Oh what an unforgettable day. It had everything. Great weather, huge numbers of good humoured supporters, great company for my journey up and down and, above all, an excellent game with the best outcome! This was a Gaelic football match that had everything you could hope for at the difficult business end of the season. Here we had a match that had many similarities with what we had witnessed the previous Sunday: brilliant scores, top drawer saves, magnificent fielding, and a dramatic finish. I listened to Eugene Magee being interviewed on Today FM as I travelled to Dublin on Sunday morning. You will be aware that Eugene is heading up the task force known as the ‘Football review committee’ to investigate areas where the game can be improved. He remarked that the “sky was the limit” in terms of the possible changes that could be made. Surely this group will now recognise that there is very little wrong with the game when it is played like it was last Sunday.
Mayo have the ability to match the ambition
Mayo footballers now embody the classic mode of a team with big ambition who can grind out a result when not playing brilliantly for all of the game. The post-match comments from many of the players suggest to me that here is a team with their feet very firmly rooted to the ground. Of course there were nervy moments during the second half which is only to be expected when playing the All-Ireland champions. There was no way Mayo were going to have it all their own way without the Dubs having their own period of dominance at some stage in the game. And have it they (Dublin ) did for a 23 minute spell in the second half when they reduced Mayo’s 10 point lead all the way down to two with only eight minutes remaining. However, thankfully, there was going to be no denying Mayo on this occasion. While not wanting to rain on Mayo’s parade I do feel that had David Clarke not produced that brilliant one handed save when the margin was at three points Mayo might not have prevailed.
But the big, excellent, Ballina custodian produced a save which helped keep Mayo’s chance of an All-Ireland title alive and which must surely leave him as a strong contender for an All-Star spot later this year. Bernard Brogan just never fired with the same confident swagger of last year and I am sure if ever he views this goal attempt again he will only want to watch through gaps in his fingers.
Once the game was over I mingled with several Mayo supporters who, like me, were savouring the sweetest moment of a great day. Croke Park was buzzing to the sound of the Saw Doctor’s rendition of the ‘Green and Red of Mayo’ ably assisted by hoards of worn but willing throats! Also and inevitably, many were already looking ahead and voicing various opinions on our upcoming clash with Donegal in just over two weeks’ time.
Mayo fans went in east in confidence
But let us stick with the present for a moment longer and I want to be totally honest here. I genuinely did not know what to expect when I left for HQ last Sunday. While out for an early morning bike ride I did notice a large and steady stream of cars already leaving the county for the capital, a stream which continued as I travelled a bit later with my own crew and which, to me, was a fair barometer of the mood of the county. Mayo supporters surely would not travel in such huge numbers if they did not expect a win was on the cards. I met quite a few neutrals before the game and every one of them believed Mayo had a right chance of beating the Dubs. Tommy Carr and Jack Sheedy, two former Dublin stalwarts, mentioned the very patchy form of Dublin right throughout this year’s championship. Tommy did talk about Dublin’s ‘A’ game, but he said “you can’t flick a switch on any given Sunday and expect your ‘A’ game to be there.” No, Dublin appeared to have had their appetite sated somewhat with their Celtic crosses from last year.
Every Mayo player stood up to be counted
But what of Mayo? Where did that performance come from and did we see it coming? I was anxious that the quality of the opposition played before last Sunday could not be classified as top drawer teams. So I arrived at this juncture unsure of the real quality of the team. In fact you could say Dublin was going to be Mayo’s first real test of the summer. So what we got, particularly in the first half and for periods of the second, was as good as I have seen from any Mayo side. Aidan O’Shea was like a man mountain at midfield. He, more than any other individual, set the tempo with some brilliant legitimate hits on a couple of Dublin players. The point taking of Mayo’s forwards was sheer class. When a team kick 19 points against the reigning All-Ireland champions, you have to sit up and take notice. But it was not just that aspect of Mayo’s game that was practically flawless. The appetite for work from every Mayo player was an eye opener. There was no one hiding on this occasion. The Mayo management deserve great credit for having their team in such great physical and psychological shape. Mayo teams in the past have tiptoed towards finals not quite as sure footedly as has this current team.
This group has an assuredness and a confidence that we have not witnessed heretofore. They do not panic. Some of these players who, in the past, have looked quite ordinary are now playing extraordinary football once they pull on the Mayo jersey. The back room team have these lads buzzing with confidence and there has been an incremental improvement with every performance in this year’s championship. When you consider all the disruptions that Mayo had to endure, with injuries to so many throughout the game, there was every reason that these would have upset their well-defined patterns of play. But not on this occasion. Every substitute introduced last Sunday added to the cause. They were hungry for the ball, had an appetite for hard work, and appeared focused on victory. When the game was in the melting pot with minutes remaining and Dublin raiding from all angles, Mayo required real leaders on the field. There were so many who ticked the box in this category. Colm Boyle presented options for kick outs. Jason Gibbons, Seamus O’Shea, and Barry Moran won some massive ball in the dying minutes that ensured there was only going to be one victor.
Horan shows his composure on the sideline
And what of the side line? I must have been asked a hundred times over the past week or two as to what I made of James Horan? You see there is a sense of mystery about him, particularly outside the county. He is a cool operator, always giving the impression of being totally in control, relaxed and unflappable. One incident in particular comes to mind from last Sunday’s game that resonated with me. Seamus O’Shea took a side-line ball from right in front of his manager. Mayo were hanging on by a thread at this stage and every possession was crucial. O’Shea kicked it aimlessly away to a Dublin player, but Horan’s body language never shifted. He remained calm and composed and just moved down the line in that relaxed disposition which surely rubs off on the players.
Mayo were by far the better side and it would have been something of a travesty if they had been denied victory. I know they did not finish too well, but they completely outplayed their opponents for 50 of the 76 minutes played. This team is smart and clever. That cleverness was manifest in the number of occasions that Mayo managed to surround a Dublin player in possession to deny a goal opportunity.