The dust has settled on another season. An extraordinary one that we would be better off not seeing again, even though the GAA did well to get all bar one game played.
I am always a bit reluctant to talk up the massive contribution that the GAA makes to communities and, indeed, the public mood, as I am very conscious that when a million and a half people are watching the All-Ireland final, or some other big game, there are at least twice that number who have either little or no interest in the GAA. Yet for all that the last couple of months have been all the easier, and a good bit more tolerable, for a lot of people by having games to look forward to every weekend.
The football and hurling championships went smoothly, which is a compliment to all those who were involved in scheduling matches. There was one major issue, and it did seem a bit harsh at the time that Sligo footballers had to withdraw, but as the Cavan man said, 'them's the rules' and no postponement was granted. In this case the big losers, apart from Sligo, were Galway, who went into the Connacht final without a championship game. They had to play a battle-hardened Mayo and lost by a point, and so a season which, in the early league matches promised so much, finished rather tamely.
The year, though, belonged to Dublin. The new normal.
Dublin won with some style in Croke Park last weekend, but I was in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on a cold, wet November day when Mark Keane stuck the ball in the Kerry net and dumped them out of the championship. On television that day I said the biggest beneficiaries of this shock would be Dublin, as there was only open road for them after that result. The Dubs don't do complacency or overconfidence and in the unlikely event any had crept into the camp, that game provided a lesson which was well learned.
The rest of the championship was a lap of honour for Dublin. Each victory was easy or very easy. It does not mean that their players could relax. Quite the opposite. Every contest was marked by huge physical effort, mental alertness and a resilience that makes champions. It does not mean that others haven't got those same qualities, but there is one big difference between Dublin and the rest, they have far better individual players.
So when you get flat out effort between Dublin and another team, then Dublin will always win. The only chance anyone else had this year, or indeed will have next year, is if Dublin are unwilling to do all the hard work which is necessary for their class to shine through. There is no sense of that happening. If anything, the gap in skill between Dublin and the rest is increasing, not the opposite.
Take a few examples. The two best forwards in the country for the last few years have been Ciarán Kilkenny and Con O'Callaghan, and they were the best forwards again this year. Better than David Clifford, Seán O'Shea, Michael Murphy and Cillian O'Connor. Why? Because they always produce the goods on the big day. Until the others consistently do it in All-Ireland finals, then they cannot be mentioned in the same breath.
Last week, O'Connor had a very good first half and he has had a lot of big games for Mayo. Yet when the match had to be won after half time, it was Kilkenny and O'Callaghan who were the main men. Same as always.
The same can be said for Brian Fenton. When he was relatively quiet in the first half it was a matter of comment. There is no player in my 50-year history of the game who has exerted as much influence at midfield. Jack O'Shea was similar, but hardly as good as the controlling heart of the Dublin team. When Brian Howard came on, Fenton found another gear. Mayo have nobody in that area of the pitch with anything like that skill set. Perhaps there is a thesis in this for someone. Are the Dublin players born or made? My view would be that most of those skills are learned by hours of practice.
The worrying thing for all other counties is that Mayo got a lot right and yet were still beaten comfortably. They pushed up on the Dublin kick-outs and kicked long on their own. It was an old style battle in the middle of the field, Mayo got bodies around the breaking ball and won most of it. And yet for all that possession, the game was still over with ten minutes to go.
All big championship matches should be decided in the last quarter. In that time Mayo were finished and Dublin, despite not scoring for the last 12 minutes, coasted home. If they needed to, they would have attacked more. Maybe we need a handicap system, the bookies were giving Mayo a six-point advantage at even money. If Dublin had to chase that sort of handicap then their approach in those last 12 minutes would have been entirely different.
Apart from the greatness of players who are mentioned all the time, it was a day too for John Small and Niall Scully. In any other team they would be the main men. Last Saturday they more than pulled their weight in this latest Dublin win. They, like many other Dublin players, are getting better.
Mayo had their chance to throw caution to the wind when Dublin were a man down for the first ten minutes of the second half. All teams at this level, I presume, make plans for these circumstances as they do arise when playing Dublin. The same applies when your own side have 14. You need a plan on how to set up. For the first couple of minutes of the ten Dublin sauntered around holding possession while Mayo sat back. They needed to push up and force turnovers. Dublin with 14 would probably beat everyone else with 15, but fortune sometimes favours the brave and Mayo might as well have been beaten by ten as five.
They were far too cautious, or perhaps the energy was going from the legs. Tackling is harder on the body than other skills and needs a totally co-ordinated approach to work. Even while holding back a covering player, Dublin created a great goal chance in that period, Con O'Callaghan fumbled when Dean Rock was waiting at the back post for another easy tap in. That would have finished it much earlier and thousands of TVs would have been switched straight away to Farming in Ulster, Love Island or The Riordans.
There was also some minor grumblings with the referee, particularly the hit by Mick Fitzsimons on Lee Keegan. At worst it was a yellow card and a free in for an equalising point but it was very slightly off shoulder to shoulder. Mayo got the benefit of Robbie McDaid going to the sin bin, wrongly I felt, and I thought Kilkenny could easily have had another couple of frees. So Mayo did better on the swings and roundabouts.
The shortcomings for Mayo were of their own doing. Balls dropped short and there was no impact from the bench compared to Dublin. Poor shot selection and many, many more things. They don't have the class of Dublin and I haven't even mentioned James McCarthy or Stephen Cluxton.
There is no shame in being beaten by Dublin. Mayo tried their best, that is all that can be asked of any man. For the last decade they have given everything to the cause of winning an All-Ireland. They love their football and keep coming back. There is nothing to apologise for, even if they are a long way away with this side.
While other counties who have greater levels of population, more resources and easier access to training have more or less given up the ghost with Dublin, Mayo have kept on trying. Sometimes hopelessly, sometimes very closely, always honourably. If they are to be condemned, where would it leave the rest of the country? There is no shame in being beaten by Dublin when you give your all. The only shame is in not trying.
Gaelic Football Premium
It is Christmas Eve, and the strangest of All-Ireland football championships is not five days complete, with - dear God - Niall Scully already talking of more silver and next year and the like. Messages of unstinted ambition and worlds to conquer trip off his distinctive Dublin tongue, a fourth All-Ireland senior medal still warm in his hand.
Well that was a bit different, wasn't it? A staple of sports journalism around this time of the year is the forecast of what's going to happen over the next 12 months. It's fair to presume that not a single person predicted what lay ahead of us in 2020.