THE comment was apt and perceptive. “Better to have been beaten by seven than by one,” he said, with the acute sense of a man steeped in the history of Mayo football.
It was a tacit reminder of what might have been if we had lost by the narrowest of margins. The ‘if only’ discussion on another long journey home; the regrets of another narrow defeat, the cost of the wrong decision, the errant pass, the missed opportunity, the curse of bad luck.
There would have been someone to blame – the referee perhaps. Or some luckless player forced to carry most of the responsibility for a lost opportunity to close that widening gap that stretches more years than anyone cares to recall.
This result left no room for argument. The seven-points margin simply exposed our limitations. It had nothing to do with the rehabilitation of Diarmuid Connolly ... who was scarcely in the game.
Nor could it be attributed to any unreasonable refereeing decision, since in the opinion of this writer, no official in recent times has handled a Mayo game as judiciously as Eddie Kinsella.
It was none of those things. The fault in essence lay in Mayo failure, not for want of heart or effort, more a shortage of adequate talent on the bench. When Mayo’s effort visibly wilted under the force of Dublin’s withering pressure, we, unlike the Dubliners, had no saviour to pluck from the bench.
Mayo simply ran out of steam. They had matched the opposition in most sectors throughout a blistering first half, and when Cillian O’Connor crashed home their goal in the 42nd minute, the launch of another concerted drive for victory seemed imminent.
But we didn’t have a Michael Darragh MacAuley or a Kevin McManamon to call on. And those two super subs effectively decided the outcome. We have a team of excellent footballers, but unlike Dublin we have not enough of them.
When Seamus O’Shea (the powerhouse of so much of Mayo’s action) was given a black card for an incident that seemed to warrant only a yellow, a few minutes after the resumption, we did not have the explosive replacement that MacAuley was for Denis Bastick. It was the moment you wished for a Jason Gibbons to fill the vacuum.
Cillian O’Connor’s brilliance blinded us temporarily to that emergency when he put the ball in the Dublin net four minutes after the dismissal of Seamus O’Shea. Mayo pulled Barry Moran from the sweeping role in which he so effectively functioned in the first half to the midfield slot.
They needed then to summon the passion and energy of their drawn game to hold the four-point lead into which the full-forward had thrust them. But there was nothing left in the tank. They were spent, fatigued.
Dublin quickly exploited the void left by Moran in defence with Bernard Brogan’s goal in the 55th minute. The power wasn’t there to check Brian Fenton, unmarked out on the right wing. His cross was low and hard across the face of the goal, ideally placed for Brogan to sweep to the net.
A minute later, corner back Philly McMahon had their second goal, MacAuley had begun to dominate midfield, and Barry Moran and Tom Parsons were replaced. The midfield anchor had been reeled in and Dublin were handed free rein.
The nail was hammered home four minutes from the end by that rampaging force of nature that is Kevin McManamon, with a goal that whizzed into the roof of the net like a rocket.
Can players sustain this effort for another year?
CILLIAN O’Connor’s goal was no ordinary score and deserves more than a passing mention. Set up by Andy Moran, it was like something I have not seen before in its nerve and execution.
In turning to his left foot, the Ballintubber man seemed to have lost momentum, but with that coolness that transcends even his accuracy, he got his right foot to it, beating the diving efforts of the goalkeeper and a couple of backs.
The game bore no resemblance to the drawn match. They cynicism was absent, the aggression, the anger. Mayo gave as good as they got, played it coolly and well, and waited for opportunities to arise to take their scores.
Diarmuid O’Connor, one of the success stories of the championship, stood out for his work-rate, which rewarded him with two fine points. Barry Moran got in on the act, pressing forward from defence, his mobility and effort a hint of the promise he once was.
Sometimes they looked giddy in pursuing opportunities, and an overcooked pass to Aidan O’Shea or a ball dropped short for Cluxton to deal with, or a wide that might have been a score, were given away.
The big man didn’t have the happiest of days at full-forward, mainly because ball was not delivered accurately in his direction. And even though his support was somewhat better than the drawn match, there were times it was not there when he needed it.
So perhaps out of frustration, he stole out field, and in the first half was back on occasions supporting the defence. But that took its toll in terms of energy and effort.
The rapid recovery from a shoulder injury of Donal Vaughan should have been a boost to Mayo, but his funds of energy vanished early in the first half, and his wing back position was taken over by the hard-working Patrick Durcan.
The Mayo defence coped reasonably well with the Dublin forwards until MacAuley and McManamon arrived on the scene. Up to that, Paddy Andrews was the big threat, and some of his points in the first half from various angles were outstanding.
So, disappointments all round again. But spare a thought for the players whose efforts have fallen short for the fifth year in succession. They have not spared themselves in their quest for the holy grail. Day in, day out, they have made sacrifices way beyond the call of duty.
Whether they can sustain the effort for another year is doubtful. While everyone outside Connacht want Mayo to win the coveted trophy, every other county inside the province will strive to see them dethroned.
As I’ve said, they don’t have the reserve talent that is available to Kerry and Dublin. Other than Diarmuid O’Connor and Patrick Durcan, no new talent has come on the scene.
Our under-21s have been unable to make the breakthrough in Connacht for some time, and if the hammering our minors took in the championship is any indication, the outlook is not promising. Some members of the team may indeed decide to call it a day ... and who would blame them?