I can’t recall the full ins and outs of what combination of results last weekend would have kept us in Division One but would also have kept us out of the semis but, trudging out from Croke Park this evening having seen the lads get utterly hosed by Dublin, I couldn’t help but thinking that it would have been far better for us had such an outcome been the end-note of our 2013 league campaign. Instead, we ended up in a play-off match we seemed utterly ill-prepared for, facing well-drilled opponents who knew how to cause damage. We only lost by six in the end today but you got the clear feeling that the margin could have been twice or maybe three times that had Dublin really wanted it to be.
The last time we shipped a beating like that in Croke Park was back in the 2010 league final. That defeat preceded our worst championship campaign in recent years and while today’s scalding loss isn’t quite on the same scale, it is nonetheless a fairly stark reminder to us that we’ve plenty of work to do if we’re to get as close to the summit this year as we did in 2012. I know it’s only still the middle of April but there were precious few signs today of a team that might mount a serious All-Ireland challenge later this year.
But, of course, it is only April and with key players such as Keith Higgins, Barry Moran, Alan Dillon and Andy Moran to come back for the summer (and, boy, do we need all four of them back and raring to go – an outcome which cannot, of course, be guaranteed) things undoubtedly aren’t as bad for us as today’s flaccid performance would perhaps suggest. At the very least, though, we’ve an awful lot of work to do if we’re to have any hope of being competitive against the teams that count this year.
There was, at last, a touch of spring, maybe even a first hint of summer, at a sunwashed Croke Park today where I felt a tad overcooked in my cosy Cáirde Mhaigheo jacket with the sun beating down on us in the Cusack Stand. At least I’d remembered to bring the sunglasses with me. We started with a sense of purpose too and in those opening ten minutes there was little evidence of the fate that was about to befall us as we got the game’s first three scores to open a bit of daylight between us. Cillian converted two frees and Cathal Carolan popped a nice one over from play but even then we should have been further in front with Jason Doherty and Donal Vaughan spurning clear goal chances.
Dublin didn’t get their first score until the 13th minute but it was a significant one when they did. Young Mannion shrugged off Kevin Keane to win possession out on the wing and then surged inside before blasting it past David Clarke on his near side. At a stroke, then, all that good work to build an early lead had been wiped out. Connolly then pointed to put the Dubs ahead.
Worse was to follow soon after when Whelan, making his first senior start, smashed home a second goal for the Metropolitans and that was our cue to collapse. From then until the half-hour mark, we didn’t win a single ball anywhere, losing every kick-out, every breaking ball, and Dublin engulfed us in a series of hard-running attacks that yielded a flurry of points. By the time this tornado had abated, the Dubs were already out of sight as they had amassed a ten-point cushion and had utterly broken our will to resist.
But it could have been worse. David Clarke made a wonderful save to prevent a third goal – something he’d do again before the game was out – and Bernard Brogan, who’d been Dublin’s main attacking threat in last month’s match between the sides, wasn’t doing all that much to write home about. Then again, he didn’t really have to as the lads around him had already done enough damage.
We rose a bit of a gallop before half-time, landing three unanswered points – another Cillian free, one from play from Michael Conroy (which was another goal chance not taken up) and a third fisted over by Jason Gibbons – but as the lads trooped off at half-time seven points in arrears only the most wildly optimistic supporter would have given them any chance of overturning this deficit. Clearly, we were already into damage limitation territory at that stage.
That meant that the second half was more akin to a challenge match. We’d make an effort to reduce the gap, they’d up the tempo to slap us down again then ease off until we developed notions once more. It was all painful in the extreme.
At least Dublin didn’t put us to the sword in the manner they hinted they were well capable of in the opening half. Instead, Jim Gavin decided to use the second 35 minutes as an opportunity to empty his bench and, with little to play for either, James Horan opted to do likewise, in the process giving a first league outing to perma-subs Michael Walsh and Alan Murphy. It was, in truth, a relief all round when the final whistle sounded, just after Cillian O’Connor had stroked over this late, late free:
It’s difficult to take many positives from today’s performance on a day when few of the lads put in any kind of decent displays. As others have already mentioned in the comments, David Clarke, Ger Cafferkey, Aidan O’Shea, Cillian O’Connor and Michael Conroy were our most prominent players today but, as has also been noted by others, as a team we looked utterly disinterested, especially after the second Dublin goal went in. And I guess the less that’s said about our own efforts to find the net, the better.
And so that ends our 2013 league campaign, an odd bloody campaign if there ever was one. The major positive we can take from it is that we did succeed in retaining our Division One status but we’re coming out of it with more questions to answer about ourselves than we went into it.
All the focus switches now to the championship and, in particular, to our showdown with Galway in Salthill five weeks from now. That one never was a gimme and Alan Mulholland will, no doubt, be taking a close look at the tapes of today’s game as he plans his tactics for Pearse Stadium. But, then, so too, one suspects, will James Horan who after today has a few big calls to make about a number of positions on his starting fifteen for the championship.
Mayo: David Clarke; Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey, Chris Barrett; Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle; Jason Gibbons (0-1), Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-1, a free), Aidan O’Shea (0-2), Cathal Carolan (0-1); Cillian O’Connor (0-8, seven frees); Jason Doherty, Michael Conroy (0-3). Subs: Richie Feeney for Doherty, Brian Gallagher for Gibbons, Michael Walsh for Keane, Alan Murphy for Carolan, Evan Regan for McLoughlin.