When the fog clears, expect a Mayo rain dance

I’m tired of hearing that Mayo are going to have to do something different to win an All-Ireland, writes Dara Ó Cinnéide.
When the fog clears, expect a Mayo rain dance

“Just for the record, the weather today is calm and sunny, but the air is full of bullshit.” [Chuck Palahniuk, author Fight Club]

Because the last two All-Ireland football finals have been ruined by bad weather, it would be foolish not to factor the rain into any conversation ahead of this evening’s Dublin-Mayo replay. But there are so many other beguiling variables that the weather really should be a sideshow this time around.

I played in six All-Ireland finals, including the last replayed All-Ireland final 16 years ago and never once did it rain. Had it done so, I’m pretty sure that the teams I played on would still have won three finals, lost two and drawn one.

Reflecting on all the memorable games played in atrocious conditions over the course of my lifetime, I’m certain that the best team always won. Offaly beat Kerry in 1982 because they deserved it. Derry beat Donegal in the 1993 Ulster final because they were the better team. In 2008, Tyrone gave an exhibition in the rain when handing Dublin their biggest championship hiding in 30 years. Again, the better team won. Kerry beat Galway in another quarter final that same year because they were clearly the better team, and Kerry lost last year’s final because Dublin were, by some distance the better team on the day.

Ahead of the drawn game two weeks ago, I felt Mayo had a great chance because physically, athletically, and even in temperament, Mayo were better equipped to go toe-to-toe with the Dubs than any other team out there.

Dublin people, and many others besides, had, I believed, built their semi-final against Kerry up to be something bigger than it actually was. While there was great drama at the end and while it fitted neatly into the romantic narrative of past clashes, too many of Kerry’s faults in the final minutes were being discounted or ignored ahead of the final.

If the game was tight at the end, Mayo were always going to be a tougher proposition down the stretch than a disjointed Kerry forward unit, and so it proved with the Connacht men kicking three points in the last eight minutes compared to Kerry’s one score in the final 15 minutes.

“When the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. We all felt saved.” [Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club]

For that split second after Evan Regan and Denis Bastick clashed heads in the 77th minute, I felt that Mayo could have gone on to win the match outright had referee, Conor Lane, chosen to add on another minute’s play. While Lane didn’t blow up until nearly two minutes later, due to Regan being treated and replaced by Conor Loftus, there was only time for a few quick passes between Ciarán Kilkenny (at that stage back behind his own 21-yard line) and Stephen Cluxton. The final whistle brought the usual feeling of nothingness before both teams went into recalibration mode.

So what has changed in a fortnight, what should change and who has the greatest scope for improvement? These are three of the most commonly asked questions ahead of any replay but the honest answer is that nobody really knows what will happen next.

We can assume that Dublin won’t play as badly again. We can almost certainly expect that it won’t take 52 minutes for one of their much vaunted starting forwards to score from play. Of the Dublin squad, only Stephen Cluxton, Jonny Cooper, John Small, and Brian Fenton can be happy with their performances two weeks ago, so the individual soul-searching should see a collective improvement this evening. Some of Dublin’s errors could be attributed to the testing conditions (and, yes the weather) but many more were due to pressure being applied on each kick by a Mayo defender.

Much of the discourse since September 18 has focused on changes Dublin may make to their starting personnel. But can Jim Gavin and his brains trust realistically anticipate improvements as a result of those changes? Paddy Andrews, for example, did quite well to nail two points at the end of the first half shortly after he was introduced for James McCarthy, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that Andrews was well tied up afterwards. Eventually, he was reduced to shooting from very difficult angles and, as the game entered injury time, he was well beaten in a straight contest for possession just before Donal Vaughan’s crucial point.

Neither Bernard Brogan nor Paul Flynn have been in the groove in recent games but, again, we shouldn’t be blind to their off the ball running. Both have surely done enough in big games to merit another crack at it. The only possible change that I can see having an impact is cutting Paul Mannion loose from the start allowing Kevin McManamon to reprise his super sub role into the second half.

While we all acknowledge that Dublin can and more than likely will play better, the elements needed for a match-winning formula this evening aren’t as readily identifiable as one might think. If individual players (McManamon, Cian O’Sullivan, and Michael Darragh MacAuley, in particular) become tidier in their tackling, others grow more ambitious and direct in their running (Ciarán Kilkenny and Diarmuid Connolly) and others still more accurate in their kicking (Dean Rock), they will give themselves a better chance of winning.

But there are no guarantees.

“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” [Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club]

As Diarmuid Connolly lined up to take that late sideline ball in the drawn game, I’ve no doubt the thought crossed many Mayo supporters’ minds that their dream was dying again one second at a time. At that point almost every Mayo man, woman, and child had given up the ghost. In fairness to Connolly, he did have quite a few looks around before he finally decided to go for broke, a decision that effectively gave Mayo another shot at glory. Fortunately for those Mayo supporters in the stand, their players on the field were still doing the right things. All was not lost.

David Clarke — after three ill-judged kick-outs in a row at the end of normal time, two of which cost Mayo scores — finds Keith Higgins. Higgins, the ultimate running back, kicks a great ball along the Cusack Stand sideline to Stephen Coen, barely 10 minutes on the field in his first senior All-Ireland. Coen takes the correct option of a simple handpass to Tom Parsons, who just two minutes earlier had won a kickout and a free. Parsons gives to Cillian O’Connor, who offloads to Aidan O’Shea, goes for the return, receives and trusts himself to kick the equaliser. Watch those moments again and you’ll see the result of five years spent maturing and growing.

I’m tired of hearing in recent days that Mayo are going to have to do something different to win an All-Ireland. In case people haven’t noticed, Mayo have been evolving all year.

Take that movement that led to the equaliser. David Clarke wasn’t even on the field when Mayo lost to Galway earlier this year. Stephen Rochford and Tony McEntee are new to Mayo, but both were All-Ireland-winning club managers who encouraged corner backs to kick as opposed to running the ball, hence Keith Higgins’ brave foot pass in the endgame. Stephen Coen was this year’s All-Ireland winning U21 captain. Tom Parsons, like Clarke, is only blossoming now and really should be given the critical job of nullifying Brian Fenton full-time.

Cillian O’Connor has only been made captain this year and is a natural long-term successor for Andy Moran. Only Aidan O’Shea of this group, isn’t yet maxing out. If and when he does, Mayo will be very hard to stop.

Unlike Dublin, Mayo’s flaws are identifiable and fixable and many of them revolve around the O’Sheas and the O’Connors. Before the drawn game, I thought that Aidan O’Shea and Barry Moran might be tried together on the inside line at some stage. The timing and nature of Moran’s introduction (as a 66th minute injury replacement for another sub, Alan Dillon) suggests that he was never really in the picture for the drawn game, and given that he hardly touched the ball when introduced, the case for a twin towers approach is weakened.

So here we are with everything set at nought once again. The most imperfect Mayo team in recent memory against a Dublin team being touted, just 13 days ago, as the greatest of the modern era.

Rarely, if ever, have the Mayo public felt as connected to their team, and this Dublin team, with one eye on posterity, are as revered on Hill 16 as any since the 70s.

But now for the weather...

Coming up to 7pm this evening, the fog we’ve all been walking around in this past fortnight will have cleared.

At that stage, I expect Mayo to emerge into the clear.

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