IT’S probably not healthy to care too much what other people think but I heard a few foreign accents around me on Sunday and cringed for Gaelic football.
We can only hope they were lured to the occasion by one of the many fine contests this season has produced, because this was an awful final.
You will find few more avid defenders of the grand old game than this column, but the atmosphere and exciting finish cannot obscure that this was a match riddled by basic errors.
If we have been treated to a succession of prize fights over the summer, then this was a drunken bar brawl: high on ferocity, almost bereft of technique or class, an unsatisfactory spectacle for all bar the victors.
Examples: Ger Cafferkey is many people’s favourite for an All-Star at full-back, but how many previous incumbents have kicked a free to an opposition forward standing 10 yards away, as Cafferkey did when gifting Diarmuid Connolly Dublin’s first point? Robbie Hennelly has been praised for his three saves, and his stop from Eoghan O’Gara was spectacular, but that does not excuse his shocking error of judgement in leaving his line only for Bernard Brogan to flick Dublin’s first goal past him.
It was the most basic goalkeeping mistake in an All-Ireland final since Alan Quirke’s misadventures in 2007. Stephen Cluxton, good enough on the ball to merit mention as a possible man of the match, was not immune, delivering a similar present to Andy Moran in the second half, and almost allowing a routine high ball to beat him in the first. Hennelly and Cluxton were far from the only ones whose nerve failed, for it was a festival of fumbles in Croke Park, and no player was immune, from those the game bypassed to the brilliant Lee Keegan.
Even the tackling left much to be desired, Dublin doing their best to cost themselves a game they were good enough to win by seven by eight points with their first-half indiscipline that skewed the free count so drastically in Mayo’s favour. If you removed every misplaced pass, every botched tackle, every shot dropped into the keepers’ hands, this match would still fall far short of classic status for where was the daring, the invention, the special moments from special players that characterised both teams’ march to the final? You might pick out Bernard Brogan’s positional sense or Ger Brennan’s leadership in kicking that crucial second-half point or Keegan’s excellence but you would be trying to elevate acts that were merely impressive to the status of exceptional.
The malaise spread to the sideline, where James Horan, that man whose astounding vision and drive has brought Mayo so close, suddenly seemed gripped by self-doubt. How else can you explain the decision to relocate Keith Higgins at the break? Higgins’ industry, pace, self-belief and intelligence at half-forward had been central to everything good about Mayo in the first 20 minutes. You might argue that the initiative had passed to the sky blues by the time Horan made the switch, but re-assigning the lead singer to act as a roadie amounted to an admission that the upper hand would never be regained. Alan Freeman had done enough this season to warrant more than 27 minutes; indeed, he did enough in his 27 minutes to warrant more than 27 minutes, head cold or no head cold.
He might have had two goals; once if Andy Moran had spotted him quicker, and again when the Dublin defence did their Sean Cavanagh impression as Freeman prepared to rattle the net. There is a suggestion he might have been unable to continue; if not, withdrawing him was another mistake, while the absence of Richie Feeney is another head-scratcher, that can be explained either by injury or misjudgment. It is easier to manage well when you have more resources, but Jim Gavin’s sober assessment of the game was in contrast to Horan’s.
Kevin McLoughlin was giving Jack McCaffrey a lesson and Dublin’s full-forward line was being out-muscled and Gavin reacted calmly and appropriately in both instances. Eoghan O’Gara is not everyone’s idea of the ideal footballer – indeed, it is questionable whether he is anyone’s idea of the ideal footballer – but he was precisely what the situation required and Gavin made a big, correct call. Dublin fans may feel we are being unduly harsh on a big win that confirmed their season-long superiority, but there is another way to look at Sunday’s imperfection: if Gavin’s men can win so convincingly while conceding brainless frees, while missing three clear-cut goal chances, on a day when it didn’t happen for McCaffrey or Ciaran Kilkenny or Paul Mannion, what might they be capable of if and when they fulfil their potential?
It is a scary thought for the other 31 that there is so much to criticise in Dublin’s play after a championship where only Kerry and Mayo caused them any alarm, and brief alarm at that. Mayo will remain competitive. Talk of them being finished is silly, for they are mostly young, and what else are they going to do with their 20s other than take football seriously? Join Roy Keane on his famous backpacking expedition around Mexico? Of the rest, Tyrone have the talent and mental strength to live with Dublin for long periods, but they need young players such as Kyle Coney or Ronan O’Neill to take their game to a level comparable to their predecessors: no guarantees there.
And that’s the rub. Some counties can point to some promising young footballers. Dublin have them in abundance. Dean Rock would walk on to any other team in the country. Cormac Costello might have served notice of his limitless potential this season were it not for injury. Alan Brogan may just have had his appetite sharpened again. The McCaffrey-Kilkenny-Mannion triumvirate are only beginning their careers and still have it all to achieve. These are but examples of a host of options, and how can hunger or burnout be an issue when there are inter-county standard footballers such as Alan Hubbard who can’t make the panel, when a defender of Kevin Nolan’s class doesn’t even make it onto the pitch on All-Ireland final day?
And who beyond the top two or three sides in the country can even give Dublin a game for 70 minutes? Counties such as Kildare or Meath are working hard on their structures but there are some Dublin clubs with comparable coaching resources to either of them. Dublin have elevated themselves as a sporting body to a level comparable to Leinster or Munster rugby; they might conceivably lose some early-season skirmishes but the outcome of the broader war is in their hands. To those with an inbuilt dislike for the capital’s football team that felt their stomachs churn a little as Sam Maguire was paraded on Sunday: you might have to start getting used to it.