Liam Gallagher once described a gig he played in Slane Castle as biblical, what went in Croke Park last Sunday was nothing short of the same. It was the most anticipated All-Ireland semi final in living memory and it certainly did not disappoint. I arrived early to do a piece with Radio One outside the Croke Park Hotel alongside former Hill 16 favourite Barney Rock and the place was buzzing at 12.30pm. I ran into a few former team mates, namely David Heaney, David Brady, and Kevin O'Neill who had just flown in from the USA for the game. I also had a chat with current Kerry minor and former All-Ireland winning senior manager Jack O'Connor who was rightly cock a hoop about Mayo’s chances. He told myself and Brady that he was coming up to Mayo for a week after they eventually win Sam which he said could be in a few weeks time. I hope he’s right.
Where do you start with a game that had a bit of everything? I have been known to throw a few curve balls in my day and dodge a few others, but not even Nostradamus could have seen the inclusion of David Drake. With the greatest respect to David, I doubt Jim Gavin or any of the Dublin team had any idea who he was, a point concurred by former Dublin manager Pillar (Paul ) Caffrey and former Dublin player Paul Clarke on The Marty Squad after the game. I am reliably informed that Drake knew all week he was playing as did the whole squad. How impressive is that for keeping a secret. If that news went out earlier in the week Drake’s head would have been wrecked by well wishers, media, and people offering advice. I am sure it helps to control your emotions when Andy Moran is your brother-in-law.
Messy but hanging in there
The first half was very messy from a Mayo point of view. Despite Lee Keegan sneaking in on the blind side for the first score of the game, little did we know it would be Mayo’s only effort from open play for the rest of the half. Mayo offered the kick out to Dublin and decided to retreat towards their own goal. All but one of Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs went to a back in the right corner back position. The momentum for the game was set when Donal Vaughan smashed into Jack McCaffrey and then Tom Parsons nailed Ciaran Kilkenny with a thunderous belt in the same passage of play, Vaughan unfortunately dislocating his AC joint in the process. Dublin’s diagonal kick passing in their forward line opened up the Mayo defence leading to a couple of good scores and the first half penalty awarded for a foul on Paul Flynn by David Drake. My biased opinion says that it should have been a 14m free as the initial contact was outside the box. Mayo can be thankful that Cillian O'Connor brought his A game as his free taking was flawless all day long. Aidan O'Shea was isolated for far too long in that first half and very often had to contend with four Dublin defenders on his own. I felt Joe McQuillan was harsh penalising O'Shea for overcarrying on two occasions when I thought he was been fouled. Despite playing so poorly Mayo were only that controversial penalty goal behind at half-time.
Never saying die
It looked like it was going to be a classic case of déjà vu in the second half when Mayo squandered chance after chance and dropped a few into Cluxton’s hands. Between the 55th and 61st minute Dublin turned the screw and reeled off 1-04 against a single Cillian O'Connor 45 to lead by seven points. The Dublin goal was another stroke of misfortune for Mayo as the ball fell to poacher Kevin McManamon after a great save from Robbie Hennelly. McManamon was left with the simple task of side footing it to the net. The game looked all but over and I am sure many Mayo folk left to beat the traffic or do whatever you do when you leave a game early. We have been to hell and back in the last few years with this Mayo team, and had to deal with some heart stopping matches involving Mayo, but for me this one tops the lot. The courage and never say die attitude which followed from minute 62 until 69 was the stuff of legends. Every Mayo man, woman, and child will remember where they were for those eight minutes. Some were on Jones Road leaving Croke Park, missing Mayo’s best comeback of all time. Mayo’s substitutes all made telling contributions, Barry Moran, Patrick Durcan, and Alan Freeman, but none more so than Andy Moran who levelled the game to thunderous applause, but what about 'Vanilla Ice' himself, Cillian O'Connor. After pointing an unbelievable free moments earlier he ran to grab the ball to take the penalty after Joe McQuillan judged that Colm Boyle was fouled after a superman style dive in the Dublin square. O'Connor is the guy you want on your team for pressure situations and he duly delivered under the most tense pressure. I have to give his younger sibling Diarmuid special mention after a fine display, he ran Cillian close for the Man of the Match. There were a lot of unsavoury incidents that we can go through in the future but let's wallow in this phenomenal comeback for a little while longer. I cannot believe we have to go through it all again tomorrow. I hope my ticker can take it.