One of the most surprising aspects of last weekend’s drawn All-Ireland semi-final wasn’t so much that Dublin were reeled in when seven points up with over an hour gone, but that they still appear to be carrying the scars of last year’s semi- final defeat to Donegal.
If they had truly recovered from the sucker punch they got this time last year, would they, for example, have played Paul Flynn as deep as he was last Sunday? Granted, Flynn’s deep-lying position and his long raking diagonal balls were directly responsible for five first half points, and it was his run from deep that led to Dublin’s first-half penalty. But apart from his poor attempt at a point in the 63rd minute, when it hardly appeared to matter, Flynn never really threatened the Mayo goal at any stage the last day.
Stephen Cluxton and Michael Darragh Macauley, the other two thirds of the Dublin triumvirate who were expected to raise their game for Mayo, also had days they would rather forget. At this stage, there is a legitimate question to be asked in relation to the two principal drivers in Dublin’s last All-Ireland success: do they have it in them this year to lead from the front again?
Had any of the remaining teams’ goalkeepers (Rob Hennelly and Brendan Kealy) made some of the mistakes Cluxton has made this season, the analysis of their game would hardly be as sympathetic. Because of Cluxton’s sustained excellence over the course of an entire career he gets cut some slack, but can last Sunday really be put down to an off day?
Likewise, if David Moran or Séamus O’Shea were struggling for form as Macauley seems to be right now, would they be trusted to deliver in big games like this evening’s?
Has Neil Gallagher’s showing in last year’s semi-final spooked both Cluxton and Macauley to such an extent that every kick-out must now be a clever pitched ball to a receiving player, as opposed to a long targeted delivery that secures primary possession as far away from the Dublin goal as possible?
What happened to the type of casual 70-yard punt that Cluxton put Diarmuid Connolly’s way to finally see off Kerry two seasons ago? Where is the controlled fury in Macauley’s play that saw him scramble for a match-winning fingertip flick to set Kevin McManamon on his way in the same game?
When footballers examine their collective consciences between draws and replays these are the question they ask themselves privately while maintaining the veneer of self-confidence in public.
Another key question must be asked within the confines of the Dublin dressing room. Why did so many of their players appear to get caught up in sideshows and unnecessary flashpoints? Apart from a brief period at the end of the 2013 final, it has been a core principle of Dublin teams, ‘post-Pillar’, to behave with a bit of class and decorum on the field of play. Dublin may argue, with some justification, that Mayo were at it too, but the harsh reality is that it was Dublin’s game that suffered most from breaches of discipline.
Nearly every study available on indiscipline in sport informs us that such behaviour is born of frustration, and that there are triggers or catalysts for all acts of aggression. Last weekend’s match should be viewed as the product of a culture into which so many have contributed for so long. The analysis of every misdemeanour and of who said or wrote what about whom is, frankly, wearying, and if we have learned anything over the course of this championship it is that next year’s GAA Congress has to tackle the issue of crime and punishment once and for all.
Meanwhile, only a churl would find fault with the drawn game in terms of pure entertainment, but from a technical point of view, there were many flaws.
The two-minute period just before half time that began with Colm Boyle kicking the ball into Cluxton’s hands and ended, after ten lateral hand-passes and seven lateral foot-passes, with Paul Flynn dropping his effort into Robbie Hennelly’s fists appeared to typify the teams attempts to mirror each other in their conservatism.
The series of olés and jeers that accompanied the passage told its own story about the fare on offer. It appeared almost apt, that the first half would end with yet another poor tackle by James McCarthy on Cillian O’Connor that drew a yellow for McCarthy and yet another tap-over free for O’Connor.
I spoke last week of not being convinced by Aidan O’Shea as an out-and-out full forward and nothing happened in the drawn game has changed my mind on that. Cillian O’Connor is Mayo’s best forward and the need for a tactical adjustment in O’Connor’s positioning to reflect this fact is now starker. If Mayo are going to persist with O’Shea as a target man, then they need to get their best kickers on the ball more often. The perfectly weighted ball that O’Connor played from outside the ‘D’ into O’Shea on the half hour mark last Sunday suggests that Mayo would get the most out of O’Connor on the forty. The fact that he is their best tackling forward only strengthens the argument.
Diarmuid O’Connor’s incessant running and intelligent input needs to be reflected by a bigger scoring return from the entire half-forward line. His second-half point was a thing of beauty but Jason Doherty and Kevin McLoughlin must complement their work on the back-foot by offering a genuine threat up front too.
Kerry are in the final this year because of the scoring returns from their half-forward line against Tyrone and, after all is said and done, in last year’s semi-final in the Gaelic Grounds, Kerry prevailed because they had more players than Mayo capable of changing the course of a game from outfield. These things count at this stage of the championship.
All week we’ve been told that the winning team today will be the one who learns the most but, as always, on days like today victory will depend on how willing players are to go that extra mile. And, often, the only regret teams have when they lose is that they didn’t live boldly enough. Mayo know this much from last year and it still hurts.
The difference between the two teams going into the last five minutes last Sunday was the difference between verb and adjective. Where Dublin dissented and described their woes, Mayo dug deep and did.
Or perhaps the difference between the sides is best illustrated by the sequence that led up to the Mayo penalty. Tom Parsons (heroic all afternoon) put serious heat on Diarmuid Connolly’s grubber pass to Cian O’Sullivan under the Cusack Stand. O’Sullivan (distracted all afternoon) got harried by Patrick Durcan. Ger Cafferkey turned over Alan Brogan, Barry Moran emerged with the ball, passed to Colm Boyle, who 16 seconds, three fist passes and three sprints later was up-ended in the square.
Mayo, four points down, were alive and electrified by their own hunger.
Dublin, with a substantial lead, appeared like a team full of sated stars who believed their fate was now beyond their control.
If that trend continues, there’s only going to be one winner.
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