Seán Moran: Ailing Dublin showed a complete evaporation of resolve after half-time

No team will have to bounce back after such a fall from grace as Dublin who soared so high

Dublin manager Dessie Farrell in the semi final against Mayo.  In two difficult years he has  won an All-Ireland and lost a semi final in extra time, but there is a lot of talking to be done. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Impho

Dublin manager Dessie Farrell in the semi final against Mayo. In two difficult years he has won an All-Ireland and lost a semi final in extra time, but there is a lot of talking to be done. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Impho

 

On August 7th, 1974, Philippe Petit, a French high-wire performer, walked across a cable secured between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre.

Those who have a relationship with heights, like my own, will only be able to watch the footage while lying down. There were 42m between the buildings and he spent three-quarters of an hour up there, walking backwards and forwards, at one stage kneeling and waving to the gathering crowds.

Had the remotest doubt trickled through his mind he would have been in trouble. Imagine being stuck on a wire more than 400m in the air suddenly unsure of yourself.

Doubt can be as insidious and debilitating at ground level, as Dublin discovered at the weekend.

From the moment their Leinster campaign commenced, something was amiss. Claims that the below-par wins over provincial rivals were in some way part of a graduated approach always appeared suspect.

The notion that it would deliver full benefits in the All-Ireland series sounded suspiciously like the cheque being in the post. There had been no need for such soft-shoe shuffling in the past.

As pointed out here on Saturday, the scoring stats for this year’s Leinster championship showed Dublin averaging eight points fewer per match compared to the previous two championships: 0-19, including the two goals, which constituted the lowest total in the province since they last failed to win it in 2010.

Over the six years of winning the Sam Maguire, Dublin averaged more than 6.5 goals in their provincial campaigns.

Vulnerability

Clear vulnerability exposed, the champions were going to struggle in the All-Ireland semi-final given the disparity between opponents at that level and in Leinster. The question was whether Mayo had enough to punish their old but ailing adversary.

It appeared not in the first half, but, like against Meath, there was a compete evaporation of resolve after half time. Allowing such leads to slip away is a sign that not all is well.

Attacking shortcomings – the failure to score at all in the third quarter, which was a huge encouragement for Mayo as it meant their three points were all deposits in the bank – combined with a wandering attention that coughed up a bonanza of turnovers and most dismally a collapse in discipline.

Symbolically James McCarthy’s wholly uncharacteristic loss of focus earned a black card just as Dean Rock’s last-minute, last-chance 45 dropped hopefully into the square with Dublin trailing by three.

There could conservatively have been four red cards. Most starkly, John Small’s hit on the unfortunate Eoghan McLaughlin may not have been intentional but that’s not where the bar is set. This was a clear Category IV infraction, the reckless inflicting of injury on an opponent.

As an aside, given that referee Conor Lane did not appreciate the gravity of the injury at the time, might it be time to co-opt an idea from rugby: an independent medical observer, watching live monitors, miked up and empowered to alert the referee that a potentially serious head injury has occurred so that play could be halted?

Other infractions occurred in extra time as Dublin responded to adversity in a manner that should give them pause for regret.

This sense that everything was slipping away from the team was an indication of the malaise that appears to have afflicted the champions.

Keep-ball phases

The unwrapping of the keep-ball phases is no longer saved for big plays but almost as a general tactic. Originally intended to stretch blanket defences and exploit gaps in order to create one-on-one opportunities, it has become almost an end in itself.

This season players faced with one-on-ones often simply turned around and recycled, and the lack of goals reflects the inability to produce the rapier at the appropriate time.

On Saturday in the first half there were eight phases where Dublin had possession for at least a minute. Sixty seconds is a long time to keep the ball away from the opposition and requires some co-operation from the other team in dropping back and not confronting the player in possession.

In that first half of the eight phases six ended with a point as well as one wide and one off the post.

What happened at half time?

Mayo were livelier and less inclined to stand around as spectators, but the only spell of holding the ball for a minute ended in an unforced error. Dublin’s failure to take points meant that their opponents were chasing a stationary target for the third quarter.

For a team that had passed a creditable league, the championship had been a disaster. Could the Covid breach in April have had a role? The revelation that Dublin had breached public health directives was shocking, especially for a team that has involved itself in worthwhile causes and placed importance on those activities.

There is a view that football teams talking about “values” should confine themselves to “a goal is worth three points” but that’s not how they conducted themselves.

Did the Covid breach cause a psychic rupture in a panel with frontline workers and others who didn’t approve? It’s difficult to believe that they were comfortable becoming heroes for anti-lockdown nut-balls. They have played like a team disappointed in themselves.

Impossible job

Dessie Farrell had an impossible job in succeeding Jim Gavin but he steered the team to a sixth All-Ireland. Along the way he lost former Footballer of the Year Jack McCaffrey but success deflected from that.

This year the shedding continued apace with the refusal of Stephen Cluxton to come back and the walking away of another All-Star Paul Mannion plus a valued panellist Eric Lowndes, whose pace would have been useful off the bench against Mayo.

Farrell has always projected a stoical attitude, literally taking one for the team in his 12-week suspension for the training fiasco and being endlessly patient and hopeful that Cluxton might return – long past the point where it might have been better to close the book and declare confidence in Evan Comerford, who has been excellent in goal.

Two of the senior panellists, Kevin McManamon and Philly McMahon, were busy this summer coaching performances for the Irish Olympic boxers and Bohemians’ successful foray into Europe – important professional engagements for them but an irony given that back at the ranch performance was in free fall.

Farrell deserves to be allowed to address this. He has put down two difficult years, won an All-Ireland and lost a semi final in extra time but there is a lot of talking to be done.

No other team has previously had to bounce back after such a fall from grace simply because no team has soared as high. Philippe Petit knew there was no climbing back on the tight rope.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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