was sitting in the Lower Hogan Stand as referee Joe McQuillan blew for that last free for a foul on Diarmuid Connolly. The clock was in red numbers. Dean Rock was placing the ball and setting himself up for the chance to replicate Stephen Cluxton’s winning free-kick which secured victory in the 2011 All-Ireland final.
At that moment, with nearly the entire 82,000 people in the stadium on their feet, afraid we would miss something, I heard a woman behind me sobbing loudly. She was probably in her thirties, decked in Mayo colours. She was just sat there, head down, her hands covering her face as the tears flowed.
Rock hadn’t even put it over the bar yet, but it mattered not to her. Like every Mayo supporter, she had seen this movie too many times before and it has always finished the same way. Gut-wrenching heartbreak was to be their lot again.
If the Superbowl-esque air corps fly-over was the spark that lit the fuse for the cacophony of noise to envelope the stadium, Con O’Callaghan’s unorthodox finish one minute in was the explosion of ear piercing dynamite that never subsided even a few decibels until half-time.
With the fearlessness of youth and soaring confidence in his own ability, O’Callaghan took on the steely Colm Boyle with his first possession, in his first senior All-Ireland final, and coolly finished past David Clarke with the outside of the right boot having dropped the ball out of his left hand. Some coaches would castigate kids for showing such ‘poor mechanics and technique’ on a Sunday morning’s academy training. I thought it was brilliant split-second ingenuity.
From there until the end, it was as manly and physical as you could ask for. Every single ball mattered. Every turnover meant something. To my mind, with the pace and intensity on display, it was as close to unrefereeable as you’re likely to see.
Starting Eoghan O’Gara at full-forward was a bold move by Dublin, but ultimately, an unsuccessful one.
The Dublin attack was stagnant in the first half, and too often the limited supply of ball they had wasn’t sticking in that inside line.
In fairness, a lot of what Dublin were getting in attack was coming off broken plays. Their midfield was under pressure in the first half and seemed incapable of winning the kind of hardball that the Mayo foragers were devouring for fun.
With the Dublin kick-outs being such a crucial part of what makes them so efficient, Mayo threw something different at them and started in a big zone to defend against the Cluxton restarts.
Essentially, instead of everybody tracking their own individual marker and running around leaving huge pockets of space for other Dublin players to run into, the Mayo tactic was to only go so far, and then hand the man over to the next guy and stay covering their zone with their hands up and making themselves big.
The idea was to disrupt the usual monopoly of possession that Dublin enjoy off the tee. The different look, took away the huge areas that the Dubs love to create for their keeper to hit. Their zone forced Cluxton to go long into the middle, and by doing so, Mayo were the dominant force out there, winning 87% of those Dublin long kick-outs in the first half.
That possession made them more of a threat going forward - and Dublin less so.
At half-time, it was difficult to comprehend how Dublin were only a point in arrears. Mayo had played all the football. Aidan O’Shea was heavily involved in everything good they did. Andy Moran had been electric again despite all the pre-match talk that Fitzsimons would put manners on him. Not a chance. Jason Doherty was looking like the guy he was against Kerry and kicked two super points.
But still, at half-time there was only one point in it. It could - and should - have been more.
Dublin emerged a different team for the second half, literally. Diarmuid Connolly and Kevin McManamon brought more pace and composure to a forward division that had been living off scraps for the first 35. The Dublin kick-outs were now short stabs to the corner-backs as opposed to long bombs out the middle. They won 100% of those kick-outs in the second half.
As well as introducing two of their blue-chip attacking subs, the move of putting Paul Mannion to full forward was a crucial and match-winning one. With Connolly and Kevin Mc and the rest of the attack now making the pitch as wide as possible by hogging the sidelines, Mannion exploited that space around the D, to become a huge threat with his pacey running, ball winning and scoring.
He finished with three from play in that second-half, and had a great individual goal effort saved by Clarke.
After enduring a difficult first half, the Dublin middlemen eventually began to establish themselves. James McCarthy, while checking O’Shea as essentially a third midfielder, thundered into the game. He kicked two massive points but seemed to be just about everywhere putting out fires as the chaos ratcheted up.
As was well flagged before the game, that Dublin bench made a significant impact on the outcome of the game. Paul Flynn, while not as dominant as advertised, was introduced after 8 minutes for the injured Jack McCaffrey and had two score assists. Kevin McManamon kicked a score as well as winning a crucial turnover back inside his own 45 with Mayo seemingly off to the races. Connolly kicked a sublime point, had a beautiful cross-field kick-pass assist, and won the crucial match-winning free in the final tension-filled moments. The man who is often criticised for his temperament brought a cold composure to hottest of proceedings.
For the Mayo subs, Diarmuid O’Connor won a scoreable free after his introduction from the bench, and Stephen Coen had an assist for a score, but that’s as good as it got. No Mayo substitute scored or even had a shot at the posts.
In a game decided by such tiny margins, the Donie Vaughan sending off obviously had an unquantifiable effect on the game. By losing his composure, charging at John Small and delivering a ‘clothes-line’ in retaliation for the Dublin man’s bone-crunching shoulder to the chest of Colm Boyle, he made it very easy on Joe McQuillan to balance the books. That moment of red-mist denied his team a numerical advantage for what turned out to be just under 30 minutes of football.
Of course, there’s no guarantee they would have gone on to win the game, but for a player with Vaughan’s experience, it was an incredible lapse in focus to leave them short heading down the stretch.
Mayo won’t blame him. There’s no point. While it was certainly a significant moment in the ebb and flow, this game wasn’t decided on that red card. Mayo still had chances. They still had fighters and leaders.
Chris Barrett for one put on an exhibition of defending. He was raw, powerful, simple and uncomplicated. Parsons drove them on. Keegan battled. Higgins and Aidan O’Shea battled throughout.
Ultimately, that consistent effort didn’t get Mayo to where they so desperately craved. For one night, they wanted to be the team with the tv cameras at their hotel function room. There’s absolutely zero craic staring at your pint glass as if it was a crystal ball in the losing hotel thinking about what might have been. All you can do is try to satisfy your thirst with the knowledge that there was no more you could have given in terms of effort and desire.
By winning by a solitary point again on Sunday, the Dubs secured their fourth one-point All Ireland final victory since another epic final encounter with Kerry in 2011. That’s an inconceivable four one-point wins in All Ireland finals in the last 7 years. They have repeatedly proved themselves ruthlessly efficient in crunch time.
After the weekend, they will be rightly hailed as one of the greatest sides ever to do it. Three in a row in this era of inter-county Gaelic football is a phenomenal achievement and a testament to the effort and skill of both players and management alike.
I thought even despite his shaky start, Dean Rock gave an immense performance for the champions. His four from play and three frees, including that tear-inducing match-winner was coolness personified. Even the sight of a GPS tracker being thrown at the ball in his approach was something we hadn’t seen before. Unfortunately for the inconsolable Mayo lady behind me, there was no breaking his focus, only Mayo hearts once again.