Dublin is a county that we’ve come to like playing in recent years and we’ve enjoyed a few sweet wins over them. Tonight could so easily have been another one of those and, a man up and two points to the good with thirty minutes to go in the wide open spaces of Croke Park, there was no earthly reason we should have lost this one. But we did and, in doing so, we showed an alarming lack of intelligence, with Dublin’s fourteen men ripping us to shreds and carving out what was, let’s be honest, a comfortable four-point win.
Dumb and dumber, indeed. The dumb bit was Ger Brennan who once again couldn’t resist doing something sufficiently stupid to get himself sent off. Poking a kick into Michael Conroy’s ribs as the Davitts man lay on the turf was enough of itself to get him sent off but he made sure he’d walk when, in the subsequent melee, he smashed his elbow into Donal Vaughan’s jaw. It’ll be interesting to see if Jim Gavin – who has already put on record that he doesn’t want to see his players getting into trouble like this – restores the Vincent’s man to his starting fifteen once this latest suspension is up. Something tells me he won’t.
We got two points quickly after that incident to pull two clear and a team of our experience should have had enough intelligence to know what to do to close out the win. But that’s the dumber bit – we completely collapsed from that point on, allowed Dublin to run rings around us and then, when we had the ball, failed repeatedly to use it to good effect. Instead we rained in a succession of dumb-ass thirty yarders in the general direction of Mickey Conroy, every one of which the Dublin backs gathered gratefully and used as a platform to come back at us.
Bernard Brogan ran absolute riot in that period, with Kevin McManamon to the fore as well, and we never had the first notion what to do to counteract him. Where was the extra man? Where, come to think of it, was the full-back line?
And once again, when the changes came, they came far, far too late. It was evident after fifteen minutes of the first half that Aidan O’Shea was lost at centre-forward and when he was finally restored to midfield for the second half, it would have made more sense to withdraw Jason Gibbons altogether at that stage. I can’t for the life of me understand why Cathal Carolan was brought on when he was and Tom Cunniffe for Richie Feeney with ten minutes to go won’t go down as the tactical switch of the decade either. All told, it smacked of a sideline that wasn’t really sure what it was doing at any stage tonight.
In terms of how the scores came, it was an odd kind of contest, with the Dubs racing into a three-point lead before we ever got the ball down the other end, our lads responding with six unanswered points before they hit back with 1-5 without reply. Three points down at the break we came out very brightly on the restart and added three to the two we’d got just before half-time to pull level again.
But then it all went haywire after Brennan’s sending-off. What was so stark in that period when Dublin got completely on top was the intelligence they showed on the ball and the economy they demonstrated with the possession they had, which wasn’t anything like the oodles of ball they had in the first half. In contrast, we had loads of possession in that period but did little or nothing with it. Even when we managed to break through on goal, we failed to get a shot on target with Lee Keegan blasting over badly and then Seamus O’Shea smashing a horrible wide with Jason Doherty unmarked and calling for it inside.
Overall, this was obviously a performance with more negatives than positives. On the plus side Kenneth O’Malley played well in goal, distributing good ball from kick-outs and getting down smartly to save Cluxton’s spot kick. The penalty should never, of course, have been awarded – a dive is a dive is a dive – and luckily Cluxton’s dead-eye accuracy with fifties doesn’t extend to ones from twelve yards but it was a fine save by the Ballinrobe netminder and it should have roused us to greater things.
Colm Boyle, Lee Keegan, Aidan O’Shea (when he finally settled back into midfield), Kevin McLoughlin, Jason Doherty and, to a lesser extent, Enda Varley and Michael Conroy all had their moments but that, in truth, was as good as it got.
Poor old Ger Cafferkey got an absolute roasting from Bernard Brogan, who ended the night on 1-10 with the grace note an outrageous point from a sideline ball over near the Hill. Chris Barrett seemed all at sea in the full-back line where Keith Higgins has had better matches too – he was rounded far too easily by McManamon in the lead-up to their second goal. Donie was a bit all over the shop as well – I really do think midfield, in harness with the big lad, is the only place for him – and the fact that both Barry Moran and Jason Gibbons were withdrawn before the end tells you what you need to know about how things went for us there. Richie Feeney battled but to little tangible purpose and both Enda Varley and Michael Conroy repeatedly kept getting bottled up in the thicket of Dublin defenders. None of the three subs we used made any mark on the contest.
This all sounds a bit harsh, I know, and it’s not really meant to as I know the result of a match at the start of March isn’t one that matters enormously in the scheme of things, providing we learn from it and turn the experience to our advantage. The worry I’d have, I guess, is that this is a pretty experienced team now and James is no longer a wet-behind-the-ears manager either and yet all those old failings we’ve seen time and time again are still there and, one senses, always will be when the pressure comes on.
The manner in which we lost tonight certainly raises a few alarm bells and it now becomes important that we see some tangible evidence that we’re able to correct the kind of shortcomings that were so painfully evident at Croke Park. What we really need to see from the team now is a reaction and we need to see it next Saturday night up in Newry. At the very least, the minimum we should expect is a performance that shows a hell of a lot more intelligence than the truly dumb display we put on for much of the second half at HQ tonight.
Mayo: Kenneth O’Malley; Chris Barrett, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan (0-3), Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle; Jason Gibbons, Barry Moran; Kevin McLoughlin (0-3, two frees), Aidan O’Shea (0-1), Richie Feeney; Enda Varley (0-2), Jason Doherty (0-6, three frees), Michael Conroy (0-1). Subs: Cathal Carolan for Gibbons, Seamus O’Shea for Moran, Tom Cunniffe for Feeney.