Tuesday 21 January 2020

Joe Brolly: Mayo keep finding new ways to lose - their manager could have saved them at half time but bottled it

Replacing David Clarke was a mistake of epic proportions, one they couldn't recover from

‘Panic has an overwhelming effect, especially on a keeper . . . The black card was an act of mercy.’ Photo: David Maher. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
‘Panic has an overwhelming effect, especially on a keeper . . . The black card was an act of mercy.’ Photo: David Maher. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

After the lights went down in the studio and the cameras stopped rolling yesterday evening, myself and Colm O'Rourke grabbed our laptops and began writing our Sunday Independent columns. Pat got up to leave. "You not writing a piece for tomorrow Pat?" "I'll let you into a secret boys. I wrote two pieces yesterday. One for a Dublin win. One for Mayo." With that, he winked, and strolled casually out of the studio, smiling.

I gave a talk at the Novena in Ballintogher in County Sligo on Friday night. Beforehand, I stopped at a small pub in Manorhamilton, where the owner offered me an arm wrestle. Anything can happen in the West. Midway through the novena, the parish priest, Father Vincent Connaughton, announced that he was going to exorcise the Mayo curse for once and for all. He prayed. Then proclaimed that the job was done. The congregation clapped enthusiastically. "If James Horan had approached me, I could've lifted it years ago," said the beaming cleric.

Turns out the curse wasn't lifted at all. Some eerie spirit invaded the mind of Stephen Rochford in the run-up to the game. The spirit instructed the Mayo manager to drop his All Star-tipped goalie before throw-in and replace him with the nervy Rob Hennelly. In the studio, we grimaced at the news. In the first four minutes of the game, Rob sent three bad kick-outs straight to the Dubs. Two of them resulted in easy points from play, the third an easy free to get a grateful Dean Rock off the mark.

It was 0-3 to 0-0 and the game hadn't even started. Instead of Mayo resuming their high-pressure game from a fortnight ago, which would have given Dublin a "here we go again" feeling, the Dubs were up and running. Mayo clawed back the deficit but things were about to get worse. A whole lot worse.

Rochford and his backroom team must have known their worst fears were being realised, but were faced with another drastic decision. Dropping the leading contender for goalie of the year was dramatic enough. But to replace his replacement after ten minutes might spread panic through the team. So they stood there hoping for the best.

Lee Keegan was flying. He had just scored a brilliant goal and had left Diarmuid Connolly trailing in his wake for another point effort which went narrowly wide. Connolly was bracing himself for a nightmare. Then, Mayo's panic stricken keeper kicked a suicidal clearance straight to a Dub and as it broke to Connolly, Keegan, realising his man was through on goal, pulled him down. Keegan's black card was a disaster, as he had been penetrating the Dublin defence with devastating runs and looked on course to become Player of the Year - 35 minutes gone and the cost of Rochford's bewildering decision was now 0-3 and a black card for his leader and best player.

The tin lid on a disastrous first half for Rob, who I have to say I felt very sorry for, came with a woeful free that drifted out towards to the Dublin corner flag.

Yet at half-time Mayo were still well in it, behind by a single point. It seemed certain that Hennelly would be replaced at the break, calmly and in the privacy of the changing room, and order would be restored. But the manager bottled it. Maybe he didn't want to look bad. Maybe he thought it would spook the team even more. It was another mysterious decision.

Rob, obviously shattered, took to the field for the second half and we waited to see how bad the meltdown would get. Very bad it turned out. Very, very bad. A ball was kicked in towards his square. There was absolutely no danger as it came into his hands. But panic has an overwhelming effect, especially on a keeper. Somehow, he dropped it into the hands of Paddy Andrews, then dragged him down. The black card was an act of mercy. The penalty was the winning of the game. Suddenly, just like the start of the first half, Dublin were three points clear and had done nothing to earn it. In a game of tight margins, those three points were crucial.

Clarke came on and was impeccable. He registered a 100 per cent success rate with his kickouts, along with two excellent interceptions and the restoration of calm to this crucial sector. Dublin didn't threaten the goals again, but it was too late. Mayo's defensive game-plan would have won them the game. But they couldn't afford to ship 1-3 via unforced errors and a black card for their star player.

Being a keeper is a nightmare. Mental strength is the key quality. Clarke has that in abundance and had played imperiously throughout the Championship, making decisive interceptions, kicking out securely and generally bringing confidence to the area that has bedevilled Mayo's chances over the last five years. The decision to drop him for a keeper with a history of the wobbles is perhaps the worst I have seen on any All-Ireland final day. It is a pity for Mayo, who played with great courage and for me looked like winners. It is a pity for the management, who will be haunted by their decision for years. And it is a pity for Rob, who simply didn't deserve this.

I met an old Dub in Beaumont a few weeks ago. He showed me his newly amputated leg. "What the hell happened to you?" I asked. "You won't bleedin' believe it Joe. I was bitten by a spider." "Abroad?" "No, here." "You're joking." "You couldn't make it up. I got gangrene in it. They whipped it off last week." "You're very chipper about it." I said. "I am Joe. Sure I'm still alive and the Dubs will win the replay."

Some things are more important than football.

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