Sunday 21 January 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Odds still favour men in blue but Mayo should be emboldened by last Sunday

Both sides have big dilemmas for replay but Dublin have more room for manoeuvre

Keith Higgins and Brian Fenton try to get to grips with each other during the drawn match. Photo: Sportsfile
Keith Higgins and Brian Fenton try to get to grips with each other during the drawn match. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

By half-time last Sunday I was beginning to wonder was there some supernatural reason why Mayo were being blighted by such outrageous bad fortune. Not a curse because I certainly do not believe in such a thing. Yet I cannot recall an own goal in a big game, let alone two.

And who did it have to happen to, yes, Mayo. Yet for all that, this game, from a Mayo point of view, was a triumph over adversity and should embolden them for next Saturday. It was also a victory for ferocious commitment and personal bravery as these traits as much as great skill dragged them back into the game.

Now if Mayo had got the early goals, led by five at half-time, lost that lead but were in front by three going into injury time and still only drew, they would be regarded as chokers. Not so in Dublin's case. It is all about perception.

What this game showed is that Dublin are better chasing down the opposition in the last quarter than sitting on a small lead. Too often last week they played cross-field and were dispossessed or ran into traffic jams. Their natural game is to pour forward at pace but once in the lead and the clock running down they decided to take no chances. It cost them as they started to think about protecting a lead while they are at their best when they allow instinct to take over and just go for it. The most natural thing for any team in front in the All-Ireland final is to shut up shop; if a side adopted a gung-ho approach and were caught for a slack goal they would be derided as being defensively naive. So the only way you win is to win. Then all tactics are right.

Everyone has their theory on how the replay will develop. Nobody knows, not Mayo, Dublin, the scribes, commentators or the man above. The first thing is to recover mentally from the drawn game. This takes a week and there is a need to relax and let body and mind heal before winding up again. Having a couple of weeks' break is only right and having the replay on a Saturday is a wise move too. It won't interfere with all the county finals around the country.

In 1988, Meath and Cork drew the All-Ireland final. The night of a drawn final is the ultimate anti-climax. The dinner on the night goes ahead as hundreds have bought tickets but players don't want to be there. Their minds have moved on and they want to get home, back to normal life and preparations for the next game. As it was, our replay was not for three weeks and the decision then has to be on how much training to do. In our case we had a few serious sessions and in the last training game which took place a week before the replay there were several injuries as teams rarely are the same on the second day. Players sniff opportunity and there were, shall I say, several incidents. In other words players clocked each other in chase of that starting place.

In this case 13 days is too short for any serious training, this week is all about rest and recuperation and from today on the batteries are plugged in for a complete recharge. By next Saturday the same manic effort will be there. More so from those who did not perform last week. On Dublin's side the number is as big as a hospital waiting list. At least five forwards to start with. Only Ciarán Kilkenny got on the ball but his style of slowing down the play and playing cross-field is neither natural to him or Dublin. Somebody should tell him, attack, attack, attack especially as he used to kick great points.

The Dubs are in a bit of a conundrum now. There must be a temptation to change. For me, Dublin looked far less fresh in their whole approach than Mayo. They have been on the road with a lot of the same players both winter and summer for many years. Four leagues has meant a lot of effort in spring and has been followed by four long summers of provincial and All-Ireland action. Add in Dublin club championship and players like Diarmuid Connolly and Michael Darragh Macauley who ended up in the club final on different St Patrick's Days. Their season is never-ending and they want a holiday more than a replay and form has suffered as a result. So the Dublin preparation for this match is much more difficult than Mayo's who just want more of the same, thank you.

The same teams will surely be announced but you can't believe half the lines that team managers peddle. If they went to confession on a Saturday they would keep a poor priest tied up till Sunday - on fibs alone. So there is more likely to be changes on the Dublin side and their subs from last week will be waiting expectantly and doing their best to impress this week. Mayo have less room for manoeuvre and need more from a few of their starting players.

Chief witness for the prosecution here is Aidan O'Shea who probably should have been taken off and could more easily have been sent off for a series of silly fouls. Things did not run for him but that is the test of a great player. Hold the head and do a few good things. His growing frustration was summed up by that wild kick but he has to do better on his positioning on Cluxton's kick-outs as well. A forward giving his man space on the Cluxton restart only invites trouble on his defence about 20 seconds later. And Mayo need someone different taking up Brian Fenton - he is getting away easily and some day will rip the net out of it. The two Dublin goals, though completely freakish, were from two well-constructed goal chances, something Mayo were not really able to conjure up. Apart from Cillian O'Connor, who manned up when needed most, Andy Moran, who was his usual honest self, and an early burst from Jason Doherty, there was a lack of cutting edge. Diarmuid O'Connor is either injured or down on his luck and confidence and does not appear to be covering his normal amount of ground. Kevin McLoughlin was quite effective in his covering role but must get forward more. The same applies to Keith Higgins and Lee Keegan who covered and defended superbly but their loss going forward is immense.

The Keegan/Connolly encounters are on the brink of an explosion so Keegan must be careful as referees have been lenient with him while Connolly continues to ride his luck too. The frustration of not playing well shows in his tackling which is often a bit wild but I did think that Conor Lane did a good job of refereeing a very difficult game - the black card to James McCarthy notwithstanding; he was a serious loss to Dublin. The ref did let them get on with it and there was some ferocious hitting, as tough and honest a game as you could hope to see. In such cases it would be churlish to criticise the standard which ranged from brilliant to poor.

Let them at it again and hope the ref does not get in the way this time either. The general view will be that Dublin will not be as bad again. Maybe, but there are only so many big games in any man or team and with some of them the mind may be willing but the flesh is weak. Mayo should hope for a monsoon where raw passion makes up for any and all deficits in technique and skill.

That is the same hope I had last week. Yet the odds still very much favour Dublin.

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