It was a day of high drama and tension in Croke Park. Dublin and Mayo produced a game of such extreme turning points that questions and debate will swirl all week. Even the atmosphere in the Croke Park hotel before the game felt more like an All-Ireland final day and then the match itself let nobody down. It was championship football with a true hard edge.
It may not have been a flawless game but there were some excellent passages of play and, as an occasion, it contained everything you could hope for from sport. It was just exhilarating and the commitment from both teams was commendable.
I felt that, overall, Dublin’s game plan was superior to Mayo’s and that this was reflected on the scoreboard after an hour. They are at a deeper level of understanding of what they want to do and of how to execute it. I thought tactically they got so much right. Their kick-out strategy was very strong – apart from the one they lost at the end of the match, which was critical.
Defensively, their new system was in full flight and at times I felt they looked like a defensive team as opposed to the all-out attacking force of previous seasons. It was clear they came with a specific plan to handle Aidan O’Shea. I suppose a lot of the attention Aidan got was borderline: when he was in possession you were asking was that a foul or not. I felt Dublin had a good day on the sideline too. Everything went as they would have hoped until that electrifying surge by Mayo.
In general, I felt that Mayo missed a trick in not placing Barry Moran at the edge of the square. Not necessarily from the start, but as the contest deepened it was the question I kept asking myself. Aidan O'Shea was fighting a lone battle up front, with Cillian O'Connor playing off him. If Barry Moran had been pushed in there, which Dublin player would have picked him up? Who would have played sweeper?
This became even more relevant after Rory O’Carroll was forced off the field with that injury. I was looking at the Dublin back line wondering how they would cope with both O’Shea and Moran. But that question was never asked.
And it would have been fascinating because much as Tyrone had tailored their game plan to cope with Kieran Donaghy, so Dublin had developed a strategy to cope with O’Shea. Remember how, once Paul Geaney came into the game for Kerry, the dynamic changed radically for Tyrone. I felt that the same could have happened if Moran had joined O’Shea in the forward line.
Different variables would have posed different questions for the Dublin defenders – questions they may not have dealt with on the training ground. So if Mayo had O’Shea and Moran inside and O’Connor playing at the top of the D and then pushed Kevin McLoughlin out to the middle of the park – where he should be, in my opinion, operating as a hard-running, hard-tackling half forward, getting on the ball and looking for that pass with the outside of his left foot – the options may have changed for Mayo.
I was struggling to work out how Dublin would have coped with that. It probably would have meant Cian O'Sullivan, their sweeper, committing to marking either O'Shea or Moran. Or Denis Bastick would have to leave the middle of the park. Either way, it would have required major surgery by Dublin.
There was a lot of talk about how essential Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs are to Dublin’s overall strategy. Mayo went with a zonal-marking system to try to limit his options. In effect, they were hedging their bets and trying to navigate their way through the Dublin restarts. That is simply not going to work against Cluxton because of his range of vision and accuracy and speed of mind. Mayo seemed caught in two minds.
I felt at half-time that they needed to be brave: mark the Dublin players, push up 100 per cent and force the kick-out long. And as the second half developed they did become bolder, and this changed the tenor of the match. You have to be prepared to live with the consequences of that: it could have left Mayo vulnerable to a long ball over the top and to a Dublin counter-attack. But it was a risk they needed to take to put more pressure on Cluxton and on his target men.
Dublin went all-out aggressive on Mayo’s kick-out. They were fearless in that regard. They played with a hunger and an edge. In open play, the Dublin forwards dropped back to their 45 and simultaneously they squeezed everyone bar their full backs up inside their defensive 45, forcing Mayo to play through a maze of blue shirts before they could even think about playing a ball to O’Shea inside. It drained the Mayo attack of pace and incision. Once the Mayo players saw daylight, they ended up just kicking hopeful ball in towards O’Shea and O’Connor. Meanwhile, Dublin stuck to their game plan.
The one area that I felt they were lacking was in discipline – 1-9 for O'Connor from a penalty and frees tells its own story. I thought Dublin were excellent in transition and, as the game developed, they pushed the game out to a lead by seven. Ciaran Kilkenny was excellent in the first half and they produced scores more easily than Mayo. They got a lot of joy from kicking long, diagonal ball into the right-hand corners. The training field was written all over their performance.
Battle of wills
So why didn’t they win it? As Mayo began to lose sight of the game, they played with more boldness. That is a rare quality. They forced a match that Dublin controlled tactically into becoming an essential battle of wills. It was almost like a statement to Dublin. Even after Kevin McManamon’s second goal, the Mayo attitude was: “we are not going to back down here”. I think that is a very powerful characteristic in a team.
For me, it gets to the nub of a dynamic which runs through the psychology of sport. It was clear on Sunday that Dublin were playing as they had been coached to play and things were going according to plan. They might have expected McManamon’s goal to have triggered a negative response from Mayo – blaming the referee or giving out to each other. But Mayo simply don’t do that. Mayo may have been rattled – and they gave up three quick points after that goal – but they absolutely refused to lie down.
Most teams can sense that moment when the opposition is about to break. The Kilkenny hurlers are the prime exponents of this. That is when teams put the knife in. But Mayo deny teams that opportunity because they don’t change in attitude or demeanour. It doesn’t matter to them whether they are two down or 10 down. They are going to keep on going. They don’t send that signal of defeat out to the opposition.
So the Dublin team are seven points up with less than 10 minutes to go but they are beginning to realise that the Mayo players have no intention of calling it quits. And if you are a player in that situation, you begin to think: Jeez, these boys are mentally tough here. If I was seven points down, what would I do?
This is why next Saturday afternoon is poised on such a truly fascinating contrast of traits and qualities. If you were to coldly analyse both teams and the systems of play they have developed and the undeniable list of marquee forwards in the Dublin squad, you have to conclude that they are further down the line and are more efficient. As a package, Dublin probably have a little bit more.
Mayo are a very good football team as well. But they are not quite at the level of Dublin. However, they bring this psychological dynamic into the equation. They have now made this contest a challenge of Dublin’s resolve. When Donegal played Dublin last year, I felt that with 20 minutes to go, they were gone. I felt we had the game and that we had control. Yesterday, I was starting to get the same feeling over the last 15 minutes.
In 2012, we were 2-3 to 0-1 ahead of Mayo in the All-Ireland final but never for a second did I feel the game was over because Mayo don’t ever betray that feeling. If you think about the Kerry-Mayo games last year, how many times did it swing towards and away from Mayo? You just can’t ever count them out. That is a very hard thing for a team to legislate for and it is probably Mayo’s greatest asset in terms of trying to win this All-Ireland.
Mayo look like a team on a crusade. They look like a group that has said: we must be the team that wins the All-Ireland for our county. And that is the sense you get when you meet Mayo supporters. I feel that the players are carrying that responsibility with unbelievable poise. They are absolutely locked on to trying to win this thing.
The terms have changed now, with Rory O’Carroll having been injured, Dermot Connolly red carded and Philly McMahon possibly finding himself in trouble.
If Mayo can make a few adjustments to how they attack, in particular, and they learn from the drawn match, then that can have consequences on how Saturday's replay goes. Mayo have more to learn about themselves because Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly are in the first year of their management term and are beginning to put their processes in place.
And they will come back to Croke Park on Saturday with confidence from what they achieved in the last 15 minutes.
So can Mayo come up to the football level which Dublin bring to the game? And can Dublin match Mayo’s mental resolve? These are the key issues.
Who is going to win the replay? I outlined why I felt Dublin would win by a couple of points prior to Sunday’s match. My gut was telling me one thing and probably because I am hoping that Mayo can win this All-Ireland. But from a coldly forensic view of the game – kick-outs for, kick-outs against, Cian O’Sullivan’s role in a defensive system that is working and their scoring potential, I was tilted towards Dublin.
Still, there was a nagging sense that Mayo’s mental strength would play a critical role and now that factor has become magnified. They bring these intangible qualities into a game and they are difficult to cope with. Dublin know they are good enough to win this match. But they also know now they will have to fight tooth and nail for 70 minutes to put this Mayo team away.
So it becomes an elemental conflict between the uncommon depth of Dublin’s football prowess and Mayo’s uncommon resolve. This is not to disparage Mayo: I fully acknowledge that they have tremendous players and a good management too. I just feel that Dublin edge it slightly in a straight-forward football contest. But it is that Mayo grit – we are never going to give this up – which counters that. If Mayo can tweak a few tactical aspects and Dublin match Mayo’s attitude, then we could in for another enthralling encounter on Saturday. I am looking forward to it by the hour.
My hunch is that Dublin will come through but only if they face down what will be a significant Mayo challenge. Logic suggests that Dublin have the football ability to do that. But Mayo are masters at turning logic on its head.
So who will blink first?