Thursday 24 May 2018

Tomás Ó Sé: Football needs Mayo to hang tough

Losing to Dublin does not diminish a shred of my admiration for Stephen Rochford's men who remain the only team equipped to rattle extraordinary champions

Lee Keegan alone with his thoughts on Croke Park after Mayo’s defeat to Dublin last Sunday. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Lee Keegan alone with his thoughts on Croke Park after Mayo’s defeat to Dublin last Sunday. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

I've never come out of an All-Ireland final with a more surreal feeling than the one I encountered last Sunday.

The devastation in every Mayo face was something I can't honestly say I witnessed before. There was no consoling them, no way of softening the blow. I know the famous 'curse' is probably nonsense, but the way this game panned out would almost set you thinking. Because Mayo did just about everything right last weekend - everything that is bar closing the deal.

Where do they go now?

Over the last few days, I can't get that exchange from the movie 'Gladiator' out of my head, where one of his commanders says to Russell Crowe's character Maximus: "People should know when they're conquered."

And Maximus's response is: "Would you, Quintus? Would I?"

Let me say straight up that Sunday's game was extraordinary and the way that Dublin saw it out gave us a glimpse of the composure and iron will that makes them what they are. Yes, the almost systematic fouling of the Mayo backs as David Clarke was trying to take that last kick-out was the height of cynicism.

But I would challenge anyone to look at how Dublin kept possession in that closing 90 seconds or so and see anything but the composure of a great team.

Think about this. We're talking about a game of ridiculous intensity drifting into its 76th and 77th minutes and, to do what they did, Dublin's handpassing and movement had to be perfect. The precision of their play during those dying seconds told us just how good this team has become.

Two points down in the 63rd minute and they turn it around to win by a point with an almost clinical edge, when everything around them is chaos. I thought that was incredible.

Now maybe it doesn't say a whole lot for the rest of football that the only championship game in which Dublin were tested this year was the All-Ireland final itself. So while we have a team here that could yet surpass any other in history, right now it's sobering to think we seemingly have only one other equipped to seriously test them.

I know Mayo hate when they think they're being patronised. I know that they're uninterested in praise from this or any other quarter. But they've been in four of the last six All-Ireland finals and, hand on heart, they have my absolute admiration.

Let me put it this way. They are NOT chokers. They are NOT mentally weak. What they are is one of the best football teams I've ever seen. They may not have got their hands on Sam yet, but they've answered every other question.

There was a madness to Sunday's game, but - to me - it was a glorious madness. I've heard people complain about the referee, I've heard people specifically debate the merits of the award of those last two frees (the one Cillian O'Connor put against a Hill end post and the one Dean Rock nailed over the Canal End goal), but put yourself in Joe McQuillan's position.

The pressure on one man to keep control of a game like this is nothing short of ridiculous. Four hours after the final whistle, we were still rewinding incidents frantically in 'The Sunday Game' studio to be sure that we were accurate in the opinions we gave.

McQuillan had split seconds to make his calls. I thought he did a good job. Because I'm not sure I've ever seen two more athletic teams in a final. And therein lies a message I suspect for anybody looking to challenge next year or beyond.

Football has changed. The idea of rigid formations is obsolete. What we saw on Sunday was the modern game, a game where backs attack and forwards defend, where almost every position is inter-changeable. And when that modern game is played well, it can be truly spectacular.

For football's sake now, I hope this Mayo team and their management don't break up. To me, holding tight together would be a major statement. Because nobody could throw any mud in their direction were any of them to walk away now. It would almost be the easy option.

Stick around though and they truly are men of remarkable substance.

Easy for me to say, I know. They're in an awful place today, but I thought there was great dignity in how Stephen Rochford and Cillian O'Connor dealt with the heartbreak of losing another final. No toys came flying out of the pram. They were mature and manly in the way they spoke. They told us the better team won. That's not easy, I can promise you.

I did it myself when Tyrone were beating Kerry. Getting so close can be head-wrecking, but you have to be big enough to learn from it, because self-pity is self-destruction.

Listen, I've lost All-Ireland finals to Armagh, Tyrone and Dublin by a single score and I know that bellyaching just isn't the way to go if you want to come back from that. The moment you start, 'If only the ref did this...' is the moment you've started the process of eating yourself up. It's futile.

The hardest thing to do right now for Mayo is the best thing. To look at their own silliness, the poor decision-making, the needless sending-off. To mark it down to experience. Store it. Use it.

Tactically, they got so much right this year. When have we ever seen someone sent in from the line to tell Stephen Cluxton what to do? The Dublin goalkeeper was absolutely rattled on Sunday because Mayo had his kick-outs cracked. For that, Rochford deserves massive credit.

But finals are a law unto themselves and what Mayo would not have legislated for was Dean Rock being the Dublin forward who hurt them most from play.

I've been saying for years that I didn't think Mayo had the attack to win Sam. Well, on Sunday, their inside forward line contributed 0-8 from play. If you told me before the game that they'd get that, that their half-backs would contribute 1-1 and that Aidan O'Shea would have a stormer, I'd have said this is their day.

That it wasn't is simply a measure of how good Dublin have become. And that measure is Mayo's biggest challenge now. They showed in the games against Derry and Cork that there is serious character in the group, but Dublin take you to another place. When you consider the five All-Ireland finals they've won since 2011, it's remarkable to think that four of the winning margins has been a single point.

These fellas close a tight game like no team I've ever known.

I see a big hullaballoo now over Lee Keegan throwing that GPS tracker unit at Rock as he lined up that last decisive free and, if I'm honest, it just makes me laugh. People might regard that as bad sportsmanship, but those same people clearly don't understand what it's like out there in the bear-pit.

Look, I accept that what he did wasn't right, but I've just no appetite for the piety flowing from some quarters now.

Put it this way, up to four Dublin forwards could have been black-carded for their behaviour while Clarke was trying to take that last kick-out. How do you ref that?

It was all desperately cynical but, while we might not like to admit it, I'd venture a suggestion that one of the reasons Sunday's game was so compelling was because of that very ruthlessness. The almost unscrupulous pursuit of victory.

I mean look at Rock after he lands that trojan score. His next act is to run and slam his opponent into the back. While he was doing that, team-mates began wrestling their direct opponents to the ground. You won't see a more cynical close to any game, anywhere, any time.

But there's a part of me that can almost grudgingly respect that too. The ruthlessness it communicates.

I doubt Jim Gavin sent in actual instructions to do that. I'd say the players made the decision amongst themselves while Rock was lining up the free. "No f**king short-kick-outs, get in the face of your man!" It was almost like a military manoeuvre.

Now that's hard for Mayo to swallow I'm sure but, bottom line, they'll know the better team won.

The best thing they can do for the next few months is give the gym a wide berth, switch off, forget about football. Feel the hurt by all means, but don't let it eat you up.

And, by the way, the argument doing the rounds right now about Dublin GAA getting too much money, in my view, misses the point. What people should be focusing on is how they use that money so well.

Remember, Mayo probably have about a tenth of the Dubs' financial resources, yet only the tiniest of margins separate them on the field. If you ask me, it's high time other counties got their heads out of the sand and began focusing on self-help here.

It's quite probable that we could end up with the same four All-Ireland semi-finalists next year, which begs an obvious question. What chance Kerry or Tyrone getting to the next level? They're both good enough to beat the 29 other counties, but my view is they won't beat Dublin or Mayo unless they change radically. Tyrone especially.

Put it this way. How many times did you see Philly McMahon bombing forward last Sunday? I can't remember even one. He was kept honest because he had a man to mark who was ready to do damage. If you don't bring an attacking threat to the Dubs, you're just giving them the licence to devour you.

So Tyrone can forget about ever bridging that gap if they're going to stick to the tactics they adopted this year. They'll retain Ulster fine, but what does that amount to? Their winning margins in the province this year were 11, nine and eight points, yet the Dubs then drilled them by 12. That's a huge chasm.

I don't think the picture is quite as stark for Kerry but, believe me, they're going to have to change too. They're going to have to buy into this modern game of phenomenal movement, work-rate and lightning transitioning from defence to attack. The talent is there, maybe slightly more so than in Tyrone's case.

Unbelievable

David Clifford's performance in the minor final, scoring 4-4, was unbelievable and I suspect there'll be a lot of pressure now to see him promoted to the senior squad. One big talking point in Kerry after the Mayo defeat was the fact that young Sean O'Shea didn't get a run. He's been setting the club scene on fire and recently gave All-Ireland champions, Dr Crokes, a torrid time.

So Eamonn Fitz will know there's an appetite to get these young fellas in now. I met Micko O'Dwyer on Sunday and he was raving about Clifford.

Micko's view was that all these young bucks should be brought into the senior set-up immediately and, as he put it, "train the s**t out of them". I was laughing when he said that.

But the energy is certainly there for Kerry to start blooding young fellas, so long as they get the balance right. And that's easier said than done. You need to be careful.

As I see it, if you introduced Clifford into the current Dublin team, he'd probably be outstanding. The Kerry team? He could sink or swim. Two very different environments, you see.

The Kerry team I played on had enough big characters to allow a young lad time and space to come in without having to take on heavy responsibility. Think of Tommy Walsh in 2008.

But do you really want to bring in a 19-year-old next year as Kerry's new main man? Would that be fair? With Keith Higgins marking him? Philly McMahon? Young Clifford is really special, I agree. But he needs to given the space to grow.

As for Sam heading anywhere outside the current top four in 2018?

No chance. None. Not a prayer. Same as it's always been in truth. The gap between the top two and the next two is significant, but manageable.

The gap to the rest is as wide as an ocean.

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