – not arts reviewers, not sports hacks, not footballers. The best we can all hope for is a new-do and a chance to use the mistakes of the previous go-rounds to our best advantage. We know enough about what Mayo will bring against Dublin next Sunday to surmise that they will give themselves the chances to win.
As ever, it will be taking them – or not – that writes the story.