Where on earth do you start after that? The 2006 semi-final comeback was – and will continue to be – something to savour but today’s incredible fightback was in a different league altogether. When Jack McCaffrey pointed to put Dublin seven clear with just eight minutes left on the clock, I thought we were heading for a double-digit loss but instead we threw caution to the wind and stormed back, levelling the contest before the seventy minutes were up. In that frantic injury time period, we could have won it and we very nearly lost it but I was delighted we came away with the draw.
We drew at the same stage last year, of course, but this one feels a whole load different. Then, we were the ones blowing a late lead whereas after today Dublin must surely be scratching their heads about how on earth they failed to close out what should have been a comfortable win for them. Today, we definitely got out of jail but for sheer heart and guts we surely deserved another go at this.
For long periods today, we didn’t hit the kind of high notes the team were expected to reach. In the first half we seemed far too hesitant, in the second we were dreadfully wasteful and overall it wasn’t the kind of performance you’d have thought we’d produce in an All-Ireland semi-final. But then came those madcap final ten minutes when we finally threw everything at them and got the scores we needed to secure the draw.
Pity the poor neutrals who were expecting a free-flowing, open match. It was cynical from start to finish and, while we were far from blameless, I can only assume that fair-minded observers will accept that we were far more sinned against than sinning.
How the Dublin backline dealt with Aidan O’Shea is the most obvious case in point. Philly McMahon fouled, fouled and fouled again and, as so often happens, Aidan got little or no protection from the ref. In fairness to Joe McQuillan, he had a difficult job to do and while he got a number of big calls wrong overall he did okay in trying circumstances.
The penalty decisions were clearly crucial to how the game panned out. The TV replays confirm that Paul Flynn was fouled but was he outside the square? It looked like he was. Colm Boyle’s one looked on the soft side but Aidan had a far bigger shout for one turned down in the first half when he was clearly held back by McMahon.
Their penalty, expertly put away by Diarmuid Connolly, set the agenda for the first half. We’d started stronger – with Lee Keegan firing over the game’s opening point – but soon found ourselves chasing the game as they built up a four-point lead.
Just after the heart-warming round of applause for the late Darragh Doherty on the 13th minute, Cillian pointed a free to cut the gap to three and it was Cillian who added all of our scores from then till half-time, all from frees as time after time our attacks ended in fouls. I thought Joe McQuillan was slow to start producing the cards for this constant stream of fouling and the lack of cards meant, of course, that it kept up pretty much unabated.
But that wasn’t our only problem. Our tentative, hesitant use of the ball contrasted greatly with the confident way that they sprayed it around, leading to a number of good scoring chances created and converted. Paddy Andrews got two points and the excellent Ciaran Kilkenny bagged three, with Bernard Brogan a menace requiring minding in the corner.
We went in three behind at the break but by then there were already a few hints that we were getting back into the game. Losing Donal Vaughan early on was a blow but his replacement Patrick Durcan was putting in a stormer and the way that we’d restricted Cluxton to the shortest of kickouts meant that we were beginning to win that particular mind-game.
We pretty much owned the third quarter but squandered pretty much every chance we created in that period. Andy Moran’s introduction brought more invention and purpose to our attack and MacAuley’s black card finally put a bit of manners on the foul machine we were battling with. But chance after chance was missed and, while we narrowed the gap back down to a single point, all those wides meant that the opportunity that was there for us to wrest the ascendency in the contest was lost.
All looked lost when Dublin got their second goal. Robbie got down superbly to save the initial shot but the ball squirted out to McManamon who poked it home. We pulled a point back – Cillian again, from a free again – straight away but two further Dublin points pushed them seven clear and the Dubs began to celebrate what looked like a certain win.
The most important thing in the late fightback that now got underway was that we didn’t panic. There were no daft goal attempts from twenty yards out, as instead we picked off three points in quick succession from good scoring positions.
Those scores – from Andy Moran, Keith Higgins and Alan Freeman – put us back in the hunt. We knew, though, that we had to get a goal and getting one against a team like Dublin wasn’t going to be easy. In the end, the penalty decision we got was fortunate enough but, given the blatant level of cynicality Dublin showed all day (which, let’s be honest here, would make a Tyrone man blush), it was understandable that Joe McQuillan was prepared to spread his arms when Boyler hit the deck. Cillian showed balls of steel too to ram the penalty home.
Just a point down and rampant, Cluxton’s head totally gone, we should, in truth, have finished them off. We turned the kickout over straight away and Andy fired over to level it up. The Hill wasn’t quite in party mood now.
We could have got a free – for the gazillionth foul on Aidan – within range but nothing was doing and we eventually conceded one ourselves from a position Connolly had pointed earlier on.
Had the Vincents man taken it, I’m convinced it would have gone over. But before the free was taken – by Cluxton, who missed three from three deadballs today – Connolly got a straight red card for a strike on Lee Keegan as the pair of them were wrestling on the ground. Cluxton’s effort sailed harmlessly to the left of the posts.
We had one more chance but lost possession and when Dublin passed up on another attack and booted it backwards instead McQuillan obviously decided enough was enough and blew for full-time.
First things first. Seven down with eight minutes to play, we should have been dead and buried. Sure, if we played to our potential prior to then we shouldn’t have ever been in that position but credit to the guys when the chips were really down for digging deep and hauling us back into the game in the stirring way that they did.
Second, Dublin’s disgraceful tactics today need to be called out in the strongest possible way. Feted for their attack-minded approach, today’s display by Dublin was up there with the worst that Tyrone have ever produced (McMahon’s head-butt on Aidan deserves particular highlighting so here it is). If I ever hear that spoofer Jim Gavin on again about what he calls Dublin’s esprit de corps and their so-called core principles, I do believe it’ll bring on a bout of antiperistalsis.
We had several strong performers out there today. Keith, Lee, Boyler, Tom, Diarmuid, Cillian and Paddy Durcan would be the half-dozen I’d pick out for special praise, with the young Mitchels man deserving of particular mention, pitched as he was so raw and inexperienced into the cauldron that was Croke Park this afternoon and thriving in it.
So we go again in six days. I certainly hope we show them a whole load less respect next Saturday than we did today. I’m sure we’re nursing plenty of bumps and bruises right now – Donie won’t, I guess, be fit for action the next day – but I’d say they’ve got more and Connolly, assuming the red card stands, will be a huge loss for them.
I can’t quite believe we’re still in it. But we are and we’ve six days now to put in place a plan to win the replay. At last, the ghastliness of Limerick and all that befell us last year can be put to some practical use – we’ve been here before (not Limerick – they won’t be sending us there this time) and we need to use the bitter experience of last year’s semi-final replay to plot what we need to do and how we need to do it the next day to get us over the line.
Winning it is still a huge ask. But what I so love about this bunch of lads is that the more you ask the more they give. There’s more in them too, of that I’ve no doubt, and I’ve every confidence that we’ll see evidence of this in abundance back at HQ next Saturday evening.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly; Ger Cafferkey, Donal Vaughan, Keith Higgins (0-1); Lee Keegan (0-1), Chris Barrett, Colm Boyle; Seamus O’Shea, Tom Parsons; Diarmuid O’Connor (0-1), Aidan O’Shea, Kevin McLoughlin; David Drake, Cillian O’Connor (1-9, penalty goal, 8 frees and a ’45), Jason Doherty. Subs: Patrick Durcan for Vaughan, Andy Moran (0-2) for Drake, Alan Freeman (0-1) for Doherty, Barry Moran for Seamus O’Shea, Mikey Sweeney for Diarmuid O’Connor.