Saturday 21 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Champs' execution trumps Mayo's huge effort

Dublin's Philly McMahon celebrates with the Sam Maguire cup. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Dublin's Philly McMahon celebrates with the Sam Maguire cup. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Diarmuid Connolly scores from the spot for Dublin — a moment in the game which was a body-blow for Mayo from which they struggled to recover. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Dublin's Michael Fitzsimons skips past Mayo's Cillian O'Connor during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Dublin's Cormac Costello kicks a point for his side under pressure from Mayo's Kevin McLoughlin and Brendan Harrison, right. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Mayo's Seamus O'Shea of Mayo in action against Dublin's Cian O'Sullivan. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Mayo's Colm Boyle in action against Dublins Kevin McManamon during the match. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Dublin manager Jim Gavin enjoys the celebration. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

There's no such thing as a soft All-Ireland, but has there ever been one as hard-won as this? Two uniquely gruelling matches, over two-and-a-half hours of football - with elongated periods of injury-time further tasking tired limbs and minds - scarcely a moment when the players weren't breathing down each other's necks or when the teams didn't look evenly matched. It was exhausting for the spectators, never mind the players.

But after all the twists and turns, we ended up with something very familiar. When Dublin beat Mayo by a point in the 2013 decider, two years after prevailing over Kerry by the same margin, they became the first team to win two football finals by a point. This victory makes it a hat-trick.

In the last 55 years there have been just seven single-point finals. That three of those have come in the last five years and been won by Dublin can't be a coincidence. No team in history has been so adept at finding that little bit extra when things are in the balance. They have taken the Friday Night Lights mantra, 'clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose', from the realm of fiction to that of fact. Dublin are a remarkable combination of desire and composure.

Mayo matched them for the first quality but not for the second. The sheer weight of heartbreak accumulated at this stage means that every Mayo final defeat gets treated as a tragedy, but this one really does deserve that tag. No team has ever put so much into an All-Ireland football final and come away with nothing. To have come through two of the most physically draining finals ever played and go home again as losers must make the Mayo players feel that Sisyphus had a handy enough number in comparison.

Yet in sport you generally get what you deserve. The last five Championship matches between these two sides have seen two draws and two matches decided by just one point. When sides are that evenly matched, little things mean a lot. In the end, the 2016 final replay can be seen as hinging on the decisions of the two bosses, Jim Gavin and Steven Rochford.

It took a lot of courage for Jim Gavin to leave out Michael Darragh Macauley and Bernard Brogan, players for whom the term "he owes the county nothing" might have been designed. Yet Gavin obviously feels that as long as they're selected, players owe the county everything. So he dropped two of his biggest names before introducing them as the game entered the final quarter. The effect was almost instantaneous, Macauley finding Brogan for a point to put the Dubs two points clear yet again. For the final 20 minutes, Macauley rampaged up and down the field in the trademark style absent in the Championship games he'd started this year.

That was a good call. But in the 55th minute Gavin made a great one. Withdrawing Kevin McManamon - who was troubling Mayo with his direct running and seemed a good bet to prosper as the game opened up - seemed an odd decision. As did replacing him with Cormac Costello, who for all his talent had been a marginal figure this year. Within three minutes of his introduction, Costello had scored two points and, at the start of injury-time, he scored the point - set up by Macauley - which proved to be the winner.

Gavin was rewarded, not for the first time, for making a brave decision. Stephen Rochford, on the other hand, was savagely punished for making an unwise one. Opting to replace David Clarke, the best keeper in the game, with Rob Hennelly had the potential for disaster written all over it. How great would Hennelly's kickouts have to be to cancel out the advantage of having the much more reliable Clarke between the posts?

Not great enough, as it turned out. Just before the break a terrible Hennelly kickout was intercepted by Dean Rock, who put Diarmuid Connolly racing in on goal. Lee Keegan, who had kept Connolly under wraps for four-and-a-half games in a row up to this, was caught flat-footed, dragged the Vincents player down and got a black card. Mayo worried all week about some media conspiracy to get Keegan into trouble. It turned out Dublin didn't need a media conspiracy, they just needed Hennelly.

If the Keegan departure was a grave blow for Mayo, worse was to come in the 40th minute, when Hennelly muffed an entirely routine catch and then took down Paddy Andrews. Connolly slotted home the penalty and, from then on, Mayo were playing catch-up. Rochford's gamble had turned out to be the worst one since God played for the souls of the dead on the Spanish Train and failed to notice the devil sneaking another ace.

It may seem cruel that Dublin will now be regarded as one of the great teams and Mayo as the ultimate big-game losers. But who can argue with that verdict? Dublin have won too many close games for luck to have anything to do with it - Mayo have lost too many to make excuses.

Two moments in the final couple of minutes encapsulated the difference between them. After Cillian O'Connor had reduced the deficit to a single point with two-and-a-half minutes left, Ciaran Kilkenny raced down the field to give Stephen Cluxton a target from the kickout. Cluxton put previous kick-out calamities to the back of his mind and hit Kilkenny with the accuracy of Robin Hood splitting the arrow at the centre of the target. The youngster had shown the value of honest work-rate, the veteran the virtues of keeping the head while all around him Mayo men were losing theirs.

In the seventh minute of injury-time Maurice Deegan seemed to be granting Mayo one final shot at an equaliser. Tom Parsons got on the ball in the middle of the field. All day Parsons had been two things, colossally industrious and prone to run up blind alleys. He ran up one yet again, Dublin closed him down and knocked the ball away. The final whistle blew. There you had it in a nutshell, Mayo effort against Dublin execution. There might have been just one point between them - but there was only ever going to be one winner.

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