For over an hour, this eagerly anticipated meeting of two counties routinely praised by the purists for their attacking verve was mired in controversy and speckled with spite, with Dublin having Diarmuid Connolly sent off with six minutes left and two men black carded.
Jim Gavin’s side made few friends with some of their antics, off the ball and on, with Connolly seeing the line, and Mayo’s Lee Keegan a yellow, after the pair engaged in some prolonged wrestling away from play. What Connolly did for the harsher censure was uncertain.
Mayo were more sinned against than sinners, but they were hardly blameless. Rory O’Carroll walked off after four minutes with blood streaming from his left eye, for instance, and failed to return. It was not an injury he sustained by himself.
Still, let’s focus on the sweet before we stew in the sour.
Say what you like about Mayo’s failings, many of which were evidenced yesterday, but this a side that refuses to accept the fate that has been their predecessors’ every year since 1951 and it was that backbone which earned them a second bite in HQ next Saturday at 5pm.
When Jack McCaffrey bumped Dublin’s lead up to seven points with only nine minutes to play, it came on the back of a 10-minute spell in which Dublin had outscored Mayo by 1-4 to a point. That was that, we thought, though not for long.
There was a sense even then that Mayo were going to push this to the end, as they had at this same stage in 2006 when they also trailed Dublin by seven before emerging triumphant, and their opponents obliged by stepping off the gas like they had in the quarter-final against Fermanagh.
Stephen Cluxton, so often Dublin’s hero, was targeted like a cartoon villain, Andy Moran robbing the goalkeeper at one point and having the resultant shot saved by a combination of McCaffrey and John Small, but it was only one reprieve amidst the suffering.
Three missed frees from the Dublin goalkeeper in the second half only fuelled Mayo’s sense of mission and his short kick-outs were targeted remorselessly by a chasing side that pushed up with nothing to lose. It was a squeeze that brought outstanding results.
Mayo chipped away at the deficit and a huge chunk was bitten off it when Colm Boyle was adjudged to have been bundled over in the area with just two minutes left and Cillian O’Connor added a penalty goal to the nine dead-ball points he nailed.
Andy Moran kicked over the equaliser before Cluxton ended his most miserable day in a Dublin shirt by sending his third free wide of the posts — and from the same patch of grass from which he kicked the Dubs to an All-Ireland title against Kerry in 2011.
The final whistle was met with near stupefied silence, the capacity 82,300 crowd only beginning to process the myriad of emotions and incidents from a game that may well keep the GAA’s disciplinary bods busy for some time. They might well find themselves explaining too how a Bernard Brogan first-half point did not find its way up to the HawkEye booth for scrutiny.
Connolly’s case will be fascinating to follow after the controversies over the Tiernan McCann and Kevin Keane decisions earlier this month while Cluxton and Philly McMahon will know soon if they are to be in the dock for suggested stamps and headbutts, both of them on Aidan O’Shea.
Added to that was a myriad of other infractions, real and imagined, that created spiralling debates as to the validity or otherwise of the colour of cards shown, or not, with Michael Darragh Macauley and Denis Bastick both shown black for taking opponents to the ground.
How McMahon didn’t see some cardboard of any hue, for persistent fouling on Aidan O’Shea if nothing else, remains a mystery though, whatever of Joe McQuillan’s performance, Dublin and Mayo won’t need telling that their own left a lot to be desired.
Mayo sprang a surprise by giving a championship debut to wing-back David Drake instead of Barry Moran, but his role aped that of the Castlebar man the last day against Donegal in the half-back line, where the Connacht champions boasted no lack of bodies.
They were less well represented up front.
Dublin pressed their flanks, stemming their attacking wing-backs, and it forced Mayo to play ponderous football made all the more frustrating by loose balls from defence and poor service in to an isolated O’Shea.
By the break, only one of their seven points had come from play.
Dublin started impressively on an almost ideal day for football, answering Keegan’s opening point with a Connolly goal from a penalty, though Paul Flynn was clearly downed outside the area by Jason Doherty in what seemed an accidental tangle of legs.
With Paddy Andrews and Ciaran Kilkenny purring, Dublin were value for their three-point lead at the turn and Kevin McManamon arrived on the scene from the restart to add 1-1 with his 57th-minute goal coming from a rebound after Brian Fenton’s initial shot was saved.
And then it got really interesting.
Roll on Saturday.
D Connolly (1-2, 1-0 pen, 0-1 pen); K McManamon (1-1); C Kilkenny (0-3); P Andrews, B Brogan (0-2 each); A Brogan, J McCaffrey (0-1 each).
C O’Connor (1-9, 1-0 pen, 8 frees, 1 45); A Moran (0-2); L Keegan, D O’Connor, K Higgins, A Freeman (0-1 each).
D Connolly (70+4).
S Cluxton; J Cooper, R O’Carroll, P McMahon; J McCarthy, C O’Sullivan, J McCaffrey; B Fenton, MD Macauley; P Flynn, P Andrews, C Kilkenny; D Rock, D Connolly, B Brogan.
M Fitzsimons for R O’Carroll (blood permanent, 4); K McManamon for D Rock (h-t); J Small for J Cooper (inj, 44); D Bastick for MD Macauley (black, 51); A Brogan for P Andrews (55); T Brady for B Fenton (58); E Lowndes for Bastick (black, 68).
R Hennelly; C Barrett, G Cafferkey, K Higgins; D Vaughan, L Keegan, C Boyle; S O’Shea, T Parsons; D O’Connor, D Drake, J Doherty; A O’Shea, K McLoughlin, C O’Connor.
P Durcan for D Vaughan (inj, 10); A Moran for D Drake (45); A Freeman for J Doherty (62); B Moran for S O’Shea (66); M Sweeney for D O’Connor (70).
J McQuillan (Cavan).