Saturday 17 March 2018

Joe Brolly: Aidan O'Shea shrunk to the size of a pea. Mayo need him to rise again

'I looked up at the darkened skies after the second one and am sure I felt supernatural forces. I imagined Aidan O’Shea rounding McMahon and heading straight for goal, only to turn into a mouse.' Photo: Sportsfile
'I looked up at the darkened skies after the second one and am sure I felt supernatural forces. I imagined Aidan O’Shea rounding McMahon and heading straight for goal, only to turn into a mouse.' Photo: Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

'There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone . . . '

The GAA is the constant in our lives. It weaves us together. It was there before we knew anything and will be there after we're gone. Before the game on Sunday, I was in the tunnel to say hello to the Mayo kit-man Shane Halligan. He almost died of cystic fibrosis last year. I met him regularly. As he deteriorated, he became dependent on oxygen cylinders he carried around, wheezing and gasping like a man in the middle of a gas attack. At the last minute, a family donated the organs of their loved one. Shane got new lungs and was saved. On Sunday, he had his game face on. "We'll beat them today, Joe. We're not giving this one up. No way. No way." When he was sick, he still got his ma and sister to take him to Mayo games, until eventually he could no longer go. His best friend is Colm Boyle, Mayo's warrior centre half-back. There he was on All-Ireland day, brimming with life and glowing with hope, reverently hanging the Mayo jerseys above the players' benches.

As I left Shane, I was struck in the back. A good solid blow. It was the Taoiseach, wearing his Mayo tie. He was with Páraic Duffy. We shook hands. "I've never seen interest like it in a final." "Joe," said Páraic, "if the stadium held 140,000 we would still have been sold out." "And you could've given even more money to the GPA," I said. "Ah for God's sake Joe, can you not give me a break? Can you not even let me enjoy this one day? It's my Christmas Day and you still won't let up." "Fair enough," I said. "A one-day truce." Kenny laughed, then shaped up with his shoulder again. "Calm down man," I said to him, "I hope these Mayo men are as keen for war as you are."

Turns out they were. Every bit as keen. Their tackling and pressure was ferocious for the full 78 minutes. Up until this game, Dublin's average conversion rate of shots to scores under Jim Gavin was just over 60pc. Against Kerry, they had 22 points, including seven points from eight shots in the last 10 minutes. On Sunday, they collapsed to a conversion rate of 29pc. Mayo's pressure was constant and torturous. Yet they didn't win.

The new regime has concentrated on defending, with allocated man-markers, a heavy zonal press in the middle third and a more or less full-time sweeper preventing goals. This has worked very well. But it has significantly reduced their attacking capability. Before this year, Mayo's hallmark was their constant attacking out of defence, with no sweeper, and Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan and Boyle supporting the man in possession off the shoulder.

It was virtually impossible to police, but it left them open at the back and the result was a heavy concession of goals in big games. On Sunday, with four full-time man-markers in the defence and a sweeper, time after time when Mayo were in possession, they ran out of options when they reached the middle third.

In the past, runners out of the defence would have been on the shoulder of the man in possession, cutting through the opposition. Without this, time and again on Sunday they kicked hopeful balls forward to outnumbered attackers, which were simply gobbled up by Dublin's defenders. In one period of the second half, Seamus O'Shea kicked five balls into the full-forward area which were easily intercepted. Aidan, meanwhile, was often reduced to handpassing backwards or sideways. This is where the absence of a spectacular forward or two is really felt. Up until this year it didn't matter so much, since Higgins, Keegan, Boyle etc were the keys to their attack plan. Now, the forwards are being asked to do the job themselves.

Another huge issue for Mayo is how to cope with Brian Fenton, the one Dublin player who was continually able to break through their defensive system. Twice, he got through for goal chances when Seamus O'Shea and Kevin McLoughlin lost him. On a dry day, he would have inflicted a lot more damage. He's too dynamic for any other man-marker Mayo have available and that zonal defending around the middle is not trapping him.

I have felt for some years now that for Mayo to win Sam, big Aidan is the key. When he blitzes teams Mayo become an indomitable beast. Unfortunately, his blitzkriegs are reserved for the lesser teams. If Henry Downey or Anthony Tohill had played like him for Derry on the big days, we would not have won. On Sunday, Aidan was half-hearted again, allowing himself to be bossed by much smaller men, taking hopeful, hopeless pot-shots and generally shrinking to the size of a pea. He must somehow find his inner courage and composure. A goal or two from this human wrecking ball is the sort of emphatic statement needed to KO the Dubs. Imagine him crashing through and hitting the net, leaving Philly McMahon sprawled on the turf?

During the frantic opening period of the game, with Mayo doing exactly what they needed to do and going 0-2 to 0-0 up, we entered that middle ground between science and superstition. The twilight zone. There has never been an own goal in an All-Ireland football final. Ever. Yet in the space of just 10 minutes, Mayo scored two. I looked up at the darkened skies after the second one and am sure I felt supernatural forces. I imagined Aidan O'Shea rounding McMahon and heading straight for goal, only to turn into a mouse. Or a giant invisible hand reaching down from the sky to deflect a goal-bound shot from Andy Moran over the bar. Maybe that's what happened?

A really disappointing feature of this Croke Park pitch is how rain turns it into an ice rink, which prevented Dublin from playing their complex, fast interplay game. Diarmuid Connolly slipped and slid and misfired. It is amazing how many of Lee's opponents lose their jersey, then get yellow-carded for wrestling with him. On the rare occasions when Diarmuid slipped his clutches, there was always a covering defender there to make the tackle. Time and again Dublin players felt they had made the breakthrough only to be hit and tackled and turned over. In the entire championship season up until Sunday, Dublin coughed up possession in the tackle 13 times, compared to Mayo's 50. On Sunday, Mayo forced the ball out of their hands nine times. There is no doubt the conditions played a part, but mainly it was the fact that Mayo were fully absorbed in the battle, and Dublin weren't. Yet Mayo didn't win.

Five points down at half-time, they hurled themselves into the attack from the restart, their heavy defensive mindset temporarily shelved. In a heart-stopping 10 minutes, they reeled off five points without reply to draw level by the 45th minute, 2-4 to 0-10. It was reminiscent of their epic third quarter against Kerry in the drawn semi-final in 2014. But, like that day, they didn't push on. As soon as they drew level, there was a change in the atmosphere and they switched back to safety first. Over the next eight minutes, Dublin kicked two points without reply to go two up. Imperilled again, Mayo went back on the attack and kicked two scores to go level. They had a brilliant goal chance, but Andy Moran fluffed it. Or did he?

When it was missed, Dublin took over, kicking three unanswered points to make it 2-9 to 0-12 in the 68th minute. Once again, looking to their last protection, Mayo surged forward, getting two points in a minute, then a brilliant equaliser courtesy of Diarmuid Connolly's balls of iron in taking on a sideline when a simple pass back would have secured the game, and Cillian O'Connor's balls of iron in assuming responsibility for his team and county when all seemed lost. Cillian is a clutch player. It was heroic by Mayo. But they didn't win. Each time they had Dublin in real peril, they stopped. Why?

Dublin were poor. They played very conservatively. At times, you could have been watching Tyrone as they passed laterally and moved around the periphery of the Mayo defence, going nowhere up front. Bernard Brogan could have been Ronan O'Neill, chasing to the sidelines and out to the '45 for kick-passes that were zipping off the wet pitch and leaving him in an area where it was impossible to score or do anything much more than handpass it back. Ciarán Kilkenny has lost course entirely, ever since his temporary spell at wing-back against Donegal. He has become entirely risk-averse, soloing, handpassing laterally and generally getting nowhere. The GAA journalists rave about how many touches he gets, but there is a huge difference between a touch and a score, as any young man in Coppers will tell you.

After the opening quarter, where they ran strongly at Mayo and created three great goal chances, notching two (own) goals, they made no headway through the middle. Instead, they were reduced to making solo dashes until they were turned over. The powerful diagonal runs off the shoulder and accurate kick-passes to a man bearing in on goal that have marked out this Dublin team were nowhere to be seen.

The remarkable feature of the game for me was that at no stage did Dublin switch tactics. Two thoughts struck me watching it unfold. Firstly, I would have put Connolly at full-forward. He is a bigger and stronger man than Lee and would have given the Dubs a target man. In there, Lee's off-the-ball Chinese water torture would have been obvious to the umpires.

Secondly, I would have designated Mannion or Andrews the spare man and pushed him up on Kevin McLoughlin, forcing Mayo's full-time sweeper to mark him. This way, the Dubs would have had an attacking spearhead, and the main plank of Mayo's defensive system (the full-time sweeper) would have been negated. As it was, Kevin dictated the play, and the Dubs were forced to work the ball aimlessly around the periphery.

It is only the second time in a big game that the Dublin sideline have been faced with a major tactical problem. There is no mitigation for the Dublin management because in both instances, they knew in advance exactly what they would be facing. The first was in the 2014 semi-final. Jim Gavin had reckoned beforehand that his all-out attack and hemming in of Donegal's sweepers would trump Jimmy McGuinness's defensive, counter-attack strategy. As it turned out, Donegal's system was better.

At the half-time whistle, the score was 1-8 to 0-10, but the writing was on the wall. I remember thinking at the time what a pity for Donegal the half-time whistle came when it did. Surely Jim would make the obvious adjustment and get at least two of his half-backs to stay and sweep, destroying Donegal's plan and allowing Dublin to power on. But no. They came out and resumed their suicidal strategy of all-out attack. Inevitably, they got killed. Similarly, on Sunday, they "stuck with the process" and were very fortunate to be let off the hook.

After the game I was like a man who just got early parole. The draw meant no night programme. No team of the year and all that old carry-on. Pints! I bumped into Paul Kimmage under the tunnel, glowering under a peaked cap. "Come on for a pint," I said. He frowned, as he does. Then, "all right, let's go." As we walked along Jones's Road, Kimmage said: "For Jesus sake Joe, this is mental." I don't even notice it any more. A big crowd of lads drinking outside a terrace were chanting my name and giving the bird and the fingers and other signs that aren't even allowed post-watershed. A crowd from Mayo intercepted me for selfies. I was introduced to a group of disabled adults in their county colours. "I'm going home," said Kimmage. "Come on," I said, "We'll get a lift from the guards." "Give us a lift boys, or we'll write about you in next week's paper." A short trip later and we were deposited at the edge of Poolbeg Street, where Mulligan's is.

Mulligan's is a Dublin mecca. As we approached, the roar started. Then became a chant. I blew kisses. They went wild. "Fuck this," said Kimmage, "I'm away," and he turned and disappeared around the corner. Greats from the old teams gather here after big games. The street is thronged and impassable. Anton O'Toole was standing at the door, supping a pint, wearing a floppy hat, looking like a French philosopher. I waved over, he rolled his eyes. Enough said.

It was a bit like the Eoin McLove episode in Father Ted. "Me ma loves you, any chance of a selfie." "We won the junior eight league today," said the captain of the Cuala junior eights. "You've eight junior divisions?" I said. "Yeah," he said. The squad gathered round for photos roaring "What do you think of that Joe Brolly?" Being pulled in all directions, I eventually got in behind the bar, where I finally got a sup of a pint.

When it eventually calmed down a bit, I was able to stand out on the street with a crowd of men from various clubs. One of them said to me, quite seriously, "Jaysus Joe, you should think about how to monetise this." Which sums up what has gone wrong with Irish society.

Mayo need to do something different the next day to get over the line. They defended savagely and attacked well in bursts against the Dubs but that will not be enough in the replay, especially if conditions are dry. Dublin's conversion rate of 29pc is unlikely to ever be repeated. Dean Rock's free-taking conversion rate went from an astonishing 93pc for the season to 40pc on Sunday.

Before she died of CF, Laura Donnellan from Westport asked me to promise her that if Mayo won the All-Ireland I would wear the Mayo jersey in the studio after the game. The Mayo board made me a special number 13 and sent it to me. I would like to honour the dying girl's wish. I have come to realise that only Aidan O'Shea can break the curse. I have a vision of a goal in each half and Philly sprawled on the turf at his feet as the ball hits the rigging. And a beautiful girl from Westport beaming down on it all.

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