Aherne a class apart as Dubs lift first league
Dublin 3-15 Mayo 1-10
Of all the differences between Dublin and Mayo yesterday - and there were many - the truth is the Division 1 final of the Lidl National Football League was decided by just one: Sinéad Aherne.
Sure, there was an apparent chasm in both class and composure, but the 31-year-old accountant was the chief reason that after an hour of play in Parnell Park, there was a gaping, 11-point imbalance to lodge in the history books.
Dublin took the field as heavy favourites, but for all the buoyancy granted by their All-Ireland win last September not even they could have expected to coast to victory in such facile fashion. Earlier in the week, Mayo manager Peter Leahy spoke about adopting a different approach to the one that saw them lose to Dublin by four goals last year, but in the opening minutes Aherne made sure those plans went awry.
After just seven minutes, she had already put five points between the sides - opening the scoring with a converted free, then fooling the Mayo defenders with a pirouette that allowed her to slot over a second.
Minutes later, some slick inter-play set Nicole Owens on a path towards the Mayo goal but the Dublin forward was floored before pulling the trigger. Aherne wedged the resulting penalty into the bottom left corner, just out of reach of Mayo keeper Rachel Kearns.
The next minute summed up Mayo's day. Aileen Gilroy ploughed into the back of referee Brendan Rice as she brought the ball out of defence, then a relatively simple free hit by Sarah Rowe bounced off the upright into the hands of the Dublin defence.
A quarter of an hour passed before Mayo got off the mark, though moments earlier Fiona McHale's goal chance was cleared off the line by Niamh Collins.
Mayo soon found themselves staring into the abyss when Laura McGinley found the net in the 25th minute, but on the next attack Mayo struck back, Fiona McHale pulled down when through on goal and Sarah Rowe slotting the resulting penalty.
In attack, Dublin were quick, slick and created gaping incisions at will. In defence, they were in-your-face annoying, haranguing the ball and swarming Mayo's forwards the moment they entered their territory.
Leahy had spent several months training Mayo to reduce their foul count this year, but with Dublin running riot when they had possession and bringing plenty of heat when they didn't, he had little choice but to change tack for the second half after they went in down by 2-10 to 1-5.
"We noticed the ref was letting everything go, all their off-the-ball stuff," said Leahy. "Fiona McHale got pulled and dragged everywhere she ran, tripped up, hit, boxed, so we said, 'Listen girls, let's up our physicality. They're being let do it so surely we'll be let do it.'"
But in the opening minute of the second half Mayo could only look inward to explain their downfall, Grace Kelly gifting a free straight into Dublin hands. The ball was soon making its way to Aherne, who ripped up the pitch and offloaded to Noelle Healy, who fired it into the bottom right corner to suck the remaining life out of Mayo.
Mayo defended much better in the second half, limiting Dublin to one point from play and five in total, but the problem was they couldn't score - Sarah Rowe the only cause for jitters in the Dublin defence.
At the final whistle, Dublin manager Mick Bohan credited Aherne for her starring role: "She was on fire, wasn't she? Her movement was top drawer."
Leahy, meanwhile, was left to ponder how to close the gap on Dublin after losing by a cumulative 25 points in three clashes during his tenure. "We got bullied all over the park," he said. "We were very flat, but the best team won by a mile. All we can do is get better for championship."
Mayo will undoubtedly improve for this, but they and the rest of ladies football will have a troubling thought to contend with in the coming weeks - so, too, will Dublin.
Scorers - Dublin: S Aherne 1-9 (5fs, 1 pen), N Healy 1-1, L McGinley 1-0, N Owens 0-2, O Carey, N McEvoy, L Davey 0-1 each. Mayo: S Rowe 1-5 (2fs, 1 pen), G Kelly 0-2 (2fs), N Kelly, S Cafferky, F Doherty 0-1 each.
Dublin - C Trant; M Byrne, D Murphy, L Caffrey; S McGrath, L McGinley, N Collins; L Magee, O Carey; N Owens, N McEvoy, L Davey; S Finnegan, N Healy, S Aherne. Subs: J Dunne for L McGinley (33), C Rowe for L Davey (36), K Murray for S McGrath (38), S Goldrick for O Carey (52), H O'Neill for N Owens (57).
Mayo - R Kearns; E Lowther, S Tierney, N O'Malley; M Corbett, D Caldwell, D Hughes; A Gilroy, C McManamon; F McHale, F Doherty, S Cafferky; N Kelly, S Rowe, G Kelly. Subs: O Conlan for N O'Malley (23), R O'Malley for D Hughes (38), S Mulvihill for D Caldwell (46), A Dowling for G Kelly (50), T O'Connor for F Doherty (52).
Ref - B Rice (Down)