Monday 22 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: This Dublin side are no better than Tyrone and Kerry teams of the noughties

‘Jim Gavin will pray for a better day and Stephen Rochford for an even worse one’. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
‘Jim Gavin will pray for a better day and Stephen Rochford for an even worse one’. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Bob Geldof's autobiography Is That It? is named after the words directed at him by a fan at the end of the Live Aid concert in 1985. In the circumstances Bob found the question to be a slightly ungrateful one.

After one of the most physically demanding All-Ireland football finals ever played, it seems just as ungrateful to put the same question to the players of Dublin and Mayo. But there's no getting round it. There is, unless you're a cash-conscious GAA official, something profoundly unsatisfying about draws. Like the final episode of The Sopranos, or for an earlier generation The Prisoner, they leave you wondering what exactly it all meant.

The truth is that the meaning of last Sunday's game will remain mysterious until the sequel concludes round about half-six next Saturday evening. Should Dublin win, the draw will be exhibited as proof of their ability to hang in there even while playing badly. If Mayo prevail, their injury-time comeback will be held up as a crucial historical turning point in the county's fortunes. Right now, either interpretation seems equally valid.

Draws are the forgotten All-Ireland finals. That equalising point by Cillian O'Connor which, given the work he had to do to make the opening, the pressure he was under and the near certainty that this was Mayo's last chance, is surely one of the great final scores, will be rendered utterly meaningless if his side loses next time out. Should they win, however, it will be granted immortality in the same way as Dómhnall O'Donovan's last-gasp Hail Mary effort for Clare against Cork in 2013 has been.

There are, however, a couple of conclusions we can take from the drawn match which should hold good no matter what happens in the replay. The idea that Mayo are quitters and lack guts which was bruited once more last week didn't make much sense then. It makes even less sense now. Any side which can both rebound from the calamity of scoring two own goals and by sheer force of will come back from a three-point deficit in the closing stages of an All-Ireland final can't be accused of lacking character. Mayo's problems such as they are lie in the ability rather than the heart department.

Sunday's match should surely also have put an end to the idea that there is an inevitability about Dublin's All-Ireland final victories. I mentioned last week that the current Dubs side are the only team in history to win two deciders by a point, But for O'Connor they would have made it three. The true worth of Dublin lies in their ability to eke out victories in tight games rather than in the eye-catching massacres of the early season.

The draw should also still some of the wilder claims being made on Dublin's behalf. I was amused to read last week that should they beat Mayo Jim Gavin's side would take their place among 'Ireland's greatest ever sports teams'. This struck me as going it a bit. Dublin are very good indeed but no better than, for example, the Tyrone and Kerry teams of the noughties. Were those teams to contest six championships, I fancy they'd split them equally three ways. Mayo showed that Dublin are not unbeatable. Had Aidan O'Shea played even moderately well they would now be All-Ireland champions.

This may sound harsh but when you are a big name big things are expected from you and this makes it three All-Ireland finals where the Breaffy man has underperformed to such a woeful degree you're inclined to wonder if his reputation may to a certain extent be based on what we think he might do rather than what he has done.

The All-Ireland final is, ultimately, where greatness is proved. Though O'Shea may take consolation from the fact that going into the 2000 All-Ireland final, his sixth, DJ Carey was still being accused of not doing it for Kilkenny on the biggest day of all. Redemption is always only 70 minutes away.

Diarmuid Connolly, in many ways O'Shea's counterpart on the Dublin team, has now played four finals and he hasn't played well in any of those either. Though in his case there were extenuating circumstances last Sunday, the contest between himself and Lee Keegan having become a kind of a farcical game within a game.

Surely all this bad feeling can't be let go to waste when the season ends. An enterprising producer could pitch a reality TV series where the two lads share a house for a month. Or perhaps they could be the inspiration for a buddy cop show, Leroy and Dermo, where they learn to appreciate each other's quirks and a grudging respect grows between them as they patrol the mean streets. Sadly, a red card for one or both of them seems more likely to be the next act in this grisly saga. Despite the protestations of their partisans on either side, there's a pair of them in it.

O'Shea and Connolly could take a leaf out of the book of the players who rose to the occasion last week to an extent that may have surprised even themselves. John Small, whose form had been patchy enough up to this, had the game of his life. His individual point which put Dublin ahead with five minutes left was almost as magnificent an example of a player taking responsibility on himself when the team really needed it as O'Connor's equaliser. Patrick Durcan was hardly mentioned in the pre-match previews but was absolutely inspirational as Mayo cut back the five-point half-time deficit.

Most heartening of all was the renaissance of Donal Vaughan. Three years ago the Ballinrobe man was one of the best footballers in the country but since then injuries and an apparent uncertainty about where exactly to play him have seen him suffer a precipitous decline. He was back to his best last Sunday and should have won the Man of the Match award.

Dublin's problems stemmed largely from the fact that the decline in form of their former Footballers of the Year Michael Darragh Macauley and Bernard Brogan, as well as Paul Flynn, wasn't arrested last Sunday. In their absence new leaders have emerged and Jonny Cooper, Brian Fenton and Cian O'Sullivan were once more superb. Yet they needed more from their most experienced players. In the absence of that, James McCarthy's unlucky black card was a grave blow not least because it sent Ciarán Kilkenny into the half-back line. A few late forays saw Kilkenny's performance being somewhat over-praised. In reality, he seemed to miss the half-forward line as much as the half-forward line missed him.

To concede one own goal in an All-Ireland final may be accounted unfortunate, to concede two smacks of carelessness. Dwelling on the unluckiness of Colm Boyle and Kevin McLoughlin shouldn't obscure the fact that both goals came from Dublin cutting open the Mayo defence. McLoughlin's horror moment came seconds after a superb David Clarke save had denied Brian Fenton a goal; had Boyle not intervened Dean Rock would have probably put the ball in the net anyway.

You could even argue that the first OG merely showed the danger of keeping too many men around your own goal. Given the firepower Dublin had displayed against Kerry, it was understandable that Mayo were cautious, deploying a sweeper and man-markers. Yet their best football came when they got McLoughlin forward and threw caution to the wind early in the second half. Five points in the first ten minutes put them level, at which point they seemed to go back into their shell. But once they were apparently dead and buried in the closing stages, the shackles were loosed and the new freedom paid dividends once more.

The courage of the Mayo players cannot be faulted. But if the 65 years of hurt are to end they'll need to be slightly braver from a tactical point of view. Playing Aidan O'Shea at midfield seems to be a no-brainer. Not only will he have more chance to get involved there, his team-mates won't have the temptation to lash high ball into him, a tactic which proved unspectacularly unsuccessful at a time when Dublin's corner-backs looked to be in trouble every time good low ball arrived to Andy Moran and Cillian O'Connor.

The younger O'Connor, Diarmuid, struggled to an extent that you wonder if he's just the latest young prodigy to fade after a brilliant first season. The Americans call it the sophomore slump. It happens. Philly McMahon and Colm Boyle, so often the beating hearts of their teams, seemed oddly out of sorts too. The replay can't come quick enough for them or for Kevin McManamon, though his nightmare was largely due to the conditions being the worst possible for a player whose game is based on soloing the ball at high speed.

Recent All-Ireland final replay history, the 2011, 2012 and 2013 hurling finals, the 1990 and 2000 football equivalents, suggest that given a second chance the original favourites come through. Jim Gavin will pray for a better day and Stephen Rochford for an even worse one. And in six days everything we thought we knew about the drawn game will have to be seen in the light of the replay.

For now the screen has gone black, Don't Stop Believing is playing and no-one knows what happens next.

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