Mayo's wonderful athleticism and desire rightly inspires optimism among fans

by Martin Carney, GAA's foremost columnist

WE got there in the end. That’s all that matters.

Deservedly so, at that – if for no other reason than as a reward for perseverance.

Mayo, to their credit, stayed in a contest where the result for lengthy periods in either half looked beyond their reach.

Dublin on the night were probably the better team. Quite simply, the home team struggled to find a way through a tight marking and obdurate Dublin defence that clogged up every approach to goal.

Perhaps, to a degree, Mayo contributed to their own difficulties by the way they engaged with their opponent.

Whenever in possession, a sideways or a backward pass got preferential treatment to moving the ball quickly forward to the inside line.

To describe them as peripheral figures in the opening half might be overstating matters but there is no doubt that up front, Aidan O’Shea, Paul Towey and Ryan O’Donoghue saw less of the ball than wished for during this period due to their colleagues overplaying the ball further afield.

It was a wonderful night, though, in the hallowed ground.

From early evening businesses and pubs did a roaring trade as early-comers made the most of the occasion.

Young and old were giddy with excitement. Little wonder, as it's seldom that while carrying their titles of reigning Allianz National Football League champions and current All-Ireland holders the teams lock horns.

The 15,000 or so in attendance created a great atmosphere. At times one had to pinch oneself to remember this was only the second round of this year’s league schedule.

Maybe it was the memory of the nature of their defeat to Monaghan that prompted it, but Dublin came placing a huge emphasis on mass defending.

The criticism that followed the concession of three goals in their opening game stung, so from the start everyone picked up a defensive position inside his own 45.

Consequently, Mayo were forced to play much of the game far from goal.

The impressive Fergal Boland operated mostly in a very withdrawn role. Wing forwards Jordan Flynn and Bob Tuohy followed suit. Overall, the approach was cagey from both sides.

Dublin looked the more impressive. Claiming territorial advantage, jealously holding possession and relying on quick attacking incisions from their middle eight, they ran up a four-point lead within 20 minutes. Jack McCaffrey surged forward to get the pick of these, one off either foot.

From the point of view of tempo and rhythm, the Dubs were the masters in this opening quarter and gave everyone a glimpse of why they are the current holders of Sam.

Just when a muted atmosphere was in danger of enveloping the ground, from nowhere signs of Mayo life began to emerge.

Bob Tuohy was fouled and Ryan O’Donoghue did the necessary. Three in it. Another O’Donoghue free was followed within 90 seconds, followed by a delightful brace from Paul Towey and Tuohy. Indeed, the effort from the Mitchels tyro could well have ended in the Dublin net.

These scores reminded the Mayo support of what their vocal chords were for. The impressive Sean Bugler notched two on the bounce for Dublin but, not to be outdone, Ryan O’Donoghue followed suit just before the change of ends.

Given how matters had evolved throughout the half, Kevin McStay would have been more than happy with parity at the break.

A change in pushing up and applying more pressure on the Dublin re-start helped. When forced to go long, their goalie, David O’Hanlon, had less success in retaining possession.

Dessie Farrell, in contrast to his Mayo counterpart, would have been disappointed to see a largely dominant opening quarter not reflected on the scoreboard.

His half-time words stung, I’d imagine, as three quick scores, two of them from Cormac Costello, were followed by 14 minutes of holding Mayo scoreless ensued.

Despite the urgings of Patrick Durcan and the promptings of Jack Carney around the middle, Mayo were finding it difficult to dismantle the massed Dublin rearguard. Still, Mayo were only one score off the pace despite playing second fiddle.

Then the score that made the difference came from nowhere and, at that, from an unexpected source.

Stephen Coen was introduced instead of Eoghan McLaughlin before the break and took up a liberal role in the engine room.

How else could you describe his positioning when he somehow got on the end of a long Jordan Flynn delivery and flick the ball to the Dublin net.

The visitors howled for a square ball. For once the umpires were decisive. The goal stood. Mayo were ahead for the first time.

The score galvanised Mayo and created doubts in Dublin minds. Assured and efficient up to then, the visitors now began to rush their shots and make wrong decisions.

A remarkable feature of the game was that through the entire first half, between them, the teams registered a single wide only.

Although points from Cian Murphy and Con O’Callaghan gave Dublin the minimum advantage with time running out, by shooting three wides on the bounce they communicated their loss of self- assurance. Ryan O’Donoghue’s free to level matters added to the tension.

Mayo’s use of substitutions all evening had given the team a lift at different times.

Coen’s experience, Donnacha McHugh’s graft, Diarmuid Duffy’s enthusiasm, Tommy Conroy’s ability to earn a free that O’Donoghue nailed and, of course, Cillian all added something.

Picture then the scene. The game is entering the dying moments of time added on. Free for Mayo. Horrible angle from the McHale road side into the Davitt House end.

Big chief Cillian and warrior Ryan have a pow-wow; central to their exchange was who will take responsibility for the possible winning kick.

The Belmullet man saw matters differently. In a twinkling he noted that a Dublin defence, intent on pressurising the kick, had left Fergal Boland free in a central position.

With laser-like precision, he delivered a pin-point pass to the Aghamore man who did the necessary and sent the crowd into raptures. Kick-out. Full-time whistle. Bedlam.

Mayo had, by refusing to allow what was at times a below-par performance hinder them, taken the points at the death.

Reflecting on the result, I’m sure Kevin will note areas where improvement is necessary.

However, he once again sent out a team blessed with wonderful athleticism and desire; one that, despite struggling at times, managed to cobble a win.

The central defensive axis of Rory Brickenden and David McBrien continues to impress. Patrick Durcan played a captain's role.

A rejuvenated Jack Carney was more than a match for the Dublin midfield. Although I’d like to see him take up more attacking positions than was the case, Fergal Boland has added to the attack.

And even if it was his fourth game in 13 days (Sam Callinan, Rory Brickenden and Tommy Conroy had similar schedules), Ryan O’Donoghue proved a real handful.

The break before the trip to Kerry will be welcome.

Full points earned so far. Cushion established. Mayo have already left themselves in a healthy position.