Monday 26 February 2018

Vincent Hogan: Angels of hurt will never carry Mayo home

Mayo goalkeeper Robert Hennelly saves a goal-bound shot from Dublin's Michael Darragh Macauley at Croke Park yesterday
Mayo goalkeeper Robert Hennelly saves a goal-bound shot from Dublin's Michael Darragh Macauley at Croke Park yesterday
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It was Dublin's day because history doesn't bend to abstract things. Hurt and hope and faith won't kick a single point between them.

So Mayo's glories remain imprisoned in flickering Pathe newsreels today, not because of some vengeful angel somewhere, but because Dublin simply carried too much flexibility and power. When you climb to this altitude, you find yourself in an unsentimental world and that's what this roller-coasting final bellowed.

Dublin's glory in the end was their understanding of those terms. They were clumsy and ponderous at times, but played with a cold indifference to whatever mishaps fell their way.

Rory O'Carroll and Eoghan O'Gara looked passengers from a distance out, the former with what seemed a self-inflicted concussion, the latter slowed to little more than a stiff walk by his busted left hamstring. Jim Gavin's bench having long since been emptied by now, one more faller and they might be looking to reprise the '83 miracle of the 12 apostles?

Yet, the city boys did not countenance a backward glance.

"It's a 70-75 minute game as long as the history books go back," said Paul Flynn afterwards, alluding to the iced group mindset. "It's always been played that long."

Mayo knew this of course, but could not act upon it. Their only score from play in the second half would be Andy Moran's goal. That triggered a roar that sent startled magpies scrabbling off the stadium roof into a gorgeous, gaping sky. It was twenty minutes to five and, for Mayo, now or never.

Their people were in position, we could see that.

COLONISATION

The Hill had been taken, not tentatively, not rinsed with some gentle, narrow sprigs of red and green as some kind of apologetic revolution, just a stern face away from surrender. This was colonisation on a grand scale.

Dublin's hold on the place has never amounted to more than an expression of squatters' rights but, until now, those rights seemed inviolable. From early yesterday, though, Mayo made clear their view that Croke Park – every bit of it – belongs equally to all counties. So, they flooded on to the staircased railway-end terrace, their moxy blowing through the place like confetti tossed in a strong breeze.

It was, then, Mayo's as much as Dublin's, and Moran's goal threw the place into the most wondrous blaze of foreign colour. Twenty minutes to five then, the teams glued at 1-9 apiece. Now or never?

At precisely 16 minutes to five, we got our answer. With his first touch of the football, Denis Bastick ran through a great gash in the Mayo cover, confusion seeming to reign as to whose job it was to follow him, and the offload to Bernard Brogan was measured and weighted to perfection. It was at that moment you just knew that 1951 would still be tattooed to the inside of every Mayo eye-lid this morning.

And it was at that moment you sensed that those three old, surviving soldiers from 62 years back, watching from seats in the Hogan Stand, might be swallowing hard at a suspicion that they might still be recycling their stories all the way to the grave.

Truth to tell, James Horan's team had reason to fret from long distance here.

Actually, you could have forgiven them drifting to their dressing-room at half-time, their heads full of all those piseog voices that have chased Mayo through the generations. They had out-played, out-smarted and – seemingly – out-psyched Dublin, yet slipped down the tunnel with just a solitary point cushion.

It was a lead that had to feel like a loose floor board under their feet.

HARMLESSLY

Bizarrely, Dublin should even have been leading. Three balls were dropped harmlessly into Robert Hennelly's grateful hands from scoreable positions, Ger Brennan and Stephen Cluxton spilled two wretchedly poor wides and Hennelly was called upon to save courageously from both Ciaran Kilkenny and Michael Darragh Macauley.

Mayo had dominated the half, yet ended it with Aidan O'Shea dropped deep to cover gaping holes.

Hennelly would be called upon to save again, this time from O'Gara, just three minutes after the resumption, the threat of goals now resolutely one-way. And the strength of Gavin's bench gave him the air of shark, now randomly flipping cards. O'Gara, Dean Rock and Kevin McManamon could all expect a starting berth with most other counties. With Dublin, they exist as Plan B.

Horan could enjoy no such luxury.

Six of the eight Mayo forwards used over 70 minutes would fail to raise a single flag from play and, as Dublin withdrew bodies into the middle third, Mayo's early midfield authority began to slip away. In the end, they were propped up, almost artificially, by Cillian O'Connor's frees.

A more clinical team would have reduced this to a numbers game in the closing flurries. Fifteen against 13. History just sitting in wait for Mayo.

"We had enough ball to win the game," sighed Horan, when it was over. "But we just made too many basic mistakes. We turned over the ball too often, it didn't stick inside for us and Dublin were launching counter-attacks. That was basically it, nothing more than that. Simple mistakes let us down.

"In the second half, Dublin came with a surge and got ahead. And we were chasing then. Our composure just left us a little bit. We kept plugging away, trying as hard as we could but just couldn't get there.

"We were in good positions and just gave away the ball a few times, so that's killing in All-Ireland finals."

The quiet disgust for Horan and Mayo today will be a sense that those words could have been applied to just about any one of their seven final defeats since 1951. Under pressure, little things can unravel. Under pressure, good players will make poor choices. Under pressure, old ghosts tend to make their voices heard.

Was it as simple as Dublin just having better forwards? Perhaps.

Horan, to be fair, did not disregard the notion. "Well they scored more than us, just," said the Mayo manager. "We had enough ball to win the game and maybe we didn't get the return that we could have. It's disappointing for us but, you know, we'll keep trying.

"Dublin won and deservedly so today. We, as we always do, will have to look at what went wrong and what we could do better. And it's fairly obvious I suppose from a game like that, but we'll look at it in the cold light of day and see where we are. As a unit we just didn't do enough to get the winning scores. We're just disappointed."

When it ended, he seemed lost in a trance, striding slowly out into the middle of the field without any apparent destination in mind. Jim Gavin followed, with what looked a bulging filofax in his hand. They exchanged a cursory handshake, then wheeled away into two different worlds.

And even with the billowing blue Mardi Gras now unfolding across the Hill, you could detect a faint thread of sadness wash over the stadium too. Mayo remain tethered to a distant past because no end of grief or hurt will ever get to settle this kind of battle.

In the end, the better team tends to win. Angels don't kick scores.

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