The most instinctive and obvious reflex was a sense of profound sympathy for Mayo, but if anything that was equalled by a sense of deep respect for them. And yet if you could only have immense respect for Mayo, how could you respect Dublin any less, if not even more?
Once again they had won. Once again they had denied Mayo. Once again they had relented the relentless.
If anything, that’s probably their greatest achievement; if anything, that’s probably the best measure of their greatness. Not the three-in- a-row. Not a fourth All-Ireland in five years under Jim Gavin. It’s that somehow they have kept denying this Mayo team from going up those steps that Cluxton and his teammates know so well. As tetchy as relations can be between these sides, they are the other’s ultimate compliment. Mayo, the team that always push this exceptional Dublin team to the pin of their collar; Dublin, the team that always edge out this remarkable Mayo team at the death. In continuously beating the undoubtedly greatest team to never win an All-Ireland, Dublin now have to be in the reckoning as the greatest team to have won All-Irelands.
With this one they’ve undoubtedly pulled away from Heffo’s Army. And Harte’s Tyrone of the noughties. Even Kerry of the noughties.
Only Micko’s Team of All Talents can arguably deny them genuine GOAT status.
It’s hard to think of a team that has played well and not won an All-Ireland final as Mayo did yesterday.
Beckett was a Dub but one of his greatest lines could have been written by a Mayo man. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
In 2012 when they went two early goals down to Donegal, everyone feared they were about to endure a capitulation along the lines of 2004 and 2006. They didn’t. For the first time since 1996, a Mayo team had died in an All Ireland with their boots on.
In 2013 they became the first Mayo team since ’96 to be ahead at half-time. In 2016 they became the first Mayo team since ’96 to play in an All-Ireland final and not lose it. In the replay they held their opponents to a single goal, something no Mayo team had done in any of their previous five All-Irelands, and lost by just a single point. And yet yesterday they failed even better.
Aidan O’Shea had by a distance his best-ever All Ireland final, disproving the ridiculous notion that he’s not a big-game player.
It used to be thrown at Cillian O’Connor that he couldn’t score enough from play on the biggest day. Yesterday he kicked three boomers that a Mike Frank Russell or Stevie McDonnell or any other marquee forward you care to mention would have been proud of.
It was said that Andy Moran, another player whose marquee forward status has been questioned over the years, always struggled against the Dublin full-back line. Yesterday he had them torched for three points before half-time.
Kevin McLoughlin and Jason Doherty underlined why this year has been the best yet of their careers. Chris Barrett played his greatest ever game for Mayo in his greatest-ever season, something which should see him land the consolation prize of a first All Star at the age of 30.
This time there was no howler from the sideline, like taking off their full forward before half-time when he had been man-of-the-match in the semi-final, a la Alan Freeman in 2013, or switching goalkeepers a la 2016.
They held Dublin to just one goal. They kicked 1-16 themselves, the most they ever have in a final since they last won an All Ireland.
And yet they still lost.
It’s a cliché to say that the margins are so tight at this level. Back when Armagh won their All Ireland talking about inches, they could afford to miss a penalty, could afford to go the last 10 minutes of the game without a score.
In 2017 you can’t. Not with an opposition as exacting and as unforgiving as Dublin.
In his autobiography Jim McGuinness revealed that in the lead-up to that year’s All Ireland final he illustrated to his players how they were a more clinical team than Mayo: over the course of that summer Donegal were shooting 62% from play, Mayo only 52%.
And over the past four seasons Dublin and Kerry could say much the same. Not this year. Mayo’s shooting has never have been more accurate over the course of a summer (post-Derry) or an All-Ireland final than it was in 2017 – and yet they weren’t quite accurate enough. Multiple Mayo players went from being one-in- two men to two-out-of-three men and yet against Dublin that wasn’t enough.
Doherty missed a glorious goal chance as well as a relatively-easy attempt straight after half-time.
O’Shea was immense but missed his one shot, an attempt that would have stretched Mayo ahead, and with the resounding sound any score of his prompts, an undeniable sense that Mayo’s time and day had come.
O’Connor’s scoring rate from play in All-Ireland finals may have gone up but all season his freetaking has slipped by 10-15 percent; where once he used to be a nine-out- of-ten man, this summer he slipped back to being seven-out- of-ten.
Even Moran botched a glorious point chance during the second half.
In another All-Ireland in another era, they’d have gotten away with it. But now, in the era of the Dubs.
And that’s where the real concern is for this Mayo team. Yeah, they may well go again and get better again, just as they have every single season this past seven years. But Dublin go again and get better again, every single year too. As much as Mayo are still learning from the harsh lessons of the past, you can’t help but feel that they’re still paying for them too.
On a Saturday night in February 2013, Mayo rolled into Croke Park to play Dublin in Jim Gavin’s first season in charge. At the time Mayo were the ones with the psychological edge on Dublin, having won the previous encounter teams between the teams in 2012. And 10 minutes into the second half of that league game under the Croker lights, they seemed primed to maintain that edge, being both a man and a point up after Ger Brennan was sent off. But then the team management chose to give a debutant a run instead of a veteran to go for the kill. Dublin brought on Kevin McManamon. Within minutes he’d buried a goal to completely turn the game. Turned out it completely turned the rivalry. From that Dublin would have the confidence to go and win the league, and then the All Ireland. Mayo haven’t beaten Dublin since. By failing to kill a monster in 2013, they created one.
Tomorrow Matt Cooper on the Last Word will put it to a David Brady just as he did last year that Mayo simply don’t know how to win, even though this Mayo team know more than any other football team in the country how to win – except Dublin. Unlike the male Irish boxers, you get slammed, not feted, for winning silver in this game.
The core of the team will continue but there will be changes, casualties. Sometime this autumn Alan Dillon will become the best-retired Mayo footballer of the last 25 years. Barry Moran will shuffle away as well. One of the Dublin-based players entering their early 30s may struggle to summon the zest to go again. Work and family commitments may even force Stephen Rochford to step aside, though such a loss would likely be offset by the return of a wiser, reinvigorated James Horan.
Either news – Rochford staying on or a Horan coming back – would in turn reinvigorate the players and the county.
The real concern is David Clarke. It’s 16 years now since he first played for Mayo. The last three years have all supposed to have been his last year. While Rob Hennelly remains the best backup goalkeeper in the country, Clarke exudes a solidity and presence that only Stephen Cluxton can match. That’s the tragedy of yesterday. The core of this Mayo team still has a couple of years to win their All-Ireland. But some of the men who stood looking up at Cluxton lifting that cup will now never get to lift it themselves.