Three weeks of it so, poking and prodding this Gulliver of a football team, Mayo and the rest of us mulling over the questions Tyrone failed abysmally to pose of Dublin yesterday.
The no-show of Ulster’s finest and Kerry’s malfunction on Saturday brings a degree of clarity to the pecking order at football’s top table, but leaves one intriguing question for the All-Ireland final: Have Mayo closed the gap on their nemesis since last September’s final replay?
Stephen Rochford and Donie Buckley left the Hogan Stand yesterday with the ledgers as empty and themselves as wise as when they sat down to watch a Dublin demotion of Tyrone, 2-17 to 0-11. The robust scrutiny of the three-in-a-row chasers will be left to them.
Jim Gavin will do his business forensically before the September 17 renewal with Mayo, but both backroom teams and video analysts will narrow their focus on the small piece of real estate in front of Stephen Cluxton’s goal for a possible chink.
Late in the day at Croke Park yesterday, Tyrone eventually put in the considered delivery the Cavanagh brothers had been aching for throughout a soporific second half, with Philly McMahon flooring the younger sibling Colm.
Though Stephen Cluxton saved Peter Harte’s penalty, it was hardly lost on the watching Rochford that Dublin’s only other goal concession this summer came from an angled ball into Kildare’s Paddy Brophy.
Just because Aidan O’Shea at full-forward for the final is obvious doesn’t mean it’s unviable.
Dublin have won their four championship outings by a combined total of 46 points — that’s almost a margin of a dozen per game. Éamonn Fitzmaurice thought Kerry had mastered the voyage into the unknown until his side knocked up against Mayo on tour.
It’s hardly beyond the realm of possibility that Dublin could struggle to match Mayo’s seemingly insatiable appetite for graft in the final.
Tyrone were advertised as the purveyors of peskiness in advance of yesterday’s sell-out Sunday, but the ambition behind their walled rearguard was so limited as to be derisory.
Six years ago, we watched an All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and a Donegal side that had squatting rights in its own half. Football overcame that, and now, it would appear, smart people have seen off the blanket defence with it — certainly if Tyrone brought what remained of it to this semi-final mismatch. Dublin pulled them east and west and built up a 1-9 to 0-5 half-time advantage.
Harte’s plan, presumably, was to be playing on Dublin’s nerves by the three-quarter point, but the packed defence is a busted flush against the power and mobility — and fitness — of Dublin. In the ten minutes before the break,
the Ulster champions made several encouraging blocks and forced Dublin into poorly chosen shots. It seemed a bridgehead for better things, but Tyrone were poorer still after the break.
Mickey Harte’s men had seen off a quartet of their northern counterparts en route to the last four, and given how far ahead of the curve they look up north, it isn’t saying much for the state of Ulster football at the end of the 2017 campaign.
Sean Cavanagh’s Jones’ Road farewell went off barely better than Kieran Donaghy’s had on Saturday, but had Dublin taken three clear goal chances that fell to them after half-time, it might have been a Red Hand rout.
Questions regarding Dublin’s hunger to make a fifth All-Ireland final in seven years took all of five minutes to evaporate, Ciarán Kilkenny picking up a sloppy loose Tyrone pass in midfield and setting Con O’Callaghan on his way. The sensible course for an under-21 in his debut senior season is to give and create an option for the return, but this Cuala lad is a treat, his net-buster giving the Hill an early toast.
Thereafter, they all danced across the red carpet, the Broadway heroes: McManamom cracking the crossbar, Flynn flexing his talents, Cluxton with that late penalty save, a reappearance in blue for Diarmuid Connolly, and the tingle of those left behind the curtain — Brogan, McAuley et al.
“Some didn’t travel on the team bus,” Gavin pointed out afterwards, as if we weren’t all feeling inferior enough. “But when we meet up next week they will be on script and they will do their very best for the team. That has been their influence, to just keep pushing each other along. The team selection is outside of their control but they are all playing well, we have a fit and healthy squad and the next three weeks will be interesting.”
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice was moved to remark Mayo seemed to be getting stronger as autumn loomed, and Mickey Harte was equally wowed by the experience of being up close with Dublin’s athleticism. There was maybe even resignation from both defeated semi-finalists that Mayo and the Dubs have nosed even further ahead of the chasing pack with their pure power.
“We had a good idea of what they were going to do, but you never know the ferocity with which they’re going to come at you until you’re toe-to-toe with it,” the Tyrone manager acknowledged.
“We never experienced that in any of the league games we played over the years with this particular group of players.
“This was a different level. They had a real energy and drive. We didn’t experience the ferocity that they would bring to it. I have to compliment them, they were very, very up for this game.”
Fleetingly, at the beginning of the second half, Tyrone got on the front foot, but after a Harte point, they were frustrated by three poor wides. Dublin rattled their bag of goodies and on came Paul Flynn, who claimed three points, and Kevin McManamon, who slalomed inside a ragged defence to cannon a left-footed effort off the crossbar. Shortly afterwards, Dublin carved open another clear opening for McCaffrey who opened out his body and made someone’s day in the Davin End with an errant finish.
“We weren’t clinical enough,” Gavin deadpanned afterwards. “The next day that won’t be good enough. We played an All-Ireland final last year and didn’t perform so we’ve a lot of work to do to try to get that performance in three weeks’ time.”
There’s a vague possibility the man was serious there.
Sean Cavanagh certainly was as he reflected on the bittersweet end. “We’ve come up against probably the greatest GAA team I’ve ever played against,” he mused.
“It’s tough luck to be part of an era against a team of that magnitude, that’s dominating the sport that I never thought was possible to dominate.”
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