This football lark does not get any easier does it. The feeling of sick in the pit of my stomach the morning after an All-Ireland final is an all too familiar feeling now after Mayo suffered another agonising one point defeat to Dublin in another All-Ireland final. The margin of loss makes it even more difficult to take. The level of Mayo's performance makes it hard to comprehend they did not win the game. Every mistake and refereeing decision will be scrutinised and placed under the microscope for years to come.
Mayo have played in nine finals since 1989, losing all nine, two of which were after replays. Contrast that to Dublin who have been in six finals since 1995 and they have won all six. It just does not add up. To a man Mayo were outstanding last Sunday. The management and players gave it everything they possibly could, everything was left on the field. Unfortunately that little bit of Lady Luck that you need from time to time seems to desert us when we need it most, especially on the biggest occasion of all. I felt Mayo would need all players to put in at the very least an 8/10 performance to have a chance and they duly obliged. The problem is their opponents capitalised on the slightest mistake and took advantage of the smallest of openings to sneak home by a single point. It is no consolation but Mayo would have probably won any other All-Ireland final for the last 25 years with that performance.
It was a breathtaking game of football from start to finish. I watched the game in the company of the Sunday Game panel and had to apologise to Tomás Ó Sé regularly for elbowing him in the ribs while Joe Brolly received a boot in the back as I kicked every ball. After conceding the early goal you would have been really worried that the floodgates would open but Mayo set about ruffling a few Dublin feathers to get into the game. Andy Moran was in sensational form again, especially in the first half as Tom Parsons and the two O'Sheas controlled midfield. Mayo had their match ups spot on as Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, and Chris Barrett led from the front. Tomás Ó Sé elbowed back: “They have Cluxton cracked”. “I've never seem him so uncertain,” I replied. The half time whistle could not have come soon enough for Dublin. One of the key moments of that first half occurred at the bitter end as Donal Vaughan took the ball into the tackle and went to ground for what should surely have been a tap over free for Cillian O'Connor to put Mayo three up at the break. Joe McQuillan let it go, Dublin counterattacked, and Dean Rock tapped over for Dublin with the last kick of the half to leave Mayo only one to the good. Mayo should have been at least four in front after dominating the first 35 minutes. Dublin were panicked and Jim Gavin had to empty his star studded bench a lot earlier than expected. Before the half time whistle Dublin runner Jason Sherlock ran on to the pitch to issue instruction to Stephen Cluxton, the message was simple, go short as we are getting wiped out there. Dublin were rattled. Little did we think Cluxton would not kick one long ball out for the entire second half.
The most controversial moment came in the 47th minute when John Small nailed Colm Boyle with a thunderous hit. I thought Small had every right to put in a big hit, albeit an unfair one. On first viewing I thought nothing of Donal Vaughan’s actions and dismissed it as an awkward push, Brolly and Ó Sé agreed. It was not until I saw the Sunday Game that evening that I realised Vaughan had actually clotheslined Small in what can only be described as a rush of blood. It is something he will regret. I personally do not think Small would have been sent off if Vaughan had not retaliated. Vaughan's actions made issuing a second yellow to Small an easy call. Apart from the sending off Mayo lost the scoreable free to a hop ball that would have levelled the game.
Lee Keegan's goal was nothing short of brilliant and came at a perfect time, Andy Moran again the creator laying off a brilliant pass to Keegan who finished with aplomb. Keegan was not his marauding self last Sunday but he did some job on Dublin’s play maker Ciaran Kilkenny, he dogged him for the entire afternoon. Kilkenny, who had orchestrated proceedings against Tyrone in the semifinal with 66 possessions, only got his hands on the ball a measly eight times. Keegan and Chris Barrett epitomised all that is good about Mayo defending. In a game of millimetres, the teams found themselves level on 11 occasions, a mark of how close they are in terms of ability. It is a shame the result boiled down to the width of a post, had Cillian O'Connor's 73rd minute free gone over Mayo were set to defend with their lives, nobody bargained for it coming back into play off the upright.
We will talk long and hard about what might have been, Con O'Callaghan taking way more than the four allowed steps to score the opening goal, controversial to say the least. Joe McQuillan's failure to award Lee Keegan a penalty when he was clearly hauled down inside the box another major talking point. Mayo deserve huge credit. They did us proud.