Twelve of 15 goals conceded in their last eight All-Ireland finals scored during first half
As salvage acts go, there has arguably been none as swift as that produced by Mayo in the early minutes of last year’s All-Ireland football final. Within 13 seconds of the throw-in Dublin’s James McCarthy and Niall Scully had combined to put in Dean Rock to punch home the quickest ever goal in a final.
But within two-and-a-half minutes, the value of that score, at least on the scoreboard, had been wiped out with a quick barrage of points.
Oisín Mullin had a hand in each of them, scoring the first and winning the two subsequent kick-outs above Con O’Callaghan to link with Ryan O’Donoghue and set up scores from a free and play for Cillian O’Connor to level.
Obviously, it didn’t have the overall impact to turn the game their way but that it was two of their dynamic rookies, playing in their first All-Ireland final, who had led the rescue act to avert deeper trouble that such an early psychological blow as Rock’s goal could have brought, was surely validation for a bright future.
For Mayo, though, such early rescue acts have become all too common – and something they’ve had to become accustomed to in All-Ireland finals.
They’ve been able to guard against it in most other big matches but in All-Ireland finals early goals have left them scrambling. In the eight All-Ireland finals they have contested this century, losing seven and drawing one, they have conceded 15 goals – of which a staggering 80 per cent, 12, have come in the first half.
Drill down deeper and eight of those 12 have come within the first 16 minutes of those finals, exposing a vulnerability that they will be anxious to avoid this time, even if the negative impact hasn’t always manifested as it could.
Naturally, it hasn’t been the same players on the field over that 17-year span, going back to 2004. But it’s a recurring theme that All-Ireland final opponents have sought the oxygen of early goals against Mayo in an effort to create chaos and instability – and compound their ever-growing frustration on these big days.
To Mayo’s credit, it hasn’t always worked and the response has generally been good. When Con O’Callaghan ripped through their defence and sliced a shot past David Clarke just 83 seconds into the 2017 final, it felt like it might be a long day for them.
Yet by the 12th minute they were level and in the 19th minute they were ahead, preserving that lead through half-time, when they led by 0-9 to 1-5.
Even the two own goals from Kevin McLoughlin and Colm Boyle in that bizarre 2016 final didn’t dent them as they might have. The goal off McLoughlin came after just nine minutes, Boyle’s on 22 minutes and were Dublin’s first two scores – one of the strangest openings to any All-Ireland final.
Yet despite those setbacks, that left them trailing by five points at the break, they found a way back to level.
How significant is it that the two most recent All-Ireland semi-finals they have beaten Dublin in, 2012 and 2021, have been the only two games in the 10 championship games the counties have met in over the last decade that Mayo haven’t conceded a goal.
Few could have expected Donegal, in 2012, to be as direct as early as they were, when Karl Lacey stepped inside Séamus O’Shea and fired a diagonal ball across to Michael Murphy, who got the step off Kevin Keane to turn and plant a rasping shot past David Clarke, just two minutes and 25 seconds in.
When they followed up with a second goal over eight minutes later, this time Colm McFadden showing the opportunism to collect the rebound from Patrick McBrearty’s shot off an upright, it brought memories back of Mayo’s All-Ireland final experience against Kerry when they shipped two goals within nine minutes as Kieran Donaghy wrought havoc.
Targeting the Mayo defence in this way was something Donegal had planned. Manager Jim McGuinness acknowledged later that very move, involving Lacey coming off the right wing, had been practised countless times at a weekend camp undertaken in Johnstown House in Enfield during the build-up.
Similarly, in 2004, the Kerry manager Jack O’Connor had targeted perceived aerial weaknesses in the Mayo full-back line. O’Connor and his management reckoned that as a running team, Mayo defenders were more suspect beneath a dropping ball and recalled Johnny Crowley for Mike Frank Russell with that in mind.
They also sought to isolate Colm Cooper and seek to exploit his underestimated catching ability, too –– and it paid dividends with a 25th-minute goal.
Yet that was one of the two All-Ireland finals where Mayo scored the first goal, with Alan Dillon rounding Diarmuid Murphy in the fourth minute to give them a great start that they ultimately couldn’t build on.
Lee Keegan’s strike against Dublin in the first half of the 2016 replay kept them well in touch that day.
The hardest concession was undoubtedly in 2006, when Declan O’Sullivan and Donaghy hit them before Cooper added a third. But, remarkably, Mayo had pulled all three goals back by half-time when they trailed by six points – 3-8 to 3-2 – having been 12 points down at one stage.
You can argue that the early goals have not eaten away at them, like they could have. And the responses provided, when their backs have been pinned to the wall so early on, have been a measure of character. But you wonder what the toll of having to commit to such rescue acts takes out of them, the longer a game progresses.
An All-Ireland final shutout, which they haven’t had since 1997, feels like an absolute imperative this time.