Whenever this Mayo team lose a big championship game now, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for them. For a second consecutive summer, they have come out on the wrong side of titanic All-Ireland semi-final draws and replays which enthralled the entire country. They bring so much to the All-Ireland season. But Mayo do not want sympathy or admiration. They want an All-Ireland title.
On balance, the two best teams have made it to this year’s final. But it is no coincidence that they are also highly pragmatic and adaptable. Kerry and Dublin have learned to play it as they see it. Mayo still play the way they play and that has cost them. I believe that this Mayo team can win their All-Ireland because they have shown us repeatedly over the past four summers that they are almost there. But will they? This is a more delicate question.
It should be acknowledged that Saturday's match was a marvellous game of football. The referee, Eddie Kinsella, officiated really well, except for the black card he issued to Seamus O'Shea. I felt that it was a wrong interpretation of the rule and that it ought to have been a yellow card. In my opinion, he didn't cynically take the Dublin player to the ground. He threw him aside after an off-the ball altercation. It robbed Mayo of a critically important midfield figure and it is a shame that the black card, which has been prone to consistently problematic interpretations, can have such major bearing on a match of this magnitude.
However, it wasn’t the factor that swung the game either way. I didn’t think that this match hinged upon a Mayo collapse. Nor did I feel that it was a story of a brilliant Dublin revival. My sense was that overall, the system with which Mayo tried to win the All-Ireland this year was not viable over 70 minutes against the very top teams.
For me, there were two glaring issues about Mayo's performance the last day. The first concerned the way in which they used Barry Moran.
Playing Barry as sweeper worked a treat against Donegal and it would have been suitable, too, if they were playing Kerry in the final given the type of threat which Kieran Donaghy presents. But Dublin's attack is so fast paced and dynamic. They stretch the play inside by placing their two full forwards 30 plus metres apart. So they create a lot of space for themselves and it seems to me that Barry is not built for that role; he doesn't cover the ground at pace and is a very big man to ask to shuffle back and forth across the park for 70 minutes.
So how using him in that role translated to shutting down Dublin’s attack is something I’m not sure about. In the drawn game, Dublin squeezed the middle third of the pitch very successfully. But on Saturday they went with a very high press with a view to forcing turnovers closer to the Mayo goal. But Mayo have such good ball carriers that when they eventually worked the ball through that Dublin cover, they found the space to kick some wonderful points over the opening half, which was just a really enjoyable shootout.
Mayo looked assured. That relentless spirit was at full tilt because they had a bit more space. Again, they seemed caught in two minds about the Stephen Cluxton factor. At times they pushed up on the Dublin kick-out but they didn't fully commit to it either. They didn't try a tight man-to-man press or even push a few extra bodies in to force the long kick out and make it a war of attrition around the midfield sector. And Cluxton is just too good to be beaten by a conservative press. It has to be all out. And I felt that was significant.
I thought as well that Mayo could have got the best of both worlds out of Barry Moran. What I mean by that is that in open play, Barry plays full forward and someone like Kevin McLoughlin or Diarmuid O’Connor plays sweeper - agile guys who have the aerobic capacity of Kenyan middle distance runners. So now you have Aidan O’Shea and Moran inside. I feel that pairing had the potential to cause consternation in the Dublin full back line. Then you have Cillian O’Connor at the top of the D where he can thrive because the Dublin full backs would have been forced to break the ball anywhere they could. Cillian is a fantastic player and a great placed-ball kicker but Aidan O’Shea was being asked to lead the Mayo attack by himself. He was their primary ball winner. Dublin had a detailed game plan to cope with Aidan O’Shea. They knew how Mayo were going to set up and it was all too comfortable for the Dublin defence. They had practiced this over and over at training and they weren’t asked to adapt. Having Moran alongside O’Shea would have changed that.
And for Mayo's kick-out, they could have brought Barry out to midfield. Dublin were pushing up on Rob Hennelly's kick-out with one hundred per cent intent to try and force turnovers. By taking Barry Moran to the middle of the park, Mayo would have had a third option along with O'Shea and Tom Parsons.
Why didn't they do this? The short answer is I don't know. Barry Moran scored a point from play which illustrated his role: he was going from midfield, trying to get forward and then dropping back to sweep on his own 21 and then back to the middle. It was a very demanding role and one more suited to Keith Higgins or McLoughlin - those guys who just travel over ground at speed and with ease. I thought that maybe Mayo were holding the option of Moran-as-full-forward until they really needed it. But when they did need to abruptly change things - after Philly McMahon scored Dublin's second goal and Mayo's season was going up in smoke - Barry Moran had been substituted.
For all that, Mayo got to the point where they had Dublin on the ropes. They came desperately close here. They were 15 minutes from home. I think if Lee Keegan’s shot which fell short had been a point, Dublin could have gone away. Just prior to that, they hand passed the ball to feet on four or five occasions and the ball was turned over by Mayo. Dublin were beginning to run out of ideas.
Brian Fenton’s run which created Bernard Brogan’s goal was a defining moment and illustrated what I see as the weakness in Mayo’s overall approach. Cillian O’Connor was marking Fenton and didn’t track his run. I felt that was symptomatic of the Mayo system in general. They play a great brand of football and are very exciting to watch. And I’m not suggesting they are not conscious or diligent when it comes to defence; far from it.
It’s just that they don’t appear have a clear idea of what they wanted to do once they built their lead. When you are four points up with 15 to go against a team like Dublin, what is to stop you saying: let’s defend this with our lives? They had worked themselves into a wonderful position. The general view is that All-Ireland teams contain marquee forwards. Dublin and Kerry clearly have those in abundance. If you are playing those teams and your team has a very good forward unit but not quite the same calibre as the opposition, then you have to compensate in other areas or else you will be caught.
Rather than going toe-to-toe with a team of high calibre attackers, Mayo could have been cute and clinical and resolved to see the game out. Look at what Dublin did to control the match once they got the few goals: they played keep ball with 25 passes - lateral, backwards, forwards, they didn’t care. They wanted to kill the game. They wanted to suck the Mayo team out and create the space. As it happened, that led to Kevin McManamon’s goal which completed the reversal in momentum. But Mayo did facilitate it in allowing Dublin to attack as they did. If you come with the mentality that nothing goes through the middle, Fenton’s run doesn’t happen. I would suggest that is not being preached night after night at training.
Mayo might have got away with it against any team other than Dublin. Once again we saw that the attacking instinct of the Dubs is phenomenal. The game changed because Dublin were able to manipulate its direction with their substitutions. You have to acknowledge the decisiveness of the Dublin management here. Yet again, the resolve of their team was seriously tested by Mayo. But they responded
Dublin looked more defensive than offensive at times in the drawn match but on Sunday they were back to what they were doing in 2013. There was a stage when I felt the high press wasn’t working for them in that the turnovers weren’t coming for them. It was an ambitious shift in approach and it looked like they had moved too much in a week. But their response to O’Connor’s goal was decisive and brave.
Paul Flynn, a four-time All-Star, was pulled just when the alarm bells were ringing. Johnny Cooper likewise. McManamon brought a totally different dynamic to the game. Michael Darragh Macauley did the same at midfield and Alan Brogan brought all that experience and class that he has to the full forward line. These changes brought about the dramatic shift in approach and possession and to Dublin's cutting edge, which enabled them to turn the match on its head in five minutes. People talk about the options that Jim Gavin has at his disposal and this was a perfect example. But he still had to make the switches. The ironic thing is that the players taken off will be absolutely ravenous to prove themselves over the next fortnight while the guys who went in will be pushing to start. So it leaves them in a very healthy position. Add to that the five points from play by Paddy Andrews and another good display from Ciaran Kilkenny and it means that Dublin are beginning to bloom at the right time.
Where are Mayo at? It is three years since we played them in the All-Ireland final and I don’t think anything major has changed in their overall approach in that period of time. In Donegal, we created a game plan because we knew where we were at in relation to the big teams in the country. We had to do things and be creative - on and off the field. Mayo are going toe-to-toe with Dublin and Kerry and Cork year after year and they are trying to man up and take these teams on in out-and-out football contests. It is a noble aspiration. But the reality is: they don’t have the range of forwards to do that.
I believe this Mayo team can win an All-Ireland because they are so close to doing it with the approach that they have. They came close in 2012, 2013, 2014 and on Sunday, I believe they were just one more point away from returning to the All-Ireland final.
But they need to start squeezing percentages in these games in their favour and to know when to try and kill the game and develop the kind of pragmatism that both of this year’s All-Ireland finalists have.
It is a game of fine margins.
If you look at what Kerry have done in the last few years: they have changed significantly to adapt to the prevailing environment. Dublin have changed since last summer. I feel that if Mayo could have just held steady for the six or seven minutes after Dublin sent in their substitutes, they would have made it. Just protect that lead; slow the game down and all of a sudden time is against Dublin. But that question was never asked.
Will Mayo win one? I don’t know. The age profile, the football ability, their unbelievable honesty, their midfield, their athleticism: they have so much going for them. But it is not quite enough. They need to box clever. If Mayo can introduce that tactical flexibility to their approach to next season, then they can still win the All-Ireland medals that this team deserves.