Martin Breheny: 'No rivalry this decade has been as intense or as enthralling as Dublin and Mayo'
All-Ireland SFC semi-final, Dublin v Mayo, Croke Park, today, 5pm, Live on RTÉ & SKY
It's difficult to visualise in these heady days for Dublin football, but there was a time not so long ago when their manager admitted to being seriously concerned about the direction his team were headed after a game with Mayo.
"We are in a very bad place now in terms of the group. Our application just wasn't anywhere near what it should be. It's as simple as that. Last year and the year before, we brought great intensity to everything we did.
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"We had great discipline. That has deserted us for most of this year. We have to sit down and look at the situation or we will have a very short year," said Pat Gilroy, just before the Dublin team coach pulled out of MacHale Park, Castlebar on a chilly March night in 2012.
Gilroy, always a straight-talker, had watched his team get filleted by Mayo (0-20 to 0-8) in an Allianz League game and had every reason to be concerned over Dublin's prospects of retaining the All-Ireland title.
His fears were well-founded. Dublin retained the Leinster title and reached the All-Ireland semi-final, but that's where the two-in-a-row dream ended.
The executioners were Mayo, who produced an exceptional performance which had them 10 points ahead at the three-quarters stage. Dublin rallied, eventually cutting the deficit to three points.
Indeed, were it not for a superb save by David Clarke from Bernard Brogan, Dublin might have squeezed a draw.
"It was torture near the end, but these lads have great character. That will always stand to a team," said James Horan, who was then in his second year as Mayo manager.
A few days later, Gilroy resigned as Dublin boss and a few weeks later, Mayo lost the final to Donegal. At the end of the year, Mayo were ranked ahead of Dublin, who were under new management.
Jim Gavin was now in charge and a whole new era was about to unfold, with Dublin v Mayo one of the more fascinating ingredients.
No rivalry this decade has been as intense or as enthralling, encompassing every emotion in a battle for supremacy that has seen them meet 14 times in league and championship since the start of 2013.
It's 11-0 for wins in Dublin's favour with three draws, a quite extraordinary sequence given Mayo's prior record in the duel.
Behind the bare facts lies a tale of close calls, controversies, conspiracies and cock-ups. The results sequence is so frustrating for Mayo that they might indeed be forgiven for thinking that 'the curse' actually applies.
Six championship games, four Dublin wins (three by a point) and two draws. Even the one game (2015 All-Ireland semi-final replay) where Dublin finished seven points ahead misrepresents the actual contest.
Mayo led by four points well into the third quarter and appeared primed to drive on, only to lose momentum rapidly once Dublin scored the first of three goals.
It was all in such marked contrast to the drawn game when Mayo's defiance wore down Dublin in the final 10 minutes. Seven points behind just past the hour mark, Mayo scored 1-4 from there on, while holding Dublin scoreless.
It was Mayo at the their best, physically and mentally, driving forward with renewed confidence and finding gaps in a Dublin defence which had stood strong up to then. It's the sort of memory Horan's men will try to harness this evening, especially if they fall behind.
The three one-point wins by Dublin in the 2013, 2016 and 2017 finals were all heart-breaking for Mayo in different ways. In 2013, they dominated the first half, but failed to make the most of their chances and led by a single point at half-time. The wastefulness came back to haunt them in the second half when Dublin were much more efficient with their opportunities.
"We had enough ball to win the game. We just made too many mistakes, too many turnovers. You don't get away with it in a game like this," said Horan.
By the time they next played Dublin in the All-Ireland final, in 2016, Stephen Rochford was in charge and while it took Dublin two attempts to see Mayo off, they eventually got there.
The drawn game provided more evidence of the gods' sneering attitude towards Mayo, who conceded two own goals in the first half, something never previously seen in an All-Ireland final.
It would have demoralised many other teams, but not Mayo. They recovered and were only three points adrift after 68 minutes. With seven minutes of stoppage time, they had enough opportunities to save the day, which they duly did.
They should have held the psychological edge in the replay, but instead it was back to unfortunate business as usual and another one-point defeat.
"We don't feel unlucky. You make your own luck. Dublin have got to a few finals and won all of them. They're able to make their own luck," said Rochford.
It was the same a year later when they again lost by a point, a win which Jim Gavin attributed to his team's ability to work through difficult situations.
"Composure has been the hallmark of this team," he said. It still is.
You would never hear Gavin saying it nowadays, but he didn't hold back on his views about Joe McQuillan's refereeing performances after the 2013 All-Ireland final.
It's most unusual for winning managers to complain about the referee, but he showed no such reticence after the one-point victory.
"Not only were we playing Mayo, we were playing the referee as well," he announced to a surprised media.
Gavin's irritation arose from the free count, which ran 32-12 in Mayo's favour.
"That's just beyond me. I really can't understand that," he said.
Horan had his own issues with McQuillan, claiming that he should have played at least another 30 seconds at the end. Cillian O'Connor opted to point a free deep in stoppage time in the belief that the game would not end with the kick-out.
"Cillian had a free and the ref tells him there are 30 seconds left and then he blows from the kick-out. I can't understand that," said Horan.
Controversy erupted too after both the draw and replay in 2015. After the drawn game, Aidan O'Shea calmly informed the media that he had been headbutted after one clash.
"There were plenty more things out there that the referee (McQuillan) missed too," he said.
McQuillan dismissed Diarmuid Connolly on a straight red card in stoppage time, sparking a week of frantic work by Dublin as they sought to have it overturned.
It eventually reached the Disputes Resolution Authority where, after a seven-hour meeting on the night before the replay, he was cleared to play on a split decision. Given what he had been through, it was a surprise that he was chosen to start, a call that backfired as he made no impact before being replaced late on.
David Clarke was a man-of-the-match contender in the drawn final in 2016, yet found himself on the bench for the replay. He was replaced by Robert Hennelly, who had been dropped after Mayo's defeat by Galway in the Connacht semi-final.
It turned out to be a disastrous decision. Hennelly messed up an easy catch in the 41st minute and then fouled Paddy Andrews as he was about to score a goal. He was black-carded and Clarke's first task was to face a penalty, which Connolly scored. It was a crucial moment in a game which Dublin won by a point.
Rochford's explanation for changing goalkeeper centred on kick-outs.
"Robbie gave us a little bit more range. Our analysis of Dublin was that they were looking to push up on our kick-outs," he said.
The change may have appeared valid on the drawing board, but it certainly didn't work out in practice, leaving Mayo wondering if the All-Ireland drought would have ended if Clarke had remained in goal.
In the week before the 2016 final replay, a number of former Dublin players complained about Lee Keegan's marking of Connolly in the drawn game. They claimed that referees weren't giving Connolly enough protection.
Just before half-time in the replay, Keegan, who had earlier scored a goal, was black-carded for a foul on Connolly. Rochford insisted the criticism of Keegan had registered.
"I am under no illusions there was an agenda out there. It's unfortunate that former players would feel it necessary to get into that, guys that haven't always been whiter than white. But look, that's for them to deal with their own consciences," he said.
Losing Keegan was a huge blow to Mayo, especially when he was playing so well. Two months later, he was chosen as Footballer of the Year by his peers.