Saturday 18 August 2018

Colm Keys: Even these Mayo players have a limit to what can be endured

Rochford reflects on how cruel sport can be as Mayo deliver their best final effort yet

A dejected Lee Keegan all alone with his thoughts. Photo: Sportsfile
A dejected Lee Keegan all alone with his thoughts. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

As Cillian O'Connor stood over a free from much the same territory, but a harder angle, as the chance he had to force extra-time in last year's All-Ireland final replay, the stadium announcer called six minutes of added time to an absorbing second half.

The timing couldn't have been worse, resonating like a shot through the hearts of every Mayo man, woman and child in the place.

A dejected Aidan O'Shea, right, and his brother Séamus of Mayo. Photo: Sportsfile
A dejected Aidan O'Shea, right, and his brother Séamus of Mayo. Photo: Sportsfile

At the end of a championship campaign that had already stretched 740 minutes, with at least another 70 to 80 added minutes thrown in on top of that, they needed it to go on only a moment longer. Instead they were treated to what felt, in that moment, like another game.

They had brought Dublin this far. They had taken them to the brink. They had asked every searching question possible of them.

But with tiring limbs and just about every ounce emptied, "six minutes" was the last thing they needed to hear.

Did it have an impact on O'Connor as he stood over it? He hit a post, Dublin gathered the rebound and the energy the champions got from the let-off sustained them for whatever time was left on the clock. From then on, it was on their terms.

Dean Rock keeps his concentration to kick the winning point despite an object (circled) being thrown in his direction. Photo: Sportsfile
Dean Rock keeps his concentration to kick the winning point despite an object (circled) being thrown in his direction. Photo: Sportsfile

It was another critical moment in a long list that has been crucial to the heartbreak suffered by this particular Mayo team for the last six years now. They don't need to be recounted here.

They didn't launch another attack of any real significance after that as they hung on for dear life, worn out by the monumental effort of the previous 70 minutes.

When Dean Rock stepped up to land his winner five minutes later after Diarmuid Connolly was taken down, that sense of deja vu was all too palpable. You just knew there would be no late twist in the tale.

Referee Joe McQuillan let it run on for as long as he could, cushioned by the length of the delay involved in deciding how many black cards he should issue to those Dublin players who, almost in sync, cynically dragged down their direct opponents as David Clarke was restarting.

Offences

In the end, Ciaran Kilkenny went, reducing the champions to 13 men. But it could have been 12 or even 11 given the nature of the other offences. That detail will scarcely matter to Dublin, nor did it appear to perplex Stephen Rochford afterwards.

By then, Mayo had run out of road. They had no more to give. Even with 13, Dublin were able to keep them at arm's length. Those additional minutes were just a bridge too far for them.

The emotion of the dressing room Rochford had come from was visible in his face and audible in his voice.

Rochford has developed a measured tone to deal with victory and defeat over the last two seasons but, here, he just couldn't conceal it. And he couldn't be expected to.

How do you reconcile with a defeat like that within minutes of its conclusion, having had much the same experience almost 12 months earlier? How do you conceivably rationalise the emptiness at the end of a 19-match run over two seasons that has brought nothing tangible, only memories?

To put it in context, Kerry won three All-Ireland titles (albeit with no back door) playing 11 matches between 1979 and 81.

Mayo left Croke Park once more with the cold comfort of another big performance that will feel more like a cold chill today. They have long since dispensed with the warmth of moral victories.

The margin of those contrasting frees was something Rochford reflected on.

"We rattled the post with a free in injury-time and Dean Rock, not to take away from the enormity of the kick, had one from a slightly easier margin and he nails it. That's the margin. Sport can be cruel sometimes," he sighed.

Except in Mayo's case, it seems it's cruel all the time.

If Rochford is to pick Mayo up and go again, he'll have to pick himself up first.

Fatigue, he felt, wasn't why they had left it behind again.

"We played over 80 minutes and were chasing down Dublin who were masters at possession. I certainly don't believe it was tiredness.

"At certain times we weren't able to build the margin we would have liked. But it was nothing in relation to fitness or mental fatigue.

"You lose consecutive All-Ireland finals by a point and you just tap your cap to Dublin. Today is about them. In fairness, a phenomenal achievement to win three-in-a-row."

Nor did he feel a more shallow bench had cost them. Dublin brought in Kevin McManamon and Diarmuid Connolly to firefight at the break, but Stephen Coen and Conor Loftus couldn't influence it in the same way.

To look for valour in defeat, it's impossible to look beyond Chris Barrett who gave one of the great exhibitions of tackling in an All-Ireland final of recent memory.

He set the tone in the 30th minute when he stripped possession away from a bewildered Paddy Andrews.

Such close and personal attention wasn't something any Dublin player had been acclimatised to all summer and, clearly, the lack of real contests was an issue for them.

And as the second half wore in, it was like shooting fish in a barrel for him. Every time a blue shirt showed too much of the ball, he swooped to clean them out - Dean Rock, Con O'Callaghan, Rock again all thieved by the Belmullet man once he locked on. He was their Horatio at the Bridge.

Kevin McLoughlin was magnificent too, running himself to a standstill after scoring two points and directly assisting for four more. But those numbers alone could never fully portray what he did or how he worked.

Aidan O'Shea cast aside any suggestion he couldn't deliver against this Dublin team with a storming effort, much of which was at the core of Mayo's success in taking down eight of Stephen Cluxton's 14 first-half kickouts.

Lee Keegan multi-tasked superbly, man-marking Kilkenny but stepping off him for that reviving 53rd minute goal that put them one point ahead again.

By common consensus, Andy Moran was never going to easily enhance his spectacular summer that had already mined 3-21 from nine defences. Not in the company of Cooper, McMahon and Fitzsimons.

But by the break, he had picked off three points and laid off perfectly for Keegan's goal before what looked like a nagging hamstring forced him off.

A place on the shortlist for Footballer of the Year will be scant reward for the 33-year-old who has now failed to win in each of his seven All-Ireland final appearances, dating back to 2004 - a fate unused substitute Alan Dillon has now also experienced.

They'll look back on the first half more than the second with greater regret, missed opportunities from O'Connor and Patrick Durcan, on top of some dubious refereeing calls, denying them at least a five-point interval lead.

It was left to Durcan to sound the only possible nod to the future.

"You have disappointment for a bit, but you have to move on too. Life goes on and it will go on.

"We were in the same place last year and I suppose it's a similar situation this year. But the lads certainly won't quit in the ambition we have. It will hurt for a while, but we'll get the heads down and come back again."

As much as they have won the admiration of everyone for their perseverance over the last six years, everyone has a limit.

Irish Independent

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