Dublin and Mayo live to fight another day in scrappy classic
By Graham Gillespie
When sport is at its thrilling best it can drain its spectators in almost the same way it exhausts the participants. Sunday 18 September in Croke Park was one such day as 79 gripping minutes of Football could not separate Dublin and Mayo in one of the most remarkable All-Ireland finals in years.
The game which finished 2-09 to 0-15 also exhibited how a match does not need to be of the highest quality or especially high scoring to be a classic. In fact, perhaps the most noticeable factor on the day was the litany of errors committed by both sides throughout the contest.
Mayo started what would become a bizarre first half brightly with Charlestown midfielder Tom Parsons kicking a fairly routine point directly in front of the posts to open the scoring after two minutes. The always talismanic Cillian O’Connor doubled Mayo’s lead shortly after with a free but in the eighth minute Brian Fenton played a clever fisted one-two with his midfield partner Michael Darragh MacAuley to create space on the left side for him to have a shot at goal which was splendidly saved by Mayo keeper David Clarke.
However, from that save came astonishing misfortune as the ball ricocheted around the box with sweeper Kevin McLoughlin accidentally toe poking the ball into his own net. Just a few moments later Mayo were exposed in the same manner with another Fenton one-two finishing with a shot but once again Clarke held up his end of the bargain saving well. Despite these two moments Mayo picked themselves up quickly and got level through another O’Connor free.
Mayo’s defence managed to almost totally nullify the Dublin forwards in the early stages with pressure especially being exerted on Kevin McManamon and Dean Rock. Seamus O’Shea bravely blocking off a Diarmuid Connolly shot and the quietly superb Brendan Harrison expertly stripping Bernard Brogan of the ball epitomised the frenetic defensive intensity Mayo brought to this final. Mayo could not capitalise on this, however, making a number of kicking and handling errors, some of which were forced by skilful Dublin defending. Dean Rock, who had a 93 percent success rate from frees before this game, also started tentatively for the Dubs missing three out his first four dead balls and also missing an early convertible chance from play.
Yet Rock was involved in Dublin’s second goal of the game when he mishandled the ball in the Mayo box after a clever rapid-fire free from Connolly only for Mayo stalwart Colm Boyle to divert the ball into his own net. When Donal Vaughan charged forward to narrow the scoreline in the 24th minute to make it 2-0 to 0-4, Mayo found themselves two points down in a game where a Dublin player still hadn’t got on the scoresheet. Even the most scientifically driven sceptic in Croke Park must have muttered profanities under their breath.
Moments after Vaughan’s point, however, there was a setback for Dublin when James McCarthy received a black card for a needless body-check off the ball. This was symptomatic of the pressure Mayo placed further up the pitch on McCarthy and sweeper Cian O’Sullivan, however O’Sullivan responded to this pressure well and was instrumental in keeping the Dublin defence steady.
A Dublin player finally got a score with Dean Rock putting over a free after 29 minutes. Following this, McCarthy’s replacement Paddy Andrews then added a couple of wonderful scores and a Rock free on the stroke of half time in what was Dublin’s best spell of the game meant “the boys in blue” went in 2-4 to 0-5 up. Mayo were five down at half time in a game where many observers would have seen them as the better team.
A more mentally fragile team after a confounding first half like that would have been resigned to their fate but Mayo began the second period perfectly, reeling off four scores in four minutes with Andy Moran and Paddy Durcan finishing well before Cillian O’Connor added two more to his tally. This spell seemed convincing response to anyone who has tarnished this Mayo team using the phrase “bottlers” and in the 46th minute O’Connor drew Mayo level from another free.
Nerves seemed to permeate on the pitch and in the stands, and there was a number of basic mistakes resulting in agonised panic-stricken groans from the Croker faithful. MacAuley was replaced by Michael Fitzsimons after he escaped with only a yellow card after a high tackle on O’Connor, and Seamie O’Shea was also taken off following a period where he lost possession three times in a row. The Dublin defence opened up for the first real time in the game when Andy Moran had to settle for a point after blazing his attempt over. Alan Dillion then drew Mayo level in the 64th minute in his fifth Senior All Ireland final.
One of the most anticipated match-ups in the game was the renewal of Diarmuid Connolly and Lee Keegan’s bitter feud. Ultimately, the two players neutralised the threat of one another and both received yellow cards for some off-the-ball antics late on. However, it looked as if Connolly would have the last laugh when he kicked Dublin three clear with just two minutes plus stoppage time left but Mayo remain unbowed and fought back excellently after seven minutes’ stoppage time was announced. O’Connor slotted over his fifth and final free, and Donal Vaughan forayed forward again to cut the lead to one setting up a gripping conclusion with O’Connor tying it up for the last time in the 77th minute and forcing it to be done all over again at 5pm on Saturday 1 October.
The scramble for tickets amongst Dublin and Mayo fans (myself included) began once more instantly after the match. Dublin will not make as many mistakes again and nor will Mayo so one may expect a very different affair in the replay. Everyone will be hoping that the game on Saturday leaves as much of a mark as the first one which was another memorable chapter in what is developing into one of the greatest rivalries of the modern era.
Image from 98fm.com, ©INPHO/James Crombie