OpinionPat Spillane

Spillane: Mayo blew their chance as Dublin won't get caught again

Aidan O'Shea and Michael Darragh Macauley clash in the drawn game
Aidan O'Shea and Michael Darragh Macauley clash in the drawn game

There is a default position I revert to when I get something spectacularly wrong – which happens quite a lot!

I quote the lyrics of Declan Nerney: ‘If I knew then, what I know now, I’d be a wiser man.’

And boy did I, along with so many other so-called experts, get it woefully wrong about last Sunday’s All-Ireland final. 

Even though I did outline several reasons why I felt Mayo had a chance of winning, by the time the match rolled around I was convinced they had no chance.

For Mayo to win everything had to go absolutely right for them and the Dubs needed to have only their second bad day at the office since Jim Gavin took over. 

Realistically, the chances of this happening were highly improbable given the form of the two teams, but that’s more or less what transpired. 

Mind you, had I written any of the following last Sunday readers would have rightly concluded that I had finally lost my marbles...

Bernard Brogan and Paul Flynn would be held scoreless; Diarmuid Connolly would be relatively anonymous apart for his assist which ultimately led to Colm Boyle’s own-goal and a point near the end; the Mayo backs would score more from play than Dublin’s starting forwards.

No Dublin player scored until the 30th minute, yet the defending title-holders were still ahead. In decades to come the question of how that happened will be a regular at every table quiz.

As Colm O’Rourke said at half-time on the Sunday Game, this was the GUBU final – grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. Quite simply, nobody could have predicted what happened.

In the end a draw was probably a fair result, though if I was a Mayo fan I would look back on the game as a lost opportunity. 

This might have been their best ever chance ever to put to bed their All-Ireland final day curse. 

Being charitable, Dublin’s performance could be described as flat; they were there for the taking but Mayo failed to take the chance. 

Even though I believe Mayo left the game behind them, I still give them a chance in the replay. 

On reflection – and I’m as guilty as the other commentators in this regard – too much of the post-match analysis focussed on Dublin’s poor performance.

We have all automatically assumed that they will not play as badly again next weekend because their under-performing players will have recovered their mojo.

This is a very simplistic conclusion to reach, because the main reason why Dublin played so poorly was because Mayo were the better team on the day.

I suggested that if Mayo were to cause an upset they had to play the game on their terms. They needed to physically, mentally and tactically impose their game plan on the Dubs. Get at them physically, get under their skin, keep it tight defensively and don’t let the Dubs deploy their high-tempo, running game which allows them to demolish opponents in a flash.

As pundits we have all been guilty of buying into the hype which suggests that this is the greatest Dublin team of all time.

In terms of their trophy haul they are unmatchable, but the majority of the hammerings Dublin have doled out have been against woefully weak teams in Leinster.

While they have won all but two of their championship encounters against the other three best teams in the country – Mayo, Donegal and Kerry – in the last four years, all of these games have been tight affairs, regardless of what the final score was.

Maybe Dublin are not the all-conquering machine we were led to believe they were – certainly a few of the component parts need to be serviced or even replaced.

Where did Mayo get it right? Defensively they were superb, even though they conceded two own goals.

They brought intensity and physicality to the battle and they got the majority of their defensive match-ups spot on.

Lee Keegan’s personal duel with Diarmuid Connolly looked unsavoury, but it’s the perfect snapshot of how Mayo kept the Dublin forwards at bay.

Not alone was Keegan physically aggressive in the tackle, he managed to get inside Connolly’s head. 

Mayo showed great resilience and character to come back from five points down at half-time after conceding two own-goals and then from three points down in injury-time.

No longer can they be accused of lacking bottle or leadership. They showed both qualities in abundance, with the likes of Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor standing up to the plate when it mattered most.

And I’m not as convinced, as many commentators are, that Mayo hit top form in terms of performance last weekend. 

They carved out the draw with only 45 per cent possession. And just like the Dubs, some of their big names, such as the O’Shea brothers and Diarmuid O’Connor, underperformed.

They have room to improve, but let’s not hand all the plaudits to Mayo. Dublin deserve a little credit. Despite playing poorly, they drew the game and would probably have won it had Connolly not decided to go for glory from that sideline kick deep into injury-time.

Their full-back line emerged unscathed, while some of their younger players like Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny, John Small and Paul Mannion showed admirable leadership qualities when the chips were down.

Furthermore, the unfair dismissal of James McCarthy was a huge blow. 

Nevertheless, it is dangerous to simply assume that they cannot play as badly again. Given Jim Gavin’s forensic attention to detail I am sure he will address the underlying issues to ensure that they don’t play as badly again.

Mayo, too, will be seeking improvement. They need to achieve a better balance between defending and attacking.

Too often their full-forward line was left isolated, with Andy Moran the only Mayo player anywhere close to the Dublin D. 

Their half-forwards retreated so deep that Mayo were forced to carry the ball – and they repeatedly lost it in turnovers. It has been estimated that Dublin scored 1-6 directly from turned-over Mayo possession.

Apart from Andy Moran’s half-chance in the second-half they never looked like scoring a goal, whereas Dublin carved out at least three decent goal-scoring chances.

Mayo are at their most dangerous when they run at the opposition in numbers, but they were so concerned with their defensive duties that we rarely saw either Keegan or

Kevin McLoughlin making those characteristic bursts forward with support runners at the shoulders.

They need to play with less fear and a greater sense of adventure in the replay – my advice to Stephen Rochford is to encourage his team to throw off the shackles at some stage and go for it.

They also need to define exactly how to capitalise on Aidan O’Shea’s qualities. For much of last Sunday he was a peripheral figure in the middle third of the field, recycling ball which had already been secured. 

He can contribute a lot more if deployed properly – which probably means standing side by side with Cian O’Sullivan and driving at the heart of the Dublin defence.

I don’t envisage Dublin making any changes from positions one to nine – no fault could be attached to them for the team’s failure to win.

But it’s what to do about their once all-dancing, all-singing forward line which will occupy most of the team management’s attention.

The statistics make grim reading. Their starting forwards scored two points from play; they failed to score for 30 minutes in the first-half and for 15 in the second. 

They converted just nine of their 24 chances created. None of their half-forwards scored and they kicked 12 wides. It was a stale, tired performance.

Given that both Dean Rock and Bernard Brogan lack pace and with Connolly having a roaming commission, Dublin do not have a recognised target man in the full-forward line.

They recycled sideways without ever achieving penetration and their kicking under pressure left a lot of be desired.  There is a case to be made for Gavin to freshen up this sector.

Brogan has been replaced in five of Dublin’s six championship games this season and has failed to catch fire. Since Flynn reverted to a more defensive role last year he has been a peripheral figure.

Two other issues probably impacted on their performance. Unwittingly they probably got sucked into the pre-match narrative, which suggested that by merely turning up they would win.

Finally, let’s not underestimate just how difficult it is to retain an All-Ireland. After all, there has to be a reason why every team apart from Kerry – under two different managers – has failed to win back-to-back titles for more than a quarter of a century.

Securing one All-Ireland requires unprecedented levels of intensity, personal sacrifice, work rate and sheer bloody-mindedness. It is so difficult to replicate those qualities the following season.

So after all that, who is going to win the replay? They say the team which learns most from the drawn game wins the replay, but I have a more simplistic view.

Favourites usually win the replay because having got a fright the first day, they won’t get caught a second time.

Verdict: Dublin.