Kevin McStay: Cluxton led by example to turn the tide
THE most telling difference between Dublin and Mayo in yesterday’s thrilling All-Ireland Final was the influence that Stephen Cluxton exerted on affairs, especially in the second half.
The Dublin captain dictated the pace and fluency of the second half, with the tempo and accuracy of his kick-outs having a huge bearing on his side’s ability to wrestle the initiative away from Mayo upon the resumption.
Up to that point, Mayo had largely controlled the game and they will be desperately disappointed that their dominance was not reflected more tellingly on the scoreboard.
Central to their first-half performance was the influence that Keith Higgins exerted from centre-forward and I believe that Mayo lost a degree of control and threat when Higgins reverted to his more customary position in the second half.
Despite the poor shot selection that punctuated their first-half performance, Mayo would have been pleased with their over all display at half-time, as would Dublin too I would imagine.
Dublin struggled at times against what I would consider a heroic defensive display from the Mayo rearguard and indeed both teams should be commended for the quality of their tackling.
It is often mistakenly said that the art of defending has been largely eroded in recent times, but I thought that two good, young coaches in Jim Gavin and James Horan produced sides that gave a master-class in that aspect yesterday.
Given that only one point separated the sides at the interval, the finer margins were always going to prove telling and Cluxton’s ability to find a colleague allowed Dublin to gradually eke out greater amounts of possession.
Their defensive solidity improved with the redeployment of Cian O’Sullivan to corner-back, although to be fair to the two Mayo forwards with the biggest question marks hanging over them prior to the game, both Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor looked lively throughout.
Rory O’Carroll was another Dublin player to come out in credit and, of course, Bernard Brogan chose the most perfect of days to bring his poaching skills to the table.
His first goal was unfortunately, from a Mayo perspective, the result of a defensive error and all bar Eoghan O’Gara’s late point were the sum outcome of Mayo errors in the opening half.
All the other scores in the first-half were avoidable from Mayo’s point of view and given the fine margins that separated the sides at the end, it can only compound Mayo’s dejection.
With Cluxton largely neutralising the aerial threat of the O’Shea’s, Mayo found chances harder to come by and the attacking forays of Lee Keegan, in particular, were reduced due to the amount of possession garnered by Dublin.
They opened up a deserved lead as the half progressed and although Moran replied with a goal for Mayo, it proved their only score from play of the half, a damning statistic in its own right.
With Seamus O’Shea replaced, I thought Mayo lost a degree of leadership, whereas Dublin’s more senior players in O’Carroll, Cluxton and Brogan became increasingly influential.
It is quite possible that their positive experiences from two years ago stood in Dublin’s favour in what was quite a poor spectacle relative to the quality that both sides can undoubtedly produce.
The errors that Mayo committed in the final stages might reflect that inexperience and the poor judgement that can occur in finals was also something that they will look to address.
However, it is Dublin that can look to the near future with increasing optimism and the manner in which they seized the game at the most opportune time shows a maturity that could serve them well in the coming years.