Five magic moments that made the summer for All Ireland champions Dublin
The road to September, or October in the case of this year's All-Ireland football championship, took an unexpected turn for Mayo when they were blown off course by Galway in June. Under new management, cast out into the qualifiers for the first time in six years, the soul-searching that followed needed to be swift.
To the east, where Dublin had enjoyed total dominance of Leinster over the same years that Mayo ruled Connacht, it was business as usual. The following weekend Dublin faced up to Meath in the Leinster semi-finals. Meath, the last team in the province to defeat Dublin, hoped to find something inspirational but slumped to a ten-point defeat in a match that turned into a monumental bore.
Dublin, having finally met some resistance in the All-Ireland quarter-finals and semi-finals, beating two recent All-Ireland winners in Donegal and Kerry, made their way to the final unbeaten in League and Championship, favourites to retain the All-Ireland for the first time in nearly 40 years.
Mayo, with a poor record in the qualifiers, made it there too, managing to reach the final without having to defeat a team from Division 1, seeing off Fermanagh, Kildare, Westmeath, Tyrone and Tipperary, before producing their best display of the year in drawing with Dublin in the final two weeks ago. Yesterday was the rematch to decide the championship, the final step, but there were some significant ones along the way for both teams.
March 5, Croke Park
Dublin 2-14, Cork 2-10
After his team defeated Cork in the fourth round of the League, Jim Gavin confirmed reports that Jack McCaffrey would no longer be part of their defence of their League and All-Ireland titles in 2016. The 2015 Footballer of the Year had decided to take time out from football to travel, beginning a three-month trip to Africa in early June as GOAL ambassador in Ethiopia.
This followed the loss of full-back Rory O'Carroll and raised questions about Dublin's defensive cover in their absence. McCaffrey returned to Ireland in August and has been playing for Clontarf in the second division of the Dublin league but he ruled out being restored to the squad. Despite some commentators' surprise that he has not been recalled even at this late stage, it looks like 2017 will mark his county return. In his absence John Small had made a name for himself in the number seven shirt, most recently winning the man of the match award in the drawn All-Ireland final against Mayo.
April 24, Croke Park
ALLIANZ League Final
Dublin 2-18, Kerry 0-13
A repeat of the All-Ireland final from the previous September, this time Dublin won with more comfort and collected their fourth successive League title, having gone through the campaign with a perfect strike of nine clear victories. The sides had been tied on six occasions in the first half and Kerry only started to lose serious ground after Aidan O'Mahony was sent off in the 50th minute.
Dublin's victory was their latest upstaging of Kerry in a national final, following the All-Ireland final wins of 2011 and '15 and confirmed their recent supremacy over their old rivals. The win stretched Dublin's unbeaten run in League and Championship to 22 games. Bernard Brogan finished their top points scorer from play, with four.
August 6, Croke Park
Dublin 1-15, Donegal 1-10
Six minutes into stoppage-time, substitute Paul Mannion cut through and scored a fine goal that sealed Dublin's advance and dulled the memory of a defeat to Donegal in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final. Dublin made harder work of it than necessary, having looked well in control at one stage, before conceding a goal and losing Diarmuid Connolly to a second yellow card. In injury-time they also lost Eoghan O'Gara for an off-the-ball clash with Neil McGee, though the decision was later overturned on appeal.
The referee had earlier been lenient in dishing out a yellow card to Michael Murphy for a thump on Brian Fenton in the 14th minute. But the defensive display was gratifying, with James McCarthy an injury withdrawal and Ciaran Kilkenny playing wing-back, where he gave a virtuoso performance. David Byrne tied down Patrick McBrearty who failed to score. Their defence, exposed by Donegal two years earlier, was now more learned and accomplished, with Dublin hitting hard and leaving little gaps for their opponents to exploit.
August 28, Croke Park
All-Ireland Semi Final
Dublin 0-22, Kerry 2-14
A test of Dublin's character which they passed impressively despite falling three points behind with 62 minutes played and not looking like scoring a goal. In the first half when playing well and in apparent control of the match, leading 0-9 to 0-4 after 24 minutes, a short kickout from Stephen Cluxton was intercepted and led to a goal for Darran O'Sullivan. That sparked a crazy spell before half-time as Kerry reeled off 2-4 without reply to head in five points clear. The response was impressive, Dublin outscoring Kerry 0-6 to 0-1 in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Over the next ten minutes Kerry outscored Dublin 0-4 to 0-1, raising the prospects of a surprise. But Dublin held their nerve and chalked up the scores they needed.
September 18, Croke Park
Dublin 2-9 Mayo 0-15
A rude awakening for the strong favourites, who were playing second fiddle to Mayo for much of the first half but were bailed out by two own-goals. Their attack malfunctioned and the loss of James McCarthy to a black card after 22 minutes reduced some of their torque and flair. Even so there were displays of resilience.
Paddy Andrews came off the bench and hit two fine scores and by half-time they were five points up. That lead vanished after the break but they managed to rally themselves again and were three points up nearing the end of full time; the final score, from Diarmuid Connolly after a short kickout was thieved, looked to have sealed an unimpressive victory.
They were unable to halt Mayo's final surge, however, and much debate surrounded Connolly's decision to go for a point from a sideline not long before Cillian O'Connor sent the teams to yesterday's replay. The major plus was the performance of John Small at left half-back, and Brian Fenton in the middle of the field. Less auspicious the poor return from their forwards and misfiring free-taking of Dean Rock. Only the replay would confirm if this was the start of a gradual decline or just a momentary stall.
March 27, Hyde Park
Mayo 1-11, Roscommon 1-7
The upheaval which led to the appointment of a new manager in Stephen Rochford didn't immediately translate into winning form. Mayo had lost four of their opening five League matches when they faced a resurgent Roscommon near the end of March, but they delivered their best performance of the season.
Mayo hadn't been out of Division 1 since 1997 and eased their relegation worries by hitting an intensity pitch that Roscommon couldn't match. Mayo should have been more than two points ahead at half-time, but were more clinical after the interval and moved 1-10 to 0-4 ahead by the 48th minute. A late Roscommon rally reduced the lead but Mayo were fully deserving of their victory. They then defeated the already relegated Down in the final round to secure their Division 1 status.
Cillian O'Connor appointed captain
A popular choice, even though he was only about to turn 24, O'Connor showed his leadership qualities in the All-Ireland final drawn match when calmly scoring the equaliser with seconds left. Bright, mature beyond his years and a former Mayo minor captain, he took over the role from Keith Higgins. O'Connor, whose career has been disrupted by injury, was already firmly established as Mayo's leading scorer, the Ballintubber player had the respect of the dressing-room and his appointment offered fresh impetus ahead of their opening Connacht Championship game against London.
June 18, McHale Park
Mayo 0-12 Galway 1-12
Strong favourites to win a record sixth Connacht title in succession, Mayo cracked under a late spell of Galway pressure, the first major setback of Rochford's regime. It was Galway's first win over Mayo in eight years, even though they hadn't won a competitive game in four months. Mayo led 0-11 to 0-7 after 50 minutes but their play was uninspiring and many of their big players were off colour. The game's pivotal moment came after 55 minutes. Thomas Flynn intercepted a short kickout from Rob Hennelly and ran through the Mayo defence before scoring a goal. Paul Conroy kicked a brilliant equaliser less than a minute later, and Galway added three more points to wrest control of the match from the title holders. Mayo's only score in the last 23 minutes was from a Cillian O'Connor free. Hennelly was one of those who suffered the consequences, losing his place for the opening qualifier to David Clarke.
August 6, Croke Park
Mayo 0-13, Tyrone 0-12
Rochford came up against the experienced Mickey Harte, whose Tyrone side had won their first Ulster Championship since 2010, franking a steady rate of progress over the last two seasons. Any game against Tyrone presents a tactical challenge and Mayo responded smartly, taking the wind out of the Red Hands' sails, enough to gain a narrow victory. Towards the end Mayo embarked on a policy of keeping possession to defend their slim lead and gave their followers a few anxious moments, notably when Aidan O'Shea's crossfield pass reached David Clarke in the nick of time. Having been patchy in qualifier wins over Fermanagh, Kildare and Westmeath, this was a notable advance and earned the county a sixth successive All-Ireland semi-final appearance.
The winning score was a sweetly-struck point by Lee Keegan in the 65th minute, his second of the day. Six minutes earlier Keegan's man, Sean Cavanagh, was sent off for a second bookable offence. Mayo started the experienced Alan Dillon, who played a prominent role in their victory, particularly in the first half when he was frequently on the ball. The teams were level nine times before Mayo nudged ahead and held their nerve to the final whistle.
September 18, Croke Park
Mayo 0-15 Dublin 2-9
Having reached the final without beating a Division 1 team, Mayo demonstrated why they were capable of beating the Championship favourites. A well choreographed defensive matrix, featuring Kevin McLoughlin as a sweeper and well-judged match-ups, held many of the key Dublin forwards quiet, with Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn, Ciaran Kilkenny and Kevin McManamon all failing to score, although Kilkenny moved to wing-back after the black card dismissal of James McCarthy in the first half. Dublin had none of their usual pomp and penetration and relied on two own-goals until they finally managed a score without Mayo assistance in the 31st minute. Despite falling five points behind by half-time, Mayo enjoyed a sweeping resurgence on the restart, hitting five without reply to level.
Dublin came back and led by three points near the end of normal time but Mayo dug in and scored three times in the minutes that remained. While it was not a perfect performance, it deepened Mayo's conviction that Dublin were not infallible. Mayo are the only side to come through a Championship match against Dublin unbeaten since August 2014, having taken them to replays twice in the last two seasons. The only question left being: could they finish the job?