IN the end, the yellow ticker tape came down and the fireworks went off as Stephen Cluxton lifted the Sam Maguire on Sunday to anoint Dublin’s greatness.
The Dublin victory opened another room into Mayo’s house of pain but this was one of Mayo’s cruellest defeats because the game was right there for them. Yet when the gun was put to Dublin’s head, they showed the nerve and mental steel which has been a corner-stone of this team’s greatness.
What is beyond doubt is how much of a clutch team Dublin have now become. Four of their five All-Ireland successes since 2011 have been by just one point.
When the heat was absolutely incessant late on in Sunday’s game, Dublin came up with four of the last five points, including the winner from Dean Rock. In the league final in April, Rock had a dead-ball kick with the last play to draw the match but the ball clipped the post and Kerry cleared it. On Sunday, the distance wasn’t as great, yet the pressure was at its apex but Rock nailed the opportunity to secure personal, and three-in-a-row, immortality.
Mayo were always going to get one last chance to try and equalise but David Clarke, who had been excellent with his kick-outs all afternoon, skewed his restart and the ball ended up over the sideline. Dublin gave an exhibition in ball retention as they held possession for close to two minutes before Joe McQuillan blew the final whistle to ignite the euphoria.
In the end, Dublin’s bench, while not having the impact anticipated, was still decisive. Diarmuid Connolly and Kevin McMenamon, both introduced at half-time, came up with a couple of big scores, and assists, while Connolly was fouled for the late converted free.
It was almost torturous that it was Chris Barrett who conceded the free because he had been immense. Barrett forced four turnovers-in-possession, two of which resulted in Mayo scores in the second half. Cillian O’Connor’s late free, which would have put Mayo ahead, clipped the post and was cleared, further underlined the misery.
Mayo had more shots at the target (30-27) but their shot selection let them down at key moments, and Dublin’s conversion rate was just better. Mayo also made more tackles and forced more turnovers but Dublin’s composure was absolutely clinical when it needed to be. The win was even sweeter for Dublin because they struggled for long periods, especially in the first half.
Mayo dominated on kick-outs and had a stranglehold at midfield for long periods but Dublin still found a way, which great teams always do. Aidan O’Shea and Tom Parsons dominated the possession stats, with a combined 68 possessions, but James McCarthy and Brian Fenton came up with a combined 59 plays, some of which from McCarthy were massive plays. Along with scoring two points, McCarthy also had a couple of assists.
Mayo led by one point at the break but their dominance had been reflected in the numbers. Mayo had 54% possession in that half. Eight of their players had 10 or more possessions, while Dublin had only three players in that category.
After having 62 possessions against Tyrone, Ciaran Kilkenny was restricted to just six first-half possessions, because Lee Keegan was all over Kilkenny like a cheap suit. Dublin had only two scores on the board after 22 minutes, primarily because Mayo had such a grip around the middle, and on Cluxton’s kick-outs.
Mayo won six Dublin kick-outs in that period, mining three points from that possession, but they were extremely clever in their game-management and score construction. They played Andy Moran as the spearhead up top, but they held the ball smartly, and ran it as effectively as they could to the half-forward line, with support runners always coming from deep.
When the right kicking option was on to Moran, Mayo utilised it to great effect. In that opening half, Moran scored three points, had one direct assist, and had a hand in another point.
Moran did engineer Keegan’s goal but Dublin largely shut Moran down in the second half. Dublin won every one of their kick-outs in that half, nine of which were short, but they were a completely different team in that period, especially in the third quarter.
They announced their intent immediately after the restart when winning the throw-in before Paul Mannion scored a point. After having just four first-half possessions, Mannion was brilliant after the break, scoring three points and setting up another.
Mayo withstood Dublin’s inferno immediately after the break and drove on through it but the John Small-Donie Vaughan incident in the 46th minute was a massive turning point. Mayo were trailing by just one point at that stage but the free was kickable. The free was overturned for a hop ball but an extra man would have been colossal given the nature of the game.
It would have forced Dublin to run and chase harder but it would have also given Mayo the option of playing a sweeper, to cut down on any extra space in the Mayo defence. Mayo had done well on their own kick-out all afternoon but having an extra option for kick-outs would have given Mayo an even greater platform to build from down the home straight.
Dublin finally won a Mayo kick-out in the 65th minute, for the first time in nearly an hour, but they engineered a score from that possession and the intent was clearly there. Dublin weren’t holding back.
They were going after three-in-a-row immortality. And they eventually secured that status.