W E begin eight minutes from the end, the moment Mayo stood up. The indefatigable Colm Boyle wriggles his way into the box and, under a heap of bodies, wins a penalty.
Amid the fever of excitement that greets the award, Cillian O’Connor sticks the spot kick in the corner of Stephen Cluxton’s net.
Almost from the kick-out, Andy Moran grabs the equaliser from a pass by Aidan O’Shea. And a classic revival had won Mayo an unlikely draw.
A succinct text in my phone sums up the drama of those final minutes: “Jaysus, one great comeback. They sure have heart,” quoted a Galway colleague.
Croke Park was no place for the faint-hearted. My notes, an illegible scrawl, reveal the tension that held more than 82,000 people enthralled. You couldn’t take your eye off it.
We had convinced ourselves, in the minutes preceding that stirring revival, that defeat was again the inevitable course of Mayo’s journey. Dublin were seven points ahead. We squirmed at the loss of a few decent opportunities to cut the lead. And time was against any sort of recovery.
And then the tide turned. Mayo had come to life. Dublin’s score was frozen at 2-12. The gap had begun to close. All over the field, Mayo passion permeated the atmosphere. Andy Moran and Alan Freeman had clipped over a couple of points, and fortune favoured his bravery when Boyle won the penalty.
They will accuse the referee of leniency in his award of the penalty, but it was no more lenient that some other awards to the opposition during the course of the game.
What can’t be denied is the passion with which Mayo went about dismantling Dublin’s lead. It is something to which we in Mayo are not accustomed. Concrete walls would not have stopped the fierce intensity with which they took command in those final minutes.
But we must be careful now that this will not become the only memory of Mayo’s championship journey this season. The return to Croke Park next Saturday is fraught with obstacles no less difficult than those they faced last weekend.
A draw was an unlikely outcome at the interval. Dublin had dictated most of the play even though they led only by three points at the interval.
Between Lee Keegan’s opening point of the game and Mayo’s second in the 14th minute, Dublin had raced into a lead of 1-3. Mayo’s forwards were being pulled too far back into a defensive role.
On many occasions, Aidan O’Shea was alone up front. And when he did win possession, his colleagues were too far back to be of assistance. Fair play was not always accorded the big man. But against the odds he more than held his own, held his cool too, took enormous punishment, and in Mayo’s recovery in the last quarter was a salient figure.
Dublin’s penalty – scored by Diarmuid Connolly in the fourth minute – took the gloss of a bright Mayo opening during which Lee Keegan had Mayo’s first point. There was a sense of déjà vu about it all, and Dublin exploited Mayo’s setback by adding three points without replay.
Mayo closed ranks after that goal, and Cillian O’Connor punished their infringements with his accuracy from frees. Their excessive aggression cost Dublin black cards to Michael Darragh MacAuley and sub Denis Bastick and eventually a red to Diarmuid Connolly.
The frees they conceded were costly with O’Connor in such brilliant form. The Ballintubber man was back to his finest marksmanship form, thrillingly pointing every opportunity that came his way.
So by half-time the gap against Mayo was three points, not an unassailable lead, but in the wake of Mayo’s performance left little room for optimism. And when, after they had missed enough chances to hoist them ahead, substitute Kevin McManamon squeezed the ball into their net after a fine save by Rob Hennelly, Mayo hearts sank again.
Comeback came alight with grit and resolve
WHAT seemed token resistance when Andy Moran reduced the deficit to six points in the 62nd minute became the spark that ignited Mayo’s recovery.
Then their whole game was alight with grit and resolve and unshakeable strength of mind. Backbone fuelled their fightback. And every member of the side was part of it, everyone in offensive mood.
In his one brilliant catch in the middle of the field, Barry Moran encapsulated Mayo’s suddenly-acquired invincibility. In his captain’s role, Keith Higgins was inspired, and inspirational, in one of his finest games. Ger Cafferkey, almost unobtrusively, held a tight grip on various Dublin forwards, and in the corner Chris Barrett negated much of Bernard Brogan’s potency.
Mayo lost a heavyweight attacker-cum-defender when Donal Vaughan hurt his shoulder. But his replacement Patrick Durcan performed extremely well. Lee Keegan was immensely strong and effective in his tackling and especially in overshadowing Dublin danger man Connolly.
David Drake, a surprise choice as sweeper, played confidently if not to the same effect as Barry Moran against Donegal ... which was the obvious intention of the management.
Colm Boyle has held his best form all year for this semi-final. His indestructible spirit and voyages into attack caused panic in the Dublin defence.
The football was not for high midfielders. Nevertheless, Seamus O’Shea, as ever, never flinched a tackle, and together with Tom Parsons, owned that area, even though Michael Darragh MacAuley did cause some problems early on.
Aidan O’Shea in attack was the focus of Dublin’s attention. He needed an in-form Cillian O’Connor to deliver for him, and the Ballintubber man did so with characteristic coolness.
But the massive industry of O’Connor’s brother Diarmuid was also a significant prong of the attack. And while on this occasion neither Kevin McLoughlin nor Jason Doherty reached their own set standards, the opportunity for each is there again on Saturday, and to be sure, they will not fail to grab it.
Heartening though Mayo’s revival was, they have to do it all again on Saturday. It’s a big ask to be ready for another epic tussle. The physical pains and aches sustained in the replay won’t quite have vanished in time. Donal Vaughan seems certain to miss out with his shoulder injury, and the punishment that Aidan O’Shea shipped must surely tell.
Stephen Cluxton did have an opportunity to win it for Dublin in the final seconds, but for once his free-taking was off beam, and Mayo let off the hook. The Dublin ’keeper is unlikely to be so inaccurate in the replay and poses a threat to Mayo’s chances of reaching the final.
Jack McCaffrey, too, was difficult to stop, and the rampaging of Kevin McManamon was hard to contain when he replaced the eclipsed Dean Rock at half-time.
But Dublin have their own problems to patch also, not least the psychological aspect of their cave-in. They looked at times as if they were about to annihilate Mayo, especially when seven points ahead and the end in sight.
If Mayo can take advantage of that, and lift the lid early on their fervour of the final minutes of the drawn game, they will advance.