Eugene McGee: Mayo power play leaves Blues dazed and confused
Published 03/09/2012 | 05:00
The first half of the Mayo-Dublin game was not really a match, more of a massacre. The reigning All-Ireland champions were simply outclassed in every aspect of the game and Mayo looked like a team of invincibles.
They dominated every key area of play and, above all, were far hungrier for victory. They 'horsed' into the Dublin players all over the field, a most unusual sight in front of over over 50,000 'home' followers.
The warning signs for Dublin came quick and fast with leading players from last year's triumph, such as Bryan Cullen, completely out of their depth. Only the efforts of a few players like Paul Flynn and Ger Brennan prevented Mayo from being 10 points ahead at half-time instead of six.
The litany of disasters for Dublin was hard to believe with forwards like Diarmuid Connolly and Bernard Brogan hitting bad wides or, worse still, letting their kicks fall short into Mayo goalkeeper David Clarke's hands. Several of these poor kicks were capitalised on by Mayo defenders to mount attacks at the other end to good effect.
Mayo actually started nervously, with corner-back Kevin Keane hopping the ball twice and giving Brogan an easy pointed free, but they soon settled and took a powerful grip on the game to lead 0-6 to 0-3 after 22 minutes.
Dublin were very slow to react to how well individual Mayo players were playing, but it got worse in the second quarter when Mayo got totally on top. They were helped greatly by their defence, which completely outplayed the Dublin forwards, and they also dominated the midfield battles, except for Dublin kick-outs, with Stephen Cluxton still managing to find Michael Darragh Macauley on the right wing.
But that was one of the few tactical moves that worked for Dublin in the first half; elsewhere they were bereft of ideas. It was only when Macauley went to his best position at midfield in the second half that the trend of play changed dramatically.
But as Mayo raced into a 0-12 to 0-6 half-time lead, it was clear the champions were in dire straits and the decision to take off their wonderful captain of last season, Cullen, indicated panic in the ranks.
Even more panicky was the decision to bring on a clearly injured Alan Brogan for the second half, something which completely backfired and was a prime reason for Dublin's demise. His inability to make any contribution for the 18 minutes he was on the field merely delayed the Dublin rally that was to follow.
Indeed, the demeanor of several Dublin players as they traipsed into the dressing room at the break indicated a state of confusion, if not despair. It was hardly surprising.
Mayo played their best football for many years in that opening period, to the extent that Donegal manager Jim McGuinness will have added worries as he awaits the final. They were powerful in the tackle, won nearly every breaking ball and hit early and often when many Dublin players gave the impression they had had enough of that sort of thing over recent years.
There was a lot of lazy fouling by Dublin backs in the first half, a common fault all season that was not rectified.
Aidan O'Shea was a colossal figure in midfield and used his physical power to great effect, something that seemed to set the template for other Mayo players too. Cillian O'Connor played a huge role in Mayo's first-half performance by scoring from three '45s.' With each one he flashed out a signal to all concerned that this Mayo team were, indeed, different from many previous ones in Croke Park.
It showed a cutting edge that inspired his colleagues and at the same time seemed to demoralise many Dublin players. The fact that Dublin only managed two points in the opening 20 minutes, both from frees, was a huge psychological boost for Mayo. It gave them ample time to assert a stranglehold on the play, their five points in that period setting them on the road to success.
But, of course, Dublin were not champions for nothing and it was inevitable their pride would spark a revival. The unfortunate thing for them was that before they got going Mayo had added another four points and soon led by 0-17 to 0-8.
The transformation in Dublin's play was almost instantaneous and coincided with two developments.
First Macauley began to play a key role in midfield and the possession gained was deployed by Dublin through long foot-passes. Possibly lulled into a false sense of security, the previously razor-sharp Mayo backline began to panic as the scores from Dublin came thick and fast.
An absolutely brilliant point from an acute angle in the 55th minute by Flynn brought Dublin's tally to 0-10 and the gap was down to seven points. With Bernard Brogan now positioned in front of the Mayo goal and winning the accurately kicked long balls, Mayo fouled three times in four minutes for Brogan to point three frees.
With The Hill now in full voice, it looked like mission impossible might actually work out. Cluxton's third '45' left the score at 0-17 to 0-15 and the stadium erupted when it was announced there would be five extra minutes to be played.
But, inevitably, Mayo had to score some time and after failing to do so for 22 minutes, they managed a free from O'Connor to make the margin three and forced Dublin into going for a goal. That was never very likely.
The refereeing fiasco which emerged when Mayo's Enda Varley tried to interfere with a Cluxton kick-out would have been the stuff of comedy had it not been so serious, but it certainly impeded Dublin's revival somewhat.
So, Mayo march on to an intriguing final and a battle of tactical wits to savour. This was a huge victory, well earned and surely a marker for the future of Mayo football, regardless of what happens in the final.