At the hurling final on Sunday, a Mayo woman took me to task about my opinion of her county’s senior footballers.
“It wasn’t very balanced” she said.
“I’m not running for election” I replied. “They committed 27 tactical fouls against Dublin. That is a simple fact. And they lay down to Donegal. Did they not?”
She bristled for a second, then declared “You’re not a very nice man.”
“Get in the queue Missus....”
As I remarked on RTE after the semi-final between Dublin and Mayo, Donegal were the real winners that day and so it emphatically proved to be. A friend of mine and county board member e-mailed me last week to suggest an interesting motion to congress next year: ‘In the event of Mayo senior footballers winning an All-Ireland semi-final, the losing semi-finalist would instead advance to the final and Mayo would be rewarded with a team holiday.’ This way, Mayo would retain their dignity and the GAA would avoid the embarrassment of another anti-climactic final. It is perhaps a little harsh, but it sums up the widespread view that we have once again been shortchanged by Mayo on our biggest day.
After 10 minutes of the final, many of the 1.4 million viewing audience were heading out to walk the dog or wash the car. By that stage, the seven point deficit could easily have been 10 (Colm McFadden fluffing a straightforward goal chance) and this final, like the others that have gone before, was over. In the fortnight since the game, there have been many half hearted, patronising words of encouragement for Mayo but the truth is that in the mind - where it matters most - they have not improved one bit. If Kieran Shannon, their highly regarded psychologist, stays with them much longer, he will need the services of a psychologist himself.
The game was not a contest. There was no nip and tuck, no thrills or spills. It was instead Donegal’s easiest victory since the Derry match. Once they went seven points up in the first half, they withdrew into their defensive formation. Again, when they went six up in the 61st minute with Murphy’s palmed point, they retreated into their own half and soaked up Mayo in the manner of the veteran Muhammed Ali seeing out a straightforward title defence against an inferior challenger.
Donegal’s defensive system controlled the game, Jim McGuinness and his players knowing that without goals, there could be no comeback. Nor is the four point margin of defeat a consolation for Mayo, since a four point margin for Donegal is like 10 for any other team. Mayo were utterly unable to test Donegal’s defence or more importantly, their mental resolve. As for the battle of the managers, it was also a non-event. James Horan’s decision to throw big O’Se into the edge of the square was the last act of the clueless, a depressing scene acted out in junior club matches since time began.
When I strongly disagreed with Pat Spillane’s assessment before the Dublin game that Alan Dillon was a “great forward” and made the point that he had never performed when Mayo needed him most, I was pilloried in the West. Three weeks on and Alan again went AWOL on the third Sunday. It is his third such disappearance. The excuse given this time is that Karl Lacey was marking him. Well in truth, Lacey didn’t mark him at all, ignoring him for much of the game as he attacked forward. Do not forget that in the semi-final versus Cork, the brilliant Ciaran Sheehan cut Lacey to pieces, posting three superb scores from play and bringing the fight to Donegal throughout.
The conundrum that Mayo need to solve is this: Why is it that all Mayo forwards – with the honourable exception of Kevin McLoughlin – conform to this craven stereotype? Why do they flop when they are most needed? It is a pity that this is so, since Mayo’s forwards have always been highly skilled footballers. As John McEntee pointed out to me the week before the final, Crossmaglen had been given serious trouble by Mayo opponents over the years but always defeated them because they lacked the killer instinct. What wouldn’t they give for a devil-may-care anarchist like wee James McCartan, who adrenalysed his similarly underachieving Down team mates in 1991, changing the course of Ulster football forever. As it stands, Mayo are going nowhere.
It is undeniable that they played really well against the Dubs and scored some superb points but only when their tails were up in the first half and the early part of the second. However, the real reason they beat the Dubs was Joe McQuillan’s colossal incompetence. McQuillan appeared to be in some sort of trance as Mayo committed those 27 tactical fouls, thereby preventing Dublin from participating in the game. Every kick-out they won, every time they tried to advance, the blues were dragged or pulled down.
Since I raised the issue on the Pat Kenny show on the Thursday before the game, I have heard it said that other counties also resort to cynical fouling. This is indeed the case, but never on the scale planned and perpetrated by Mayo, until that is, they were stopped in their tracks by Maurice Deegan in the final. Their first two tactical fouls in the fourth and fifth minutes were greeted by immediate yellow cards and that as they say, was that. Deegan’s decisive action meant that instead of simply fouling Donegal every time they tried to come forward, thereby conserving their energy and frustrating Donegal, they were forced to tackle them, running 50 or 60 yards in pursuit. They were simply unable to hack it, as they would have been against Dublin had McQuillan done his job.
I met Pat Gilroy in Kavanagh’s after the final and drank a pint with my old Trinity buddy. He was still seething about the Mayo game and rightly so.
“We would have given Donegal their fill of it” he said, shaking his head with disappointment. “Murphy wouldn’t have toyed with O’Carroll. No chance. We mightn’t have beaten them, but we would have forced them to play the game of their lives.”
Who could disagree. Sadly, Mayo and McQuillan thwarted all that, leaving Irish people the world over to suffer yet another anti-climax. The West is not awake.