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Maybe the decline of this Mayo team has begun?

Sean Rice


Column
Seán Rice

MAYBE it was the breadth of their vision against Roscommon that seemed to worsen the depth of their slump to Dublin, but the disappointment in Croke Park on Saturday night was intense.
For some time Mayo have been seen as Dublin’s closest rivals. Saturday’s 12-point hiding would suggest that the gap has widened. On grounds of their respective draws with them, Tyrone and Donegal have edged Mayo out of that dubious honour.
We’ll not try to analyse what, if any, damage has been done to their psyche. Two years ago Dublin inflicted a heavier defeat, ­ 2-18 to 0-10, on Mayo in Elverys MacHale Park in the same competition.
It did not hinder Mayo’s progress to the All-Ireland semi-final, where they lost to the Dubs by four points in a replay.
Before the start of Saturday’s encounter we had mused on the relative insignificance of the outcome for Mayo ­– whether victory or defeat ­– believing that their primary aim ought to be retention of their league status.
After watching them slide so sharply, though, a thought skimmed our mind that maybe the inevitable decline has already begun, and that Stephen Rochford’s re-building programme may have to take on greater urgency.
Time will tell of course. A good win over Cavan might change that impression and send us waxing lyrical again. Mayo’s yo-yo form is as ever unpredictable.
In any case this was not pretty. Starting with Lee Keegan in for Donie Newcombe and Tom Parsons for David Drake, Mayo were pulled all over the place by a fast and familiarly crafty Dublin.
They swarmed everywhere, created acres of room, and listless Mayo could find no outlet for most of their cumbersome, telegraphed responses.
Michael Darragh MacAuley, wily and masterful, owned midfield. And all of the seven who did not start in the All-Ireland repaid Jim Gavin’s faith in them with mature performances.
Eric Lowndes, Niall Scully, Shane B Carthy and Conor McHugh were experiencing Mayo opposition for the first time … and wallowing in the freedom they enjoyed.
MacAuley did not figure on the scoreboard but he was at the heart of everything Dublin did, back defending and crucially up front wriggling his way menacingly through a hapless Mayo back line.
You felt that a fit Seamus O’Shea would not have tolerated the bouncing menaces of the midfielder who did just as he liked. He won no high ball and he made sure no Mayo man did either.
Mayo tried to lift the siege by playing Dublin’s game. But they were not fit enough to compete as equals. Every opponent was first to the ball delivered to him low and accurately.
For David Clarke’s kick-outs, a Dublin forward clung tightly to a Mayo defender. Conversely, at the other end, some Dubs were left unattended for Stephen Cluxton’s re-starts … a sign perhaps of the difference in terms of physical fitness.
Seven minutes had barely passed when Clarke tried to find a defender on his right. The ball was intercepted and the cross swept to the net by rookie Conor McHugh.
Clarke more than compensated for that one miscalculation with a few of his trademark saves. One came near the end of the first half when he got down magnificently to a ball from MacAuley. His parried save was scooped back into the net, but the Dubliner had touched the ball on the ground and the score was disallowed.
The Ballina man’s penalty save 13 minutes into the second half was even more dramatic. Paddy Andrews got two chances to score, but Clarke saved the first and then the rebound, and under extreme pressure the ball was cleared.
Donal Vaughan was black-carded for grounding Dean Rock and causing the penalty. Even so, the defiance of the intrepid goalkeeper ought to have been a spur for Mayo.
Not a bit. Nothing it seemed would kindle in them the kind of reaction needed to open up the opposing defence that kept Mayo scoreless from play for the entire first half.

Mayo unable to dent Dublin’s dominance
MAYO didn’t have the power to make a dent in the Dublin resistance. Two half-chances of goals were created. A more powerful shot from Kevin Mc Loughlin might have beaten Cluxton in the 20th minute.
Just before that Cillian O’Connor got close, but his shot from close range was smothered.
On another occasion Diarmuid O’Connor’s call for a penalty in the second half might have been heard. Instead he was punished for over-carrying.
But these were all marginal chances compared to those created from Dublin’s variety of attacking positions. Everywhere they were purring. In no one sector were they found wanting.
Mayo, in contrast, were lopsided. Dublin focused on singling out our stars for special attention, allowing not an inch to the O’Connors or Andy Moran or Kevin McLoughlin or Tom Parsons, forming an impenetrable wall in front of them. Without their guidance Mayo were rudderless.
On occasions they tackled fruitfully in defence, but the robustness and vigour to support their counter-attacks from the half-back line was missing, and most of them perished on the rock of Dublin’s resilience.
Lee Keegan’s inclusion did strengthen the full-back line, and although not quite at home, he made some deep runs in pursuit of Eoghan O’Gara. But for want of support, he too felt the weight of Mayo’s frustration.
His nemesis Diarmuid Connolly was not even among the Dublin subs, and the anticipated repeat of their All-Ireland confrontation did not materialise. In Dean Rock on the ‘40’ Connolly had an able deputy. Colm Boyle did his best to rein in the Dublin marksman and in fighting for possession revealed much of his old combative quality.
But where one home forward was shadowed another shone, where one faltered there was another to take over. They played in order to maintain their lid on Mayo, to demonstrate that they are still a formidable force and that their closest rivals are still a long way off Dublin standard.
Paddy Durcan did threaten on occasions, but for most of the match he too was fighting from an unfamiliar position, and like the others, his runs met up that impassable wall.
Keith Higgins held his own but was given no opportunity to embark on any of his noted thrusts up field. All through, their All-Ireland cohesiveness was missing from the defence.
Midfield was disappointing, too, in terms of agility and dexterity. MacAuley was irrepressible. Neither Parsons nor Jason Gibbons have reached that stage of fitness yet to cope with such fleet-footedness so soon into the season.
Is it coming to that stage when league football, to survive, demands championship standards of fitness?

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