TONY LEEN: Are Mayo closer to the prize — or farther away?

Answer this and you’re halfway to figuring out the All-Ireland football final replay.

What’s the greater challenge facing Mayo on Saturday evening October 1? A greatly improved Dublin or the inevitable and seductive narrative that the All-Ireland champions could not be as bad again, ergo Mayo have blown their chance?

“Keep writing us off,” implored Andy Moran after the first drawn football final in 16 years.

Doing so is more difficult than it seems. Mayo somehow trailed by three points with two minutes of the 70 remaining, but thoroughly deserved the second bite given them by Cillian O’Connor with 76.54 on the stadium clock.

O’Connor’s contribution from open play wasn’t significant but no-one should doubt his bottle.

Stephen Rochford’s side restricted the sharpest scoresmiths in the business to six points from play, and offered Dublin two flukey own goals to boost their case. One western wag said afterwards that Mayo couldn’t win even when they outscored Dublin 2-15 to 0-9.

The available evidence indicates everything is still there for Mayo and that their coach Donie Buckley, who works players better than anyone on how to defend and regain possession, has reached the summit of his powers.

Rochford’s management team has work to do though, not least creating a legitimate half-forward outlet to link their half-backs to their inside forward line. Aidan O’Shea is not that man, neither is Diarmuid O’Connor or the sweeping Kevin McLoughlin, though the Knockmore man excelled in his adapted role yesterday. The Mayo manager walked into the dressing room afterwards asking the group to raise their hands if they produced their best yesterday.

There was no takers.

In comparison to the Dublin we saw spluttering and sliding yesterday, Mayo’s malfunctions looked less daunting. But what’s the real prospect of Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon, Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly and Dean Rock being so constipated in a fortnight? The weather clearly hampered fluency, but Mayo’s ability to make do in the same conditions renders that moot.

As an aside, though, is the Croke Park surface — which turns into a veritable ice rink in the rain — something the stadium management need to get into? And sharpish.

Jim Gavin was honest and gracious enough afterwards to accept his side used their ration of good fortune. “We just didn’t deserve to win, the luck was certainly with us today but we will take an awful lot from that game.”

Indeed they will. It’s astonishing to reflect that it took Dublin 29 minutes to register a score from their own player, and it was the 33rd minute before Paddy Andrews registered their first score from play.

All the more bizarre then that the latter score put Dublin 2-2 to 0-4 ahead, and they had extended that lead to five by the break.

“Getting (six points) from play isn’t good enough and some of our shot selection could have been better. So to be still there... we got the luck. I know it was a wet day but I wouldn’t be leaning too heavily on that (as an excuse),” Gavin said.

Not that Rochford’s post- mortem will be a thing of gaiety. Twice David Clarke had to rescue his team in one on one situations involving Dublin’s Brian Fenton, whose mobility was causing Tom Parsons serious bother. Then again, who doesn’t it cause problems for? By contrast Mayo never got inside the Dublin full back line, one of the champions’ few exceptional lines yesterday. Add to that freshman defender John Small, who dulled the impact of Diarmuid O’Connor and added a 65th minute point that appeared to signal Dublin’s stride towards the tape. A Rock free and a sublime Connolly effort off his left side franked that conventional wisdom, but from there to the final call of Conor Lane’s whistle is all about Mayo — and is everything they need to focus on this week.

Rochford appeared perplexed at the very notion that Mayo’s character was up for debate, like they’d never come out the shitty side of a big game at the business end of the season.

“We don’t feel sorry for ourselves. If (your) question is about the character in the group, that is there whether we won or lost. I expect the boys to get their head down now, there is a lot of desire in the group.”

Added Andy Moran: “I find it interesting that ye all had us written off before and are now asking if we are frustrated we didn’t win. Have we missed the boat? Absolutely not.”

There was 70.29 elapsed when Donal Vaughan took the responsibility to point, his second, to make it a one point finale (2-9 to 0-14). Aidan O’Shea blew one high and towards Howth before Cillian O’Connor claimed the replay with time all but up.

“I knew the lads would come back,” Rochford proclaimed. “If you see them working in Castlebar, you never think they’ll raise the white flag, even if they go three or four points down.”

The challenge remains formidable. If one of Dublin’s most celebrated traits is the ability to find a way, Mayo must find a way too. The prize is closer. Or is it farther away?

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