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Keegan's Indian sign on Connolly sums up Mayo's refusal to yield


Diarmuid Connolly and Lee Keegan engage in one of their many clashes during Sunday’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Diarmuid Connolly and Lee Keegan engage in one of their many clashes during Sunday’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Diarmuid Connolly and Lee Keegan engage in one of their many clashes during Sunday’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Cillian O'Connor left the field after Sunday's All-Ireland final the same way that he had entered it two hours earlier - in a hurry.

When referee Conor Lane brought play to a conclusion close in the 79th minute, O'Connor didn't stand on ceremony, bolting past Jonny Cooper, the closest Dublin player to him, and heading straight for the tunnel.

No pleasantries from the Mayo captain then. It was, as his manager Stephen Rochford observed, "only half-time."

There were a few handshakes exchanged but none, it seemed, pressed with any great warmth. It was only a slight thaw on how the afternoon had begun, with skirmishes as the sides crossed the field to sit for the team photograph after merging in the tunnel at much the same time.

Dublin had left their dressing-room up to five minutes beyond their appointed time, 2.56 according to the official match programme, but fewer than half of their players had cleared the covered area beneath the Hogan Stand when O'Connor appeared from the dressing-room closer to the Cusack Stand side.

Mayo were up to three minutes behind after being advised to wait until Dublin had gone out ahead of them. But being subservient to a Dublin team that was doing things on their own terms and not the schedule set out by the event controllers was never going to sit well with Mayo.

So they took matters into their own hands and broke for the field, O'Connor stopping briefly to look behind as he emerged. In his slipstream and very quickly then ahead of him was Aidan O'Shea, who drove straight ahead for the bench on the Cusack Stand side.

Denis Bastick, one of Dublin's tail-enders, shouldered into O'Shea, who met fire with fire. Michael Darragh Macauley and Keith Higgins also got involved.

In the nick of time the match officials were able to steer the stream of Mayo players away from the bench and down towards their own warm-up area.

Rochford played it down, insisting that the confluence of the teams had been "coincidental". But refusing to set their clock by Dublin's time was a statement in itself and a theme they carried into the game.

These teams don't particularly like each other. That much has been evident in the vast majority of games played between them since Mayo's resurgence under James Horan.

Their 2013 All-Ireland final was one of the most attritional in recent memory. Dublin, especially, took quite a battering that day. Rory O'Caroll sustained concussion, Macauley had a suspected broken bone in his foot, Cooper's eye had already swelled and blackened with the impact of another shuddering collision, Paul Flynn was so exhausted that he apologised for the sound quality of the interview he delivered.

"The hardest game I have played," reflected Flynn. "There's not enough crutches in here for some of the lads. Head injuries, stitches, I have never seen anything like it. That's a credit to Mayo."

By the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final which ended level, the terms of physical engagement had been altered.

O'Connor caught O'Carroll early, forcing Dublin's full-back off with a facial injury, but Dublin aggression and indiscipline ramped up after that with Cooper fortunate to escape with a yellow card for a tackle on Diarmuid O'Connor and Cian O'Sullivan yellow-carded when black was the more appropriate sanction for his challenge on Cillian O'Connor.

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There were flashpoints everywhere: O'Shea claimed that he had been headbutted, while Lee Keegan's successful enticement of a reaction from Diarmuid Connolly yielded a late red card for the Dublin forward which was overturned by a majority Disputes Resolution Authority decision on the morning of the replay.

When they met last February neither side was still prepared to take a step back, with Philly McMahon and Cooper picking up black cards and John Small and Colm Boyle sent off on double-yellows.

Mayo lost that match by two points but it was the spring performance they would have taken most out of as it once again underlined the physical ability to match and even at times surpass this Dublin team, something Kerry have consistently fallen short on.

Nothing underpins that more than the ongoing duel between Keegan and Connolly. It's quite a statistic that, in their three previous meetings (2013 All-Ireland final and both 2015 semi-finals) when these two went head-to-head, Keegan had outscored Connolly by 0-4 to 0-2.

Connolly clawed a point back on Sunday, courtesy of a misplaced David Clarke kick-out, and while Keegan's attacking forays were restricted by a much more vigilant Connolly, that can hardly be deemed a success for arguably the game's most talented forward.

"That match-up is hurting Dublin. Even on a bad day, you're expecting Connolly to score a few points, and when it really matters, but he's not able to score freely like before. Part of that is down to the man-marking Keegan is doing," said former Dublin full-back Paddy Christie.

It's a delicate balancing act for Mayo to deploy Keegan in such a role but his strength and pace make him the perfect shadow for a player of Connolly's threat.

There's also his confrontational style and sharp focus on battle. Keegan can aggravate with a degree of stealth and Connolly finds that impossible to ignore, resulting in their yellow carding as the his shirt was ripped for the second time in three championship meetings between them. Dublin had a replacement shirt ready and waiting, as if they had been expecting it.

Mayo brought war in every aspect last Sunday. Their refusal to bend to the altered pre-match protocol put them in the right frame of mind. But the single-mindedness of their No 5, one of the great exponents of attacking play from half-back in the modern age, underpins their attitude to an even greater extent.

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