Tuesday 23 January 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Exceptional bunch of players doing exceptional things

'Lee Keegan does not get any sportsmanship award after throwing his GPS at Dean Rock but I could think of plenty of players who would throw a cement block at Rock if it meant putting him off in the same circumstances.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Lee Keegan does not get any sportsmanship award after throwing his GPS at Dean Rock but I could think of plenty of players who would throw a cement block at Rock if it meant putting him off in the same circumstances.' Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

There were so many talking points last Sunday, yet after the last whistle it was all chaff in the wind. Within minutes, as always, it was a bit like the Eric Cantona ad, "losers go home". And the trudge home for Mayo supporters was more painful than ever. They resembled the French army in Napoleon's retreat from Russia. A long, slow, silent retreat. Every train, plane, bus and car bore testimony to the vast emptiness of defeat.

In fact, the atmosphere after the game itself was rather muted. Dublin celebrated in Croke Park but they left quietly too. Those supporters remembered their Latin from school: De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Don't speak ill of the dead or at the very least don't rub their noses in it.

Mayo have never played as well in a final before and left with nothing. They did almost everything right except win. Dublin have played a lot better, but it is not a coincidence that they have won so many close games in Croke Park over the last five years. They have developed good habits in the finishing stretch and they keep doing the right things. Panic is not an option. So they stick to Jim Gavin's 'process' and because of the quality of players and their inner belief, it works.

The only recent game they have lost by a point was the league final against Kerry, an experience that was filed away under 'not to be repeated'.

The All-Ireland final was a wonderful contest from start to finish, even if it followed a predictable script. Mayo, all heart and bravery, tore into Dublin after the calamitous start of the early goal and were much the better team in the first half. Their one-point lead at the break did not reflect the general play.

Then the tide turned as the reinforcements from the Dublin bench helped stem the onslaught and the score in the vital part of the match reflected that. The Dubs outscored Mayo by four points to one in the last 15 minutes as at least three Dublin substitutes made an impact. The Mayo subs by comparison made no impression and it is quite a tribute to the brilliance of their starting team that they hung in for so long.

In that first half, Dublin had trouble cranking up the engine. Maybe that was down to the easy march to the final but they were second best in nearly all the duels. The most obvious area where this was reflected was the kick-outs. Stephen Cluxton was pressurised into kicking long, with Mayo winning most of them. The play kept rolling towards the Canal End and there were lots of great points, but easy misses too.

The Cluxton kick-out is now dissected and discussed like the homeless crisis and I find it laughable that when he kicks long and it is lost in midfield it is now interpreted as a reflection on Cluxton. The real finger should have been pointed at the Dublin players around midfield. Their job is to win hard ball and they were not doing it in that first half. Cluxton has mollycoddled his outfield players to the extent that they never have to fight hard for dirty ball off a kick-out and they did not adapt well to the changed environment.

I am not privy to the Mayo tactics but I wonder why there was such a turnaround in the second half. Were the tactics changed? Why did Mayo not win a single Dublin kick-out after half-time? They were getting such joy from their first-half tactics that it should have emboldened them further in the second half. Or was it just mental and physical tiredness? Whatever it was it changed the course of the game.

Dublin were able to run the ball from defence and Mayo struggled to cope. Diarmuid Connolly added a bit of pace and bite, so did Kevin McManamon. Connolly did not look a happy camper in the warm-up and his display of the body beautiful was at variance with the low-key approach which is the hallmark of the Gavin regime. So anyone who thinks Jim Gavin has an easy job keeping all the big players happy should wake up and smell the roses. Winning covers a multitude and putting on Eoghan O'Gara before Connolly was a mistake which could have been costly. In the end, Gavin turned to three of the old hands to steer the ship home. Bernard Brogan took a lot of minding when he came on.

So while Mayo have the usual quota of regrets, it should not cloud the fact that Dublin are a brilliant team who have great heart and resilience to back up their speed and skill. Plenty went wrong for them on the day, not least the injury to Jack McCaffrey. He was a huge loss. Ciarán Kilkenny was completely out of the game thanks to Lee Keegan and Brian Fenton was quieter than ever before. Philly McMahon was also anonymous and never got forward, and they still won.

There were other horses to pull the load: Dean Rock was brilliant, so too Cian O'Sullivan and Paul Mannion in the second half, while James McCarthy just gets better. He has maintained an amazing level of form over winter and summer for the last five years.

Dublin's travails were down to individual and team brilliance by Mayo. Chris Barrett had an exceptional game but he will have left with regrets too after giving away the last free. Andy Moran was again a great leader, Tom Parsons and Seamus O'Shea got more than their share of ball, Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle and Keith Higgins could not be faulted.

The performance of Aidan O'Shea was a matter of debate. For me, he worked very hard and did a lot of good things. It is not his fault that he is not an athlete in the James McCarthy or Cian O'Sullivan mould. He ran himself to a standstill for the Mayo cause and has had a great year. O'Shea's only silly thing was going for glory with a wild shot off the outside of his foot straight after Keegan scored their goal. It was a time to work the ball around into a better position.

What Mayo needed was a more easily understood substitution policy. Obviously Higgins had to go off and there was some indication of an injury to Andy Moran. Yet he would have been better off on the field for the last ten minutes and so too would Seamus O'Shea and Kevin McLoughlin.

Presumably, it was also discussed that Aidan O'Shea would not last out the field for 70-plus minutes and I thought there was a need to put him in at full-forward for rest periods. Cillian O'Connor won't remember this game with any fondness and his late miss was costly. It was a difficult free and the Mayo forwards were all marked absent when the ball came off the post. All good forwards watch for a rebound, but Mayo were asleep.

Like all finals, there were various turning points. Naturally, Donal Vaughan's rashness will be debated over many long nights. If he kept his powder dry Dublin would have had to play with 14 men for half an hour. It would be a tough ask but they would have stuck to the task and they could manage very well with 14 as they had the legs to cover the extra ground. Mayo certainly were very harshly penalised for a free just before half-time when they should have gone in two up, but overall I thought Joe McQuillan handled the game as well as any half-sane man can when dealing with 30 raging bulls.

Lee Keegan does not get any sportsmanship award after throwing his GPS at Dean Rock but I could think of plenty of players who would throw a cement block at Rock if it meant putting him off in the same circumstances. Rock just kicked it over the black spot anyway. The kick-out after the winning point will haunt David Clarke. Dublin could have had three black cards in the aftermath but Clarke went for the most dangerous kick of the day and Mayo never got the ball back. Another difference between the teams.

So the day belonged to Dublin for no other reason than they are the best team and have the best panel. They play lovely football and people will still go to see them play because of their style even with all their dominance. Like half the world, I was hoping for a Mayo win, but Dublin in full flow are a thing of beauty and when they need to get down into the trenches they can do that too.

The Dublin players are unusual. Either they have few personalities or they never let their guard down. What is very obvious though is that most of them are ordinary players doing extraordinary things but who want to fade away into the night without fanfare and go about their daily lives. Their greatness is based on that. They never get ahead of themselves.

When Arkle beat Mill House in the 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup, the commentator Peter O'Sullevan said as he came up to the line, "this is the best we have seen for a long time". If he was around now he could say the same about Dublin except he could add in a "long, long time". And they could get even better as their hunger is unlikely to be sated by three in a row. This is a quite exceptional bunch of players.

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