Derry and Mayo yesterday were a case in point.
The Ulster side will hope that this Division 1 league semi-final win proves to be a key staging post on a return towards the summit of the game. Mayo, well, they will hope to look back on this day from the height of summer and shrug their shoulders.
It makes for an inexact science: do we proffer definitive conclusions on the basis of one 70-minute performance in front of a two-thirds empty Croke Park — attendance 28,902? Or file it away as one to note but without lending it much in the way of weight?
After all, only two points separated them.
That much is true, but Derry managed to win despite playing three-quarters of it with 14 men after midfielder Fergal Doherty received a second yellow card for a challenge on Aidan O’Shea. That alters its complexion.
That Mayo could conspire to lose under such circumstances, just weeks after coughing up victory here against a Dublin side similarly handicapped, demands examination, but convention and manners dictate that we start with the winners.
Derry showed a grit that hasn’t always been their forte in closing this out. They stayed with Mayo then rallied from a point behind in the last half-dozen minutes by scoring four unanswered, the last two courtesy of Mark Lynch.
Their talisman from centre half-forward all season, he was sensational yesterday. Lynch scored nine points, four of them from play, and made a succession of lung-bursting runs from deep that Mayo failed to combat from start to finish.
It was a superb display from a man whose wife is due to be induced today with their first child and who, at the end of the month, will captain his county in their first Division 1 final since their defeat of Kerry six years ago. He had ample support.
Enda Lynn lined up alongside him in the half-forward line but, like the Banagher man, covered acres of ground on a bright but cold afternoon that still held hints of winter. Wing-backs Kevin Johnston and Sean Leo McGoldrick filled similar briefs.
Yet, just as important was goalkeeper Thomas Mallon, who made a pair of vital saves in the second half, the first depriving Donal Vaughan midway through the period when a goal would have left Mayo six points to the good.
That alone skewers the notion that one side was uniformly excellent while the other was not. They drew level with each other on nine different occasions, but the two goals conceded after 14 and 51 minutes highlighted the reasons for Mayo’s loss. Both sides displayed a cynicism at times in dragging players down that should have resulted in black cards, but didn’t, and yet Mayo were naïve in the extreme in allowing Derry claim the first green flag of the afternoon.
The first saw Lynch break from midfield to the penalty area without passing a single Mayo defender before Cailean O’Boyle found the net. The second saw McGoldrick set up Kevin Johnston.
None of that seemed important, not yesterday anyway, when the Connacht side claimed their only goal after 24 minutes courtesy of a move that started with Aidan O’Shea blocking a shot at one end and Andy Moran tapping in at the other.
It was a snapshot that cost Doherty his place on the park for the remainder given the veteran midfielder caught O’Shea with a late charge just after his Breaffy counterpart was launching a clearing kick towards his forward line.
O’Shea’s input in that score had, in fact, summed up Mayo’s day.
Impressive as his block had been, it took him an age to saunter towards the loose ball and, though Doherty ultimately paid for it, that lack of urgency summed up a performance which manager James Horan described as “flat”.
The concern is that it has been like this all year: patches of decent football interwoven with head-scratching shortcomings and little of it suggestive of a side that will be better this summer than last when they fell one hurdle short of the All-Ireland title.
Derry’s graph looks far healthier by comparison. Division 2 champions last year, they have a chance to make a serious statement against Dublin in the top tier decider in two weeks’ time before the meat of the calendar year appears on the menu.
Scorers for Derry: M Lynch 0-9 (4fs, 1 65), C O’Boyle 1-1, K Johnston 1-0, SL McGoldrick, C McFaul, E Lynn, E McGuckin; E Bradley 0-1 each.
Scorers for Mayo: A Freeman 0-6 (4fs, 1 65), A Moran 1-1 (0-1f), J Doherty, M Sweeney 0-2 each, L Keegan, A O’Shea, J Gibbons, K Higgins, E Varley 0-1 each.
DERRY: T Mallon; O Duffy, C McKaigue, D McBride; K Johnston, G O’Kane, SL McGoldrick; F Doherty, P Bradley; C McFaul, M Lynch, E Lynn; B Heron, E McGuckin, C O’Boyle.
Subs for Derry: N Holly for O’Boyle (48), A Devlin for Herron (52), E Bradley for P Bradley (61), A McAlynn for Johnston, C Kielt for McGuckin (both 66), C McWilliams for McFaul (71).
MAYO: R Hennelly; B Harrison, G Cafferkey, S McHale; L Keegan, C Boyle, D Vaughan; A O’Shea, J Gibbons; K Higgins, A Moran, J Doherty; K McLoughlin, A Freeman, M Sweeney.
Subs for Mayo: K Keane for Cafferkey (33), E Varley for McLoughlin (48), T Parsons for Higgins (59), S O’Shea for Gibbons (63), R Feeney for Doherty (69).
Referee: P Hughes (Armagh).