Saturday 18 November 2017

Tommy Conlon: Record books don't factor in Mayo's luckless run in the refereeing lottery

The Couch

Dublin's Jonny Cooper receives a black card from referee Maurice Deegan during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Dublin's Jonny Cooper receives a black card from referee Maurice Deegan during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Bill Parcells almost certainly didn't coin the phrase, but it has been consistently attributed to him for well over 20 years. The Hall of Fame American football coach enjoyed a long career in the NFL. When one of his teams was struggling, his explanation was famously bereft of self-pity. "You are what your record says you are," came his stark summation.

But when his New York Giants won the 1986 and 1990 Super Bowls, their record also said what they were: champions of America, the best in the business.

Dublin's Gaelic footballers? Four All-Irelands in six seasons; four national league titles in a row; unbeaten in 29 games. Their record says what they are: undisputed champions, the best in the business.

As early as the fifth minute last Saturday they were demonstrating one reason why they are dominant: they play foot ball. They kick the ball well. They can pass it accurately, medium and long range, with the foot.

The chain of passes in this case was Cluxton to Flynn to O'Sullivan, who goes long to Kilkenny down the Cusack side; Kilkenny hits a clever, angled ball inside to Dean Rock; the marksman turns and slots it. Efficient, economical, every link in the chain completed by foot.

On the hour, Philly McMahon hits a raking 40-metre foot pass, slicing it perfectly into Kilkenny on the Hogan side; Kilkenny, then, to the electric substitute Costello who flashes it over the bar.

Obviously they can do a lot more than string passes together. We know they have prodigious athleticism and mental toughness too. They are a complete team and exceptional champions.

Mayo? You are what your record says you are. They would probably swallow hard and agree. The players have subscribed to a no-excuses culture since James Horan took over in late 2010. They understand that to look for excuses is to diminish the power of self-determination. They want to control their own destiny, like every ambitious team wants to do. So over the past six distressing years they have kept their grievances private.

But to outsiders looking in, there is a temptation to argue that their record does not quite say what they are. That it does not reflect the rotten streak of luck that seems to have hung over Mayo teams like a pall since 1996. And because the laws of Gaelic football, like rugby union, leave a large margin for interpretation by referees, the luck of the whistle becomes a factor.

In the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final replay, Kerry should be down to 14 men after 18 minutes. The game goes to extra-time. In a match so tightly balanced, the spare man would almost certainly have tilted it Mayo's way. "I'm not looking at referee's calls," insists Horan afterwards. "It is no good for me. It is no good for the soul."

Last Sunday John Small should have walked after seven minutes. This was a clear call. Maurice Deegan simply bottled it. If Small walks, David Byrne comes in. When Jonny Cooper actually does walk after 19, even Dublin would find themselves getting thin in their defensive reserves. Margins, margins: in a one-point game, always margins.

Lee Keegan has buried one in the net by then. Jason Doherty mows down Cooper on the follow-through. Doherty could've got a straight red but the hit goes unseen. It is one thing to miss a sending-off offence altogether. But to see one plain as day and shirk your responsibility?

The Keegan black card. Yes, it's a foul and a free in. But Diarmuid Connolly is a horse of a man; he goes down like a new-born foal. Then he gets up and practically takes the black card out of Deegan's pocket himself. This is another unwelcome trend in GAA: players waving imaginary cards, hustling to get opponents sent off.

Straight afterwards, as Mayo come out of defence, Connolly runs 20 metres to topple Donie Vaughan on the blindside, off the ball. It's a textbook black card situation: taking the support player out of the move with a body check. A few minutes later, Cillian O'Connor is also running to support a move when he is grounded, off the ball, by Small. And he pins him on the ground too. Again, textbook black. Small somehow survives until he's taken off on the hour.

Like Horan before him, Stephen Rochford is disinclined to seek refuge in the blame game. But the loss of Keegan was akin to the loss of Liam McHale in the 1996 All-Ireland final replay. As Connolly waited to take the penalty after half-time, match commentator Dave McIntyre remarked on Sky Sports: "No longer does he need to worry about the shadow of Lee Keegan following him everywhere he goes."

In fairness to Connolly, he had kicked a glorious point, right under Keegan's shadow, seconds before that fateful tangle between the pair. And to be clear: Dublin earned this title with all the qualities of a champion team. Nor was it their fault that Mayo inflicted another catastrophic wound on themselves by changing their goalkeeper, and by that same goalkeeper making such an elementary handling error.

It's just that the baleful refereeing lottery in Gaelic football seldom seems to come up trumps for them either.

Anyway, it is good that they are not complaining - not in public at any rate. The only way is the Bill Parcells way. He also said: "Blame nobody. Expect nothing. Do something."

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