Monday 24 October 2016

Vincent Hogan: Still no bonfires in West, but is this a different Mayo side?

Steel shown by Rochford's men suggests they might just finish the job next time

Published 19/09/2016 | 13:00

The shot of Dublin’s Bernard Brogan deflects off the foot of Mayo’s Kevin McLoughlin for Dublin’s opening goal in yesterday’s All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
The shot of Dublin’s Bernard Brogan deflects off the foot of Mayo’s Kevin McLoughlin for Dublin’s opening goal in yesterday’s All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

The downtrodden old fatalists will, of course, still have a market for their gloom, but Mayo almost put them out of business here.

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Trouble is, another September Monday now passes without the grey tint of home flickering in an illumined bonfire glow or disturbed by cackled ballads celebrating the decommissioning of a curse.

Mayo are no closer to freedom here, that's the long and the short of this. They were ruthless and mean and bolshy and just about everything their history tells us they've previously failed to be, yet Sam Maguire sleeps - for another 12 days at least - in Dublin.

True, they claimed the last three scores of an extrovert game, the Dubs coming to resemble an exhausted prize-fighter, throwing wild, indiscriminate swings against a suddenly emboldened opponent.

True, too, that the freakish concession of two own-goals delivered to Mayo every invitation to become preoccupied with matters like life, death and the appeal of another winter spent prone on some therapist's couch. Stephen Rochford said beforehand that the concession of any goal would make this a long day for Mayo.

To leak two from their own boots must have made it feel as if, somewhere in the heavens above, they'd again become the day's designated light relief for a vengeful Foxford cleric. But Mayo just kept coming.

Aidan O'Shea celebrates Cillian O'Connor's equalising point. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Aidan O'Shea celebrates Cillian O'Connor's equalising point. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile


Imagine the emotional confusion of trailing by two points on the half-hour against a team that had yet to register a score of its own. Go trying selling faith in that climate.

Five down at half-time, Rochford's men could have been forgiven weakening hearts and cloudy minds. This felt like a new twist brewing on an old story, right? Not so, protested Andy Moran.

"Sure a goal is a goal, it doesn't really matter how it goes in," he reflected later, the madness finally abating. "We were just sitting there, disappointed with the way we played. Our scoring wasn't up to standard, but we came out in the second-half and showed what we could do.

"We proved we're a good team. We'll prove it again the next day and hopefully we can put them under more pressure and finish off the job."

Still, those last four words will surely rattle around their heads today like dice in a biscuit tin. What on earth must Mayo do to "finish off the job"?

It's doubtful Dublin have survived a more difficult game during Jim Gavin's time at the helm, yet had Diarmuid Connolly not kicked the ball dead with 30 seconds remaining, they might well be back-to-back champions now. To be fair to Connolly, brains were by then short-circuiting all around him. And many of them were Mayo's.

A point down with time at a premium, they committed three needless fouls in quick succession, then watched Aidan O'Shea sky a ball so wide of the Canal-end goal it wasn't far short of Mountjoy Square. Imagine the winter navel-gazing had opportunity not presented Cillian O'Connor with that 76th-minute chance?

Sympathy visits few kindnesses upon a county that keeps coming up short. How could it? It must be uncomfortable feeling resignation take such a stranglehold on your people, sensing fatalism get passed virtuously from one generation to another.

Yesterday, Mayo arrived in Croke Park with few enough believers, the popular view holding that they might need to toss some kind of incendiary into Dublin minds to have a hope. To jab and irritate them. To take them out of their process-driven comforts and get them angry.

Maybe that's what they had in mind, decommissioning the pre-game protocol to chase Dublin straight on to the field. Before we knew it, shoulder was bouncing off shoulder, the ghosts of '06 stirring in the inky gloom.

And, for Mayo, you couldn't help but worry that they might have been stirring up a giant anthill here.

However, Dublin seemed to misplace their concentration in the parade and Mayo's high press on Stephen Cluxton's kick-outs began reaping early dividends.

Then, with the stadium bathed in a darkness that felt faintly Biblical, Dublin got two goals in 13 minutes, the ball ricocheting viciously past David Clarke off the boots of Kevin McLoughlin and Colm Boyle.

If people were in any way offended thereafter by Mayo's less decorous approach to the day, they maybe don't understand what desperation is and what it can do to people.

For Rochford's men to concern themselves with aesthetics yesterday would have been to offer themselves on a platter against opponents programmed to napalm the weak. Instead, they faced Dublin down on utterly unscrupulous terms and it almost got them home.

A five-point halfway deficit (2-4; 0-5) had been wiped out within 11 minutes of the resumption. Dublin's broad unease was maybe best reflected in the match stat showing their six selected forwards to have managed the grand total of 0-2 from play between them.


If a single sequence of play distilled Dublin's discomfort, it came between the 48th and 49th minutes. In what amounted to an exercise in line-dancing, maybe 20 diagonal passes looped across the field and back without ever threatening to penetrate Mayo's crowded rearguard, before Ciarán Kilkenny had his pocket picked.

The Dubs were swaying now, no question.

However, a bizarre succession of misplaced passes from Seamus O'Shea spooned up opportunities for Brian Fenton and Dean Rock to snaffle points at the Hill-end and when, 53 minutes in, Moran then blazed a real goal chance over Cluxton's crossbar, you had to wonder if an old script was about to be recycled here.

Yet, for all the frenzy, the game was strangely stagnant. Only mistakes offered up scoring opportunities, with both teams running too fast and hitting too hard to summon any trace of coherence or mental clarity.

Suddenly, three points in as many minutes - from John Small, Rock and Connolly - awakened the Hill and every Mayo face was sand-papered with old worry. Yet, instead of weakening, Rochford's team seemed to meet this predicament with a rage registering at the very ends of the earth.

In doing so, they managed to convey a sense of difference to this story.

True, the bad decisions that have always been their undoing in the past were conspicuous again. True, had Connolly been more of a poker player, the West might well be welcoming home just another broken team.

But this was a group that trailed by two points after 30 minutes, with no Dublin player having even registered a score. Think about that and you'll struggle to see anything but heroism in what Mayo managed to find within themselves.

Maybe Lee Keegan put it best: "We showed great heart, but great heart doesn't win it. We still have to go and do another 70 minutes. We have to find that inch or foot or whatever it is to get across that line.

"A draw isn't good enough for this squad anymore. It's about getting over the line."

That it is and there's a very real danger now that, somewhere in their psyche, yesterday may even compound a sense that inanimate forces might still be pulling against Mayo football.

They were, broadly, better than Dublin yesterday.

Hungrier for battle and tactically more astute. But is it feasible that men like Bernard Brogan, Kevin McManamon, Paul Flynn and Connolly will all ever be so subdued as a group again?

Somehow, falling short by inches can almost accentuate the sense of distance.

You might have had a foot in the door, but now it feels as if you're back with a rock hammer, picking away at the walls of the penitentiary.

The trick for Rochford will be in making sure that Mayo's proximity to history yesterday doesn't rebound on them as a negative.

In ensuring that frustration doesn't now threaten to defeat their optimism.

You got a sense last night that Keegan understood this.

"Everyone knows what this group has," he told us.

"Management have huge trust in us and we had total belief that we were going to win today.

"We still have that belief, but we know the challenge.

"Dublin are champions for a reason, three times in five years. At the end of the day, we didn't win the game, but we know what we have to do to win it the next time."

They get out of bed this morning, then, no different in status to the men they awoke as yesterday. Mayo still have work to do.

However, they look like they might relish it.

Irish Independent

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