Searching for Dublin's Achilles heel in Mayo’s perfect half

Searching for Dublin's Achilles heel in Mayo’s perfect half

A scene in Currans near Farranfore: Exasperated analysts are poring through the first 35 minutes of Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final. 

Seeking shards of evidence from the manner of Mayo’s precision planning en route to an 0-8 to 0-6 half-time lead, sifting for some traces to indicate Dublin are manageable ahead of September 1.

Though the 12 minutes after the interval have been heralded, with good reason, and provides the obvious highlights reel — Dublin could use it as a security video (Warning: Do Not Attempt to Interfere With This Team) — if there’s a shaft of light for Kerry, or a potential flaw in the five-in-a-row-chasing champions, the first period will offer it.

In the wake of Dublin’s ten-point statement win, Jim Gavin was less inclined to open up on the obvious — pressure on the players chasing history — than he was to provide comfort to Mayo.

“I think you’re being disrespectful to the opposition there, I have to say,” he said when quizzed on Dublin’s first-half stutter.

I don’t know how many times people need to see how good this Mayo team are. They didn’t win today but I think we wouldn’t see it that way. They’re a phenomenal group of players. I think you’re just looking for excuses for [the] Dublin performance; Mayo were really top class in the first half.

He’s not wrong.

Mayo’s opening 35 minutes was a decimal point from perfect — no ball or possession ventured, much less wasted, Dublin’s forwards shooed and ushered into alleyways and restricted to half a dozen points and only three from play, the last of them just before the break from Brian Howard.

Mayo led by two and 82,000 folk rolled up their match programmes, looked at their mates, and shifted excitedly in their seats and Saturday soft shoes, some of them feeling pleased with themselves to be ringside when the champions were about to fall like a giant redwood.

Had the ball been oval, we’d have oohing at the learnings from Mayo’s drift defence, their strike running with the ball, and best of all, their discipline in the tackle. Skills and strategies that get more homogenised by the summer yes, but there are no executioners better than Mayo.

Horan and co had Dublin’s offensive running angles sussed and spooked.

Whether the Dublin run originated under the Hogan or Cusack Stands, Mayo met it with numbers and perfected aggression. Four turnovers were effected in scoring positions for Dublin. (they had 19 in all), each met with a thunderous roar from the galleries. 

Mayo’s hope surged.

In the 13th minute Rob Hennelly — who would become central to the piece after — slalomed out from his goal with possession under the Hogan Stand. 

The running lines of two Dublin backroomers were unfortunate and may have influenced his sight lines; his attempted fist pass fell between Boyle and Aidan O’Shea, with neither securing possession. Dublin advanced and Mannion pointed to give them a 0-4 to 0-3 lead.

If it was calculated to shift momentum, it didn’t work. Mayo won the next restart off a break and Cillian O’Connor responded in kind. The ball was transferred to the other end, but Dublin could only move laterally and Fenton wided at his near side into the Hill. 

It would be an exaggeration to suggest Dublin looked startled — they didn’t — but they were being asked interesting questions. Patrick Durcan was giving Jack McCaffrey plenty of it in the most engaging one-on-one, and he was two points better off to boot.

Con O'Callaghan scores Dublin's second goal. Picture: Sportsfile
Con O'Callaghan scores Dublin's second goal. Picture: Sportsfile

Cillian O’Connor, Colm Boyle and Durcan again harvested further points. 

Mayo were so precise in possession that they didn’t put a single one up for grabs until the 34th minute. It wasn’t of a trajectory to provide Cillian O’Connor with the advantage he needed inside — it was more loopy than that — but Dublin still looked flustered and bothered dealing with it. 

And they had the extra defender there to assist Cluxton in moving it away. By contrast, Mayo’s sentries only looked perturbed once in the first period, when Con O’Callaghan seared past Lee Keegan but failed to get a meaty connection on his shot.

Nevertheless, it was a portent.

There are a number of possible interpretations for what we saw in the first half, which was arguably the first time Dublin have been given a bellyfull in two championship campaigns. Perhaps Dublin’s frontliners were that bit off the pace. 

Perhaps this was the last sting of a dying wasp from a Mayo side wearied mentally and physically by the summer’s toil. It could have been both, but it underlined the absolute necessity of patience and precision and proper tackling when bidding to frustrate Dublin, and their remarkable relentlessness.

By this morning, James Horan’s head will be dulled by a thousand vested opinions about that third quarter, but it is inescapably true that Mayo failed to turn the game bitty when they needed to. To tuck Dublin’s punching hand under their outer, so to speak.

It didn’t help that keeper Hennelly couldn’t find a compatriot with a succession of kickouts after Dublin scores. Dublin pressed up, but it was a soft press and it was more zonal than man. 

It was hardly impenetrable. Mayo won 14 of their 23 kickouts overall, but at least five of their other nine came in the opening 12 minutes of the second half. 

At least once, I tracked Aidan O’Shea getting separation from his marker but he wasn’t found. Then again, those passes look remarkably straightforward from the seventh storey of the Hogan Stand.

But as Jim Gavin credited Mayo for stymieing his plan in the first half, how churlish would it be to ignore Dublin’s game smarts as the bell went for the second half?

Something Tomás Quinn, their former attacker, said to me some time ago came to mind as they ransacked Mayo for 2-6 in the opening 12 minutes after the break. 

Brian Fenton and Tom Parsons shake hands at full-time. Picture: Sportsfile
Brian Fenton and Tom Parsons shake hands at full-time. Picture: Sportsfile

Their game intelligence is off the charts, the ability to seize a moment; not just any moment, the game-defining moments, when they size up a scenario like Con O’Callaghan did twice to Lee Keegan for the first and second goals.

Forty-five minutes on the clock, Mayo yet to score in the second half, and Dublin have catapulted themselves into a winning position with 2-11. Any meme for that would surely involve a quick blowing out of the cheeks.

Another goal would follow from Brian Fenton, and more could have but for Hennelly’s keeping.

“We just really asked the guys to keep doing what they were doing,” deadpanned Galvin afterwards.

Their game intelligence is really high, and we put all the trust in them. We empower them, we can’t play as a coaching and management team. We can’t play the game for them, we just give them the framework and they go out and execute their skillset.

And they bring quite the level of proficiency to it, too.

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