We can all point to the obvious and say that decisions made by Mayo management in relation to their goalkeeper cost them a first title in six and a half decades, but the reality of a one- point defeat is that, say, Mayo’s first wide of the game after 30 seconds or their first of the second-half after 50 minutes were just as costly in a one point game. These things happen.
Filleting players for having a go should only happen in dressing rooms and on training grounds.
Every single game that was ever played finds its own narrative. Things happen, decisions are made, weaknesses are indentified and exploited, lessons are learnt, individual strengths come to the fore and scores are taken or not. At the end the team with the most scores is deemed the best team, and the best team always wins.
After this, the most intense All Ireland final I’ve ever witnessed, Dublin are champions for the fourth time in six seasons and Mayo have been narrowly defeated by the All-Ireland champions for the fifth season in a row and lost a major championship replay for the third successive season. We’ve been told countless times since Saturday that it’s a cruel world, but you can be sure Mayo goalkeeper Rob Hennelly and free-taking captain Cillian O’Connor have brought themselves to places beyond cruelty these past 48 hours. No doubt, other Mayo players will rally to remind their team-mates that collective responsibility must be taken for the fact that they still don’t know what it’s like to get their hands on Sam Maguire.
It may seem strange to say it as the celebrations continue in Dublin today but the end of every game, even All-Ireland finals, is an anti-climax. It never feels like you imagined it would and what you previously thought was important never is. Players talk about the few golden moments shared in the dressing rooms under the Hogan Stand with teammates and close colleagues. Those elusive moments are indeed precious and memorable, but they don’t last. It is within the game itself that the real thrill is to be found.
For every great competitor I’ve ever known, it is in the act of going after the victory, that the real glory and the true meaning of sport is to be found. In that regard, both teams owe us nothing this morning.
Are Dublin the greatest team of the decade? With just three seasons left until the next decade begins, it will take a hell of a team to catch them. While the rest of us concern ourselves with issues such as legacy, posterity and history, Dublin are going about the business of being the best team on a particular day.
What should please them most about their latest win in a 29-match unbeaten run is the manner in which they played their best football during the most important part of the game.
fter Diarmuid Connolly’s 42nd minute penalty, Dublin’s play got a little ragged as Mayo backs hounded and tackled like demons. With Ciarán Kilkenny leading them through the rough until reinforcements arrived in the form of Michael Darragh Macauley, Bernard Brogan and most significantly of all, Cormac Costello, Dublin showed that there is more to them than their role market leaders in swashbuckling football. They dug it out by doing the simple things so well, like tracking back, showing for short frees and supporting the player in possession.
It was during this period, too, that Stephen Cluxton, the first man in nearly 100 years to captain three All-Ireland winning football teams, showed once again why he is the greatest goalkeeper and possibly the most important footballer of the modern era. By deciding to go long with laser-like kicks beyond midfield with at least three restarts, he was the one who recognised the need to go at Mayo again. Such wisdom in goalkeepers is rare and though he, along with Denis Bastick, is the eldest member of the Dublin squad, he could easily lend his skills to the cause into his 40s.
And what of one of the younger leaders, Ciarán Kilkenny? It may be no coincidence that the year he missed out due to a cruciate injury – 2014 – is the only year of Jim Gavin’s tenure that Dublin failed to land Sam Maguire. By tracking and dispossessing Paddy Durcan and Cillian O’Connor halfway through the second-half, he prevented two certain points. It was significant, too, that it was Kilkenny that Cluxton sought and found with his last two kick-outs. The arguments raged all year about the value of the Castleknock man’s incredible possession stats. Let that argument be put to bed for once and for all.
It may have irked Dublin people earlier this season to be told that they stole an All Ireland in 2011 and that their hunger couldn’t possibly match that of Kerry’s or Mayo’s. After seeing Darren Daly’s block at the death and two veterans of 2011, Macauley and Brogan, skipping about the place like colts, that too is no longer up for debate.
What is certainly up for debate after Saturday is the challenge facing our finest inter-county referees in keeping a lid on things when these two gunslingers come to town. In their league game in February, the cards were flashed routinely. There were nine in all back then, including black for Dublin’s Philly McMahon and Jonny Cooper and two yellows for John Small and Mayo’s Colm Boyle.
On Saturday, Cooper walked for a black card offence similar to that carried out by Cathal McShane in the Ulster final this year, but Small was fortunate not to see black earlier for a more obvious trip on Andy Moran. Lee Keegan walked for a tackle similar to Tipperary’s Robbie Kiely in this year’s semi-final against Mayo, and Hennelly could have no argument about his black card.
Critics of the black card are ignoring the basic fact that as a deterrent in and of itself it actually works, but in application and interpretation, it is impossibly frustrating.
There was so much going on at various stages and at opposite ends of the pitch throughout Saturday’s game that it became ungovernable. The clamour for the removal of the black card has now reached tipping point, but perhaps more emphasis should be placed on player behaviour, and maybe it is time to place top inter-county referees on umpire duty for all championship games.
Either way, in the world of winner takes all, Dublin roll on in their splendid invincibility. With Jack McCaffrey presumably back in the fold for 2017, they will take some stopping.
Mayo can take solace from the performances of the younger brigade: Patrick Durcan, Brendan Harrison, Diarmuid O’Connor and Stephen Coen, while older lads like Andy Moran, Keith Higgins and Alan Dillon have shown that they still have a lot to offer.
Every year we imagine we have witnessed the the fracture that will break Mayo hearts for good, and yet every year they come back with renewed hope and expectation. Their age profile and temperament makes them the most likely team to put a halt to Dublin’s gallop again next year. Saturday’s defeat will take some time to purge, but not having another real go next year would never be an option for Mayo and their supporters.
For now though, it’s Dublin’s time. They are true champions, and the time has come to recognise that.