Oh what fun in Croke Park. The game started poorly, but became something huge, something elemental. If you were a father of one of the Mayo players you’d die happy after that.
Life is a bitch. Mostly we have to tolerate the humdrum but sometimes something extraordinary happens and for that short time, we disappear into a parallel world. That last 10 minutes on Sunday was a blur. I had forgotten most of it until I watched the game again. We were screaming, jumping, holding our heads, grimacing. I have had the privilege of being at a few truly great prize fights and found myself moving and recoiling from the blows as though I were controlling the fighters with a Wii. It was like that in those epic last 10 minutes on Sunday. Only if I had been remotely operating Mayo, I would be kicking myself at some of my errors.
Foremost amongst these was Mayo’s failure to push up on Cluxton’s kick-outs. Kerry (2013 semi-final) and Donegal (2014 semi-final) demonstrated how pressurising his kicks can spread panic through the Dublin ranks. With Mayo holding an aerial advantage in the middle third, Cluxton did not want to kick long. Mayo duly obliged. So Dublin won 100% of their own kick-outs in the first half. All of them, bar one, were kicked short to the corner-backs. In the second half, the same pattern prevailed until the last quarter, Cluxton kicking out the ball at his leisure. It is difficult to understand what Mayo’s management was trying to achieve. They neither pushed up man-to-man nor did they drop off into a zonal defence to meet the Dubs at, say, their ‘45’ or the midfield area. In this no man’s land, they floundered. When they had no choice in the closing strait, they finally pushed up. Instantly, Cluxton imploded. And when he collapsed, his team collapsed around him.
Dublin’s advantage is that their game plan is more rehearsed than Mayo’s. They were very defensive on Sunday, which is something they have worked on since Donegal handed them their ‘asses’ on a plate last August. So, Cian O’Sullivan has been the designated sweeper for almost a year and the half-forwards have worked on dropping back to defend.
On Sunday, they very effectively stifled Mayo’s amateurish attempts to kick the ball long to O’Sé by getting two men into the right half and left half-back areas to corral any Mayo player who came into those zones. In this way, they prevented Mayo kicking the long, quick diagonal balls that O’Sé needs. Because Mayo were looking to kick long almost every time they came forward, this gave Dublin time to swarm O’Sé. So Mayo were nullified. What kept them in it was Dublin’s incessant fouling.
Mayo, by contrast, were – as I suggested beforehand – under rehearsed. They have – at the last minute – adopted two strategies that have the potential to bring them an All-Ireland. Firstly, the long ball to O’Sé. Against Sligo, Galway etc this was devastating, but that was because the opponent wasn’t up to it and O’Sé is awesome. The under rehearsal of this tactic can be seen in three facets.
One: very few of the Mayo players know when and how to give the right ball. So, in the Donegal match, only twice was the right ball sent in and both times it was by his brother Seamus, who is used to doing it at club level week in, week out. Not one good ball went in against Dublin.
Two: When it is kicked in, O’Sé is left isolated. There are no poachers running off him. Which means Aidan has to do it all himself. Unlike say ‘Star’, who can flick a ball down into the channel under huge pressure, releasing Gooch or O’Donoghue or Geaney to hit the net. This is because of insufficient preparation time. When Joe Kernan stepped down from the Armagh job, he was asked why he never developed a Plan B to go alongside the brilliantly successful long ball to Clarke or McDonnell, with one working off the other. He said, “It took us three years to perfect Plan A. We didn’t have time for a plan B.”
Mayo have had just three months. Because Cillian O’Connor is not familiar with the poaching role (at club and county level he has always been the primary ball winner) he has become anonymous from general play. And because Mayo players are not used to timing their runs into the kill zone to take advantage of flick downs from a big target man, they are not doing it in the heat of battle.
Three: Due to this under rehearsal and the fact that the tactic worked well in the previous three games, Mayo have become fixated upon it. In doing so, they have forgotten the hard running game that made them great. It was only in the last 10 minutes when the fan was entirely clogged with s**t that they reverted to it. Quickly, they blew the Dubs apart. The situation they need to be at is one where they are automatically mixing the two.
So, the primary game plan is hard running through the heart of the opposition (which will draw out the Dublin sweeper and give O’Sé room), augmented, when it is on, by long diagonal balls to the square. It was obvious on Sunday that they have not reached this point and how could they after such a short preparation time.
The other part of their strategy is even newer. Two weeks before the Donegal match they began working on a sweeper system and it isn’t half obvious that they are virgins when it comes to the blanket. Colm Boyle is the right man but he is in the wrong position.
I spoke to Pat Holmes after the game on Sunday and suggested he study footage of Colm Cavanagh’s approach to sweeping. As an aside, I didn’t get a chance to mention it after the Kerry game, but Colm’s performance that day was monumental. I saw him afterwards and the devastation he felt can be tempered by the fact that he gave everything that he could give in the Tyrone cause. Anyway, Mayo need to copy what Colm does in his role. Boyle needs to understand that his job is to prevent goals. Therefore he needs to protect his square. Not run about haphazardly along the 30m line. As I said to Pat afterwards, if Mayo do not concede a goal, they will defeat Dublin.
I believe they will beat them anyway. Their malfunctioning in the first 60 minutes was due to under rehearsal. Jim McGuinness said once that to introduce even a minor modification to a settled strategy requires around 16 training sessions. If Jim says it, then that is the equivalent of the Big Man handing Moses the stone tablet with the rules chiselled onto it. So, in the frenzy of a heavyweight contest, they were not doing the right things automatically.
The drawn game will bring them on immensely. Once again in Croke Park, the nightmare was unfolding for Dublin and unlike last year, this time it only took seven minutes. But for several missed chances at the start of the second half due to the hesitancy that marked Mayo’s performance in the first hour, they would have been dumped out again, leaving Jim Gavin with nowhere to go.
As it is, we get another chance to see the best that human life has to offer. I was hugely disappointed in the Dubs’ cynicism and have to agree with Tyrone folk who are pointing to the disparity in their treatment after the Monaghan game and that of Dublin. But at the same time, I was uplifted by the way Mayo went at it in the dying minutes. They have sent a message deep into Dublin heads that, like good Ulster men, there will be no surrender. Now all they must do to finish the job, is push up on the kick-outs, drive hard at the Dubs as their primary attack strategy, choose their long kicks to O’Sé wisely, support him with poachers running the channels and get their sweeper to copy the Moy man. What could be simpler?