Future looks Blue after Dublin's marquee men deliver goods on day when Mayo attack was found wanting
Mayo will have regrets, writes Colm O'Rourke, but no score from play for 45 minutes says it all
Great occasion, wonderful atmosphere, poor match. That's about it with last Sunday's game.
Few matches in the recent past seemed to generate such interest; perhaps the long-suffering Mayo angle added to it. The beautiful weather added to the drama and the organisation by the GAA, which included the parachutist delivering the match ball, showed the amateurs have few equals.
Yet the game was full of 'unforced errors' as the great tennis commentator Dan Maskell used to call them. The quality of kicking and handpassing was way down on previous big matches involving these teams and there were times when marking was almost non-existent.
Last week I argued Mayo could win with good backs and lesser forwards but this match only served to highlight the fact that it is almost impossible to do such a thing in a final. Dublin had few good forwards either but the one I thought would be held, Bernard Brogan, did not manage much possession but turned most of it to gold.
I had assumed Tom Cunniffe would have marked Brogan and that he would have the speed and toughness to do so. As it turned out, the job fell to Ger Cafferkey and he did not do badly in terms of denying Brogan the ball but four touches was all he needed to win the game.
The first goal was the vital score. At that point Dublin were playing poorly, Mayo looked hungrier and there were scores coming, albeit mixed with plenty of misses. Then came Brogan, a high ball in, a slight outmanoeuvring of Cafferkey, a bit of hesitation by goalkeeper Robert Hennelly, and goal. Hennelly had a very good game but in a situation like that the goalkeeper is boss. He had to take everything with him, including his own man. He could have made his apologies to Cafferkey later but it would have saved a goal. It is funny how so many great players score easy goals – they look easy to the outside world but only a few can get them.
Even though Mayo responded to the goal with a few points, the pattern of the game had shifted by the latter part of the first half. The early Mayo dominance was over and Dublin were beginning to find holes in the Mayo defence and the early pressure on the Dublin kick-outs was beginning to evaporate.
It makes me believe that the most important player to Dublin and the footballer of the year is Stephen Cluxton. If you leave aside his speech, which was not very good, there are few holes in his play, notwithstanding the fact that Kerry put three past him. He scores, he stops and he finds his man with the kick-out. Apart from that, he does not do much.
The kick-outs became even better as the game went on, many angled to the Cusack Stand side which kept players running and removed the threat of aerial domination by Aidan O'Shea.
The kick-out strategy is not particularly hard to decipher but it demands hard running by a lot of outfield players to make it work. Some players like Paul Flynn make runs of over 50 metres to spaces left vacant by someone running in another direction. It is easy to see but hard to stop. The accuracy of the kicks are amazing. Any other 'keeper who wants to do similarly should practise, practise, practise and get about ten outfield players to run their guts out to make it work. All that was needed was one Mayo player failing to track his man and Cluxton would find a blue jersey, long or short.
If you gift Dublin easy possession then eventually they will make it pay. It seems to me now with the benefit of hindsight that the best way to counteract this ploy is for players to mark zones of the pitch on kick-outs rather than trying to chase men.
Mayo may lament that their early dominance was not translated into more scores but Dublin were a better team and could easily have run in another couple of goals. Even if Mayo got a draw there would be few backers in a replay. In attempting to salvage a draw, there has been much debate on Cillian O'Connor and the last free-kick. The second last should be considered as well.
O'Connor has a very elaborate routine for kicking frees but he was wasting his own time on frees where he should have run up quickly and tapped them over. I know of no referee who has ever told a player anything other than the time left; it is not his job to tell whether or not there will be another play after the kick-out. If O'Connor was playing for Dublin and was wasting as much time on a free at the end of the game, he would have been shown a yellow card for time-wasting. There is a big clock in Croke Park and it is up to the players to watch that. I know in my time if you were taking this much time on a free some of my colleagues would tell me to "kick the f*****g thing quick and stop looking at it." We live and learn.
In the warmth of victory Jim Gavin should have left the number of frees issue slide by. There are lies, damned lies and statistics and if the free count was 32 to Mayo and only 12 to Dublin, that in itself proved nothing. And Dublin showed that they are as good as the next with cynical fouls. No other team would do differently and managers in glasshouses should be careful about throwing stones.
Dublin can certainly look to the future with great confidence. Naturally, every team that wins an All-Ireland, especially in the way Dublin did, with flair and panache, puts the frighteners on everyone that they will dominate for a long time. Dublin have been doing that in Leinster anyway but with such a young team, a whole host of very good young players coming through and such athleticism running throughout a huge panel as distinct from a team, they are in a better position than most to win a few. More so than, say, Donegal last year because of the depth of squad, but the rock 'n' roll lifestyle can get in the way of these famous young men in a big city.
It is hard though to see James McCarthy, Cian O'Sullivan, Michael Darragh Macauley, Paul Flynn and Rory O'Carroll – who were all excellent again – being anything other than a brilliant, unselfish support cast next year.
Mayo are left with another quota of regrets but were not good enough when the game was there for winning in the last quarter. Not scoring a point from play for the last 45 minutes says it all really. In that last five minutes they did not throw caution to the wind; it is as well to lose by ten as one. Keith Higgins, who had a brilliant match, should have been moved up when Eoghan O'Gara was injured. O'Gara was lucky to survive anyway with some of his macho tackling.
Long-term, Mayo need forwards more than backs and should be looking at Higgins and Lee Keegan or somebody like him up front, while Colm Boyle deserves mention for bravery.
After a while Mayo will stop feeling sorry for themselves and must look at the positives – they are not far away. They need to reorganise their team but if they keep their noses clean they will be easily back in the quarter-final next year.
And while all others slog it out in the mud of January, the Dubs will get their just rewards, a luxury cruise, a week on the beach in some exotic location, another week hunting elephants, rhinos or bears. To the victors truly go the spoils.