Out of the Dublin blue, gutsy Mayo keep the dream alive to fight another day
Published 31/08/2015 | 02:30
There was about a quarter of an hour left on the clock. Two blue-bedecked lads were sitting comfortably in the Hogan Stand and embarking upon the September Discussion on the tortured permutations required to lay hands on a couple of tickets for the final.
Dublin versus Kerry. It was destiny. Below the lads on the pristine pitch, the heads of the Mayo men were drooping. There had been 61 torrid minutes of guts, but the glimpse of glory was receding like the grey skies over the capital. A gap of seven points yawned after Jack McCaffrey had swooped on a quickly taken free to stretch Dublin's lead to 2-12 over Mayo's 0-11.
The Hill was beginning to boil and bubble, a witches' brew of anticipation. Bring on the Kingdom and we'll take back the crown. Last year's defeat to Donegal was an aberration, a glitch in the time-space continuum. The natural order of things was about to be restored, and the river of green-and-red was set to once more flow disconsolately westwards with their half-century hoodoo hovering over every long kilometre back to Castlebar and Ballaghadereen, Ballinrobe and Belmullet.
They had counted the days and studied the portents. One man explained that the summer of 1951 - the last time that Sam crossed into Mayo in triumph - was a sodden affair. So much rain had fallen on Croagh Patrick that the annual pilgrimage up the Reek had been cancelled, he said. Just like it had this year. So it was destiny.
And they had travelled to Croke Park on a sky-high wave of hope, all of it pinned on a team which had earned its stripes and its place in the semi-final by dispatching Donegal. It's a team with strength and ability, filled with ambition and hollowed by hunger.
But the Dubs have all of that, and a little more. When on song, their performance can be a symphony of skill, an aria of intensity.
The babble of talking heads killing time on the airwaves, in the stands and in the bars before 3.30pm were all in agreement on one thing - this was going to be firecrackers and fiesta, to light up a championship which to date this season has been a bit of a damp squib.
"It's just like the final," observed one regular as he took his seat amid a wall of noise and energy and hope rising from the 82,000-plus faithful squeezed into every nook and cranny of Croker.
Both teams erupted on to the pitch like corks from bottles of champagne - but the champagne football was fitful. Dublin's discipline frayed around the edges, which proved a lucky break for Mayo - all their first-half points bar their first-minute opener were scored from frees given away by Jim Gavin's men. It was bruising, absorbing and utterly high-octane stuff, cards and casualties were inevitable.
Half-time, and though there were only three points in it, there was a sense that all Dublin had to do was step up a gear or two, and they'd eat Mayo without salt. It was destiny. Mayo would choke as the going got tough and the tougher Dubs got going.
And as the second half progressed, the sun came out, and the boys in blue began to shine and fizz. Super-sub Kevin McManamon was on the pitch and making a difference. The double-act of The Brothers Brogan put three points on the score and blue sky between the two teams. Mayo squandered a trio of swift chances.
Destiny beckoned. Good times were rolling. A ghost from the good old Celtic Tiger days was even spotted in the stands - developer Sean Dunne.
But then something happened. The Dublin fizz simply fizzled. It was as if they all laid their heads on the viridian velvet of Croker for 40 winks. Or maybe Mayo just refused to go quietly into the ungentle night.
Dublin flapped and Mayo pounced. The points kept coming. The crowd held its breath. Incredibly, it was suddenly 18 points apiece.
The army of green and red suddenly rediscovered its voice. Prayers and imprecations were hurled pitch-wards as faded hopes blossomed in the late afternoon sunshine.
It was helter-skelter, harum-scarum. Dublin were rattled. Incredibly, Captain Cool himself, Stephen Cluxton, was rattled.
The whistle confirmed the draw. Dublin sang the blues. Mayo just sang.