Before considering the wreath and awkward handshake for the Mayo post-mortem, consider perhaps a microscope and tweezers. We’re down to the smallest margins here.
Nobody would begrudge them if they were well done now with your sympathy and stilted consolations. What they’ll turn to – if not on themselves - is the cold, hard nights of winter to crash themselves against. Mayo lost. Everything after the full stop is noise to them today.
House private, no flowers, Con Houlihan might suggest.
If one conjured up a most twisted irony, would it be as wretched as the concession of a dubious free in the fifth minute of injury time? Dean Rock’s stunning conversion confirmed Dublin’s hat-trick of All-Ireland’s, their 27th in all, but it was Mayo’s fourth football final defeat in six years, three of them by a single point, that left even the celebrating tip-toeing their way out of Croke Park yesterday.
Maybe Mayo mightn’t even linger on the manner of this loss if they had other means of self-flagellation but the harshest bit to bear is that Stephen Rochford’s players threw down a winning hand and went all in after it. And still ended up trumped.
The heart-scalding moments are already seared. A wasted man advantage when Donal Vaughan gets red-carded at a moment Dublin’s John Small was receiving his second yellow. There was more than half an hour of play remaining.
Two points in front. Look at the clock. 63 minutes. Those minutes go slow, don’t they? Are they taking off Andy Moran? Have they retreated momentarily?
Cillian O’Connor’s 70th minute free to go into injury time ahead. The upright. Oh the injustice.
O’Connor had found it from somewhere to turn a wretched first-half performance into something gladiatorial in the second, kicking a stunning 67th-minute point to level it at 1-16 apiece. It was his sixth point of the second half.
At the other end of the field, Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan and Chris Barrett were duelling with gods and ghosts and winning, but such was the pitch of the battle that Dublin’s Dean Rock, Paul Mannion and Kevin McManamon were surging too.
Stephen Rochford will torment himself tomorrow night or in Wednesday’s half-light poring over the video for the infinitesimal detail, but he will be wasting his time. In an absorbing final of the tiny margins, two of football’s most basic details decided the 2017 final – Dublin limiting Mayo to a one point half time lead – and Dublin’s facility to spring award winners off the bench.
And that’s why the narrative demands that broken spirits yield to the soaring brilliance of a Dublin side subjected to the most intense scrutiny of their three-year reign as football’s finest. When their power and panache wasn’t enough for once, they drew upon exquisite decision-making and poise to get it done. One of the most under-valued traits of champions is the ability to stay breathing when the water’s around their ears. Late in the day, 61 minutes in to be accurate, Diarmuid O’Connor lanced the heart of the Dublin defence before being hauled down. It had symbolism written all over it as his brother converted the resultant free to put Mayo 1-15 to 1-13 ahead. Dublin looked done, and the value of Mayo’s record nine-game run to September was written all over the finishing credits. Dublin would pay dearly for their soft summer.
But of course, those non-starters. They’re not substitutes, they’re impact options - McManamon. Connolly. Brogan. Not just their energy and experience, but the capacity to make good choices in the midst of carnage. “Mayo had the crowd behind them and they appeared to have the momentum,” Jim Gavin suggested afterwards.
“But in the last quarter, we probably outscored them four points to one.”
Paul Mannion – like Rock – continues his second-half resurgence with a point.
Man of the match James McCarthy levelled it before Connolly set up Rock for the lead score. In every pocket of the battlefield, the standard and the stakes were at their highest. How could Higgins and/or Barrett be so heroic if Rock was taking Mayo for four points from play in the second half? But they were.
Andy Moran, oddly, was already sitting in the Hogan Stand when Mayo went looking for a history maker. But the denouement to the piece was less about that. Dublin scavenged for everything, often inside their own territory, and they broke in all directions. McManamon forced a turnover after 72 mins and 40 seconds. Connolly burrowed into traffic and convinced the referee, Joe McQuillan, he’d been illegally apprehended. Where Mayo had railed, correctly, against McQuillan’s judgement in awarding Dublin a gift of a free just before half-time, now they had nothing left to give. It looked harsh, and somewhere in Tralee, Barry John Keane smiled and remembered 2011.
The key to it all might, indeed, have been that 0-9 to 1-5 deficit for the champions at the break. It should have been more than that. Mayo were the aggressors – in the best sense of the word – for much of the opening skirmishes, which says a lot for a team goaled against within 84 seconds of the throw-in.
Once, that was Mayo’s thing. Now they shrug these things off and were level by the 13th minute and ahead by the 19th through Andy Moran after turning over Stephen Cluxton’s kickout. Two minutes before the break, Dublin were reduced to frustrated keep-ball by Mayo’s appetite behind midfield, Paul Flynn eventually throwing a left-foot ‘swinger’ well wide.
But they found a way to stay in touch. “That shows again just how much in the present these players are in the game. To turn around and finish like that,” Gavin smiled. “Very satisfying.”
It’s not like they are going anywhere either. Eleven of the squad yesterday picked up their fifth All-Ireland medal – the only players outside Kerry to ever achieve that – but the age profile suggests they can do more – if they want more. The great Kerry side of the Golden Years era won eight All-Irelands in 12 years from 1975 to 1986 – that’s five in seven campaigns now for Dublin. It’s hardly a stretch to suggest they can win three more in the next five years. By which time, they can legitimately argue to be the greatest football team of them all.
The conventional wisdom was that if Mayo triumphed, they could shed up to half a dozen from the panel. Lose, and they’ll simply put noses to the grindstone again. However, there’s a lot of 2017 reflection to be done yet. Tony McEntee trucking from Crossmaglen, and Donie Buckley doing the same from Clare may not continue for too much longer. The hard road is a big ask for some of the senior squad members too.
The drama of the main event rightly dwarfs Kerry’s 15th All-Ireland success yesterday at Croke Park in the minor grade, but the outrageous achievement by David Clifford in scoring 4-4 in their blitz of Derry cannot pass without mention either in throwing the debate forward.
A four-in-a-row had never been achieved in minor, and however long Kerry supporters will have to wait for their 28 th All-Ireland at senior level, it’s unlikely they will be waiting very long before they see the Fossa starlet in a senior jersey. He took all of 11 seconds to claim the first of his goals.
Notwithstanding Derry’s act of virtual negligence in not double-teaming Clifford from the start yesterday, his facility to dominate the age grade on the biggest stage of all is an encouraging sign for those urging his fast-track to the adult ranks.
The question is who gets to him first, and in which hemisphere.
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