Saturday 1 October 2016

Mayo find Dubs' soft centre just in time to stay alive

Gavin has much work to do after late surge exposes stark frailties

Published 31/08/2015 | 02:30

Stephen Cluxton’s late free looks to be heading over the bar, but it eventually tails off left and drifts wide of the posts
Stephen Cluxton’s late free looks to be heading over the bar, but it eventually tails off left and drifts wide of the posts

Fate keeps rolling their hopes like dice and Mayo can't help but hang tough at the craps table.

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Will it be different this time? The city had its hands over its eyes yesterday as they came charging from oblivion and so, out of a slew of unremarkable Championship Sundays, we got this. A game that reached into a million ribcages and went fooling around with our hearts.

Trouble is, Mayo's story is becoming more difficult to romanticise.

Lyrical

We like to get lyrical about great hungers but, eventually, the blight of perpetual disappointment invokes something stiffer than empathy or compassion. Mayo have had a team that looked good enough to win the All-Ireland for maybe five years now. Their habit of coming up short treads a thin line between misfortune and carelessness.

Take yesterday. How can a team that registers just two points from play through 62 minutes go mine an unanswered 1-4 in the next eight? Remember, it would have been 2-4 had John Small not managed to mop up a Stephen Cluxton aberration in the 65th minute.

So, if Mayo were heroic in the end yesterday (and they indisputably were), it is not legitimate to ask was it somewhat reckless of them to slip into crisis in the first place?

Serious sport sends no love letters to the bereaved. It forgets them. Mayo surely know this better than anyone. They should have beaten Kerry last year, but lost a replay. If a similar fate awaits them now, how will they forgive themselves?

Jim Gavin's post-match press-conference suggested that Dublin will spend rather a large part of this week sifting through the video evidence of what was a wild, eccentric contest. Who could blame them? Mayo don't seem to know themselves, so what chance anyone outside?

What we do know is that when Mayo finally pressed up on Dublin yesterday, when they chose to contest Cluxton's kick-outs, when they aborted the conceit that a lone Aidan O'Shea could play Gulliver with Lilliputian defenders, when they rediscovered the value of support runners, they actually ran amok.

And Dublin? They imploded.

The theory that second-guessing Cluxton is like trying to split the atom was certainly decommissioned here. Dublin's goalkeeper and captain had a troubled game, one late error almost gifting Andy Moran a goal and a 70th-minute kick-out floating straight into Mayo hands, enabling Moran snipe the equaliser.

But then Dublin, generally, seemed oddly destablilised all through.

At one point selector, Mick Deegan, was on the field, seemingly trying to coax Cluxton up the field to take a free when Diarmuid Connolly just blithely kicked it over. Two minutes later, from a similar position, the goalkeeper (who missed every kick he took, including a 74th-minute opportunity to reprise that glory point of 2011) leaked another wide.

So for a team that seemed to be all-singing and all-dancing when seven points up with just eight minutes remaining, Dublin had quite a lot going on beneath the surface.

Penalised

They were twice penalised 13 metres for belly-aching over refereeing decisions in the first half and Philly McMahon may have cause to fret over an apparent headbutting action towards Aidan O'Shea in the 42nd minute.

Connolly's late red means he could miss the replay and, given they lost Rory O'Carroll almost from the off to a head injury requiring ten stitches, any retrospective action on McMahon would compromise Gavin's defensive hand.

But Mayo? Have they bought themselves a week of hope or torment here?

Short of gathering in a huddle to recite novenas their approach to the first half couldn't have been more worrisome. Not a single Mayo forward scored from play in that period, all but Lee Keegan's opening score coming from the frees of an otherwise inconspicuous Cillian O'Connor.

McMahon was tracking Aidan O'Shea wherever he went, neither man inclined towards high etiquette in how they went about their business. And without support troops, O'Shea might as well have been trying to jimmy open a bank vault with a coat hanger. He did have a point disallowed in the 24th minute, Joe McQuillan decreeing that in a thickening blizzard of fouls, the big Breaffy boy was as guilty as the next man.

Yet, only Connolly's fifth-minute penalty separated the teams at halfway. It seemed inexplicable.

Kevin McManamon's 57th-minute goal then seemed to have called Mayo's bluff. The two Brogan boys and Jack McCaffrey quickly added points from play and the Hill exulted with each one. The game had, it seemed, slipped hopelessly away from Mayo now, sand between their fingers.

And then everything just came apart at the seams. How? "We were never going to give up after everything we've invested," Cillian O'Connor would sigh when it was over.

But was it that simple? Could it honestly be that Mayo roped Dublin down just by continuing to run?

No, everything changed the moment they smelt fear.

That happened in the 64th minute when Keith Higgins followed an Andy Moran score with an instant point of his own and the roar from the Mayo hordes suggested they'd heard movement in the casket.

Because what followed was truly startling.

Within seconds, Cluxton had almost given away a slapstick goal and Cillian O'Connor blazed wide when the Canal End net was gaping. From a position of absolute authority, Dublin were having a very public breakdown.

The extent of it made any argument about the artistic merit of Colm Boyle's late tumble seem faintly bogus. In nailing the penalty, Cillian O'Connor drew Mayo to within a point, then Moran levelled it.

The Connacht champions had played with real conviction for a paltry eight minutes and Dublin crumbled before them like brittle sand castles in a storm.

"It was frantic at the end, but that's championship football," grinned Cillian O'Connor, like a man always privy to a script that, to the rest of us, had seemed ungovernable.

"We just tried to hang in for the full 76 or 77 minutes."

That they did and so, this morning, Mayo are still at that table, white-knuckled, a little careworn maybe, yet ever hopeful.

Will it be different?

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