Tuesday 20 March 2018

Resurrection of Connacht kingpins has Dublin on the back foot for replay

Ciaran Kilkenny, in action against Mayo’s David Drake, was the focal point for Dublin’s attack in the first half
Ciaran Kilkenny, in action against Mayo’s David Drake, was the focal point for Dublin’s attack in the first half
Eugene McGee

Eugene McGee

Okay, all you neutrals in Croke Park, on television or on radio all over the world, admit it! You had made your decision about the Mayo-Dublin result with 10 minutes to go.

Dublin were leading by seven points, playing in Croke Park and seemingly heading for yet another clash with Kerry in the final. You were all saying to yourselves, 'Ah, typical Mayo, they have blown it again and this time they will not be back next year; too many defeats, too many disappointments.'

But suddenly we were all shocked into watching one of the greatest comebacks in modern All-Ireland history when Mayo, the perennial chokers as many have described them rather unfairly, at last came to their senses in how to get scores and went route one through the Dublin backline to score more from play than they had managed in the previous 60 minutes as the Dublin backs seemed caught in a maze of panic.

The crucial score was the penalty scored brilliantly by Cillian O'Connor against Stephen Cluxton considering the massive pressure the kicker was under. That left it a one-point game in favour of Dublin and before we could catch our breath, Andy Moran flashed over the levelling score at Dublin 2-12 Mayo 1-15.

These are the bare statistics of the closing minutes but cold print cannot encapsulate the drama, tension and excitement that enveloped over 82,000 spectators who had the privilege of seeing it all.

Mayo are not famous for winning big games in Croke Park in this manner, neither are Dublin accustomed to losing seven-point leads in semi-finals. Truly yesterday was an extraordinary day's football.

The reason Mayo found themselves digging themselves out of a hole of despair in this manner was because their forwards were deplorable at scoring for most of this game. With over an hour gone only two Mayo forwards had managed to score one point each from play. The mystery is that the team still managed to be close enough to stage this massive rally.

It is not often we can say this in recent years but Dublin were largely the authors of their own failure to win this game.

Amazingly, they managed to muck up two scoreable frees in the second half in astonishing circumstances. After Diarmuid Connolly had scored a difficult one from the right wing in the 40th minute, when the next free came along Cluxton insisted on taking it and hit it wide and some time later when again Connolly was lining up a similar free to the one he had scored, Cluxton took the free and again missed.

This sort of uncertainty is not typical of Dublin's meticulous approach and could have cost them the game. Indeed Cluxton also missed a free in the second half just after Dean Rock, the No 1 free-taker, had been taken off.

Interesting also was the drop in performance of a couple of Dublin forwards in the second half as opposed to the first.

Ciarán Kilkenny was the focal point in the first half and scored three wonderful points, while Paddy Andrews also scored two beauties in the opening half. But neither managed to score at all after the break. Clearly some serious homework had been done in the Mayo dressing-room.

But these unusual events, and, above all, the dramatic finish, only served to provide one of the best games of sporting entertainment seen in Ireland in any code this year.

As expected, it was a hard, tough game and no player spared himself, even the ones who are supposedly a bit 'shy' when the going gets tough.

The sides have met many times in the past four years with the Sam Maguire at stake so there was no love lost.

Referee Joe McQuillan made many controversial decisions for which Mayo will certainly feel most aggrieved, particularly Aidan O'Shea, but all is fair in love and war and when we get GAA replays!

Mayo made some serious tactical errors in the first half that should have cost them more dearly - such as having far too many players operating in their own half of the field which meant that when they did win ball and headed out of their own defence there were only a couple of Mayo forwards where they should be. This worked particularly badly against O'Shea, who was often left stranded and marked by three opponents.

After all the talk about his recent full-forward role he rarely played in that position in conventional manner and I believe that worked to Dublin's advantage on the first half.

Apart from the missed frees, Dublin's attack can be happy enough with their performance. Remarkably, the last five times Dublin played Mayo in the championship they scored the same, 2-12, on each occasion.

As regards the Mayo attack, well it was too lopsided, with O'Connor scoring 1-9 from frees and new tactics will be required for the replay. That O'Connor barrage also showed once again this year the propensity of Dublin players to concede frees and how costly that proved this time also.

But overall and with all the talk about the dire quality of football in 2015, we should all be thankful for this great GAA occasion and look forward to Saturday's replay.

Also we should congratulate the Tipperary minors on reaching the All-Ireland final , the third time this decade they have done so. For a so-called hurling county to reach both U-21 and minor football finals is extraordinary and a lesson to many of the so-called weaker football counties.

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