Championship talking points
By John Harrington
Yesterday's nerve-shredding All-Ireland Final between Dublin and Mayo will live long in the memory.
Your heart would go out to Mayo, but at the same time you simply have to tip your cap to a wonderful Dublin team for digging out such a hard-fought win to secure a historic third All-Ireland title in a row.
Here are five of the main talking points from wonderful day of Gaelic Football that finished the 2017 season with a dramatic flourish
1: Dublin join the three-in-a-row club
By winning a third All-Ireland on the trot, Dublin have copper-fastened their status as one of the greatest teams in the history of the game.
They’re the first team since the Kerry side of ’84-’86 to win three All-Irelands consecutively, and in doing so join a very small and select club.
It’s the fourth time Dublin have won three All-Irelands in a row, but the last time they did so was from 1921 to 1923.
Previous to that, they managed the feat from 1897 to 1899 and from 1907 to 1909.
Only two other counties have done the three-in-a-row – Kerry (1939 to 1941 and 1984 to 1986) and Galway (1964 to 1966).
The challenge now for Dublin is to break into the even more exclusive four-in-a-row club.
Wexford were the first county to achieve that feat from 1915 to 1918, and Kerry also managed it from 1978 to 1981.
Dublin certainly have the quality to emulate them, and you can be sure some members of their team will quietly harbour ambitions of helping the county become the first ever five-in-a-row side.
Considering the depth of quality in their panel – their ‘B’ team beat their ‘A’ team by a point in a challenge match two weeks before the All-Ireland Final – Dublin certainly have enough quality players to create that sort of history.
2: Dublin’s composure is incredible
When a Cillian O’Connor free put Mayo two points up after 63 minutes of Sunday’s All-Ireland Final, Dublin were looking down the barrel of gun.
They never flinched, though. Instead they kept their cool, stuck to the game-plan, and found a way to score three of the last four points of the match.
The composure they showed in that clutch phase of the match was remarkable and was probably best summed up by the point Dean Rock scored from play in injury-time.
Diarmuid Connolly picked him out with a peach of a cross-field pass that put him clean through on goal, and, rather than go for a glory-goal, Rock had the presence of mind to fist it over the bar for a point that proved oh so valuable in the final reckoning.
Dublin midfielder James McCarthy remarked at the team hotel this morning that it’s not coincidence or luck that enables Dublin to consistently win high-stakes matches by narrow margins.
He’s right. Their ability to remain calm under pressure and never take a backward step is what time and again has gotten them over the line first in a neck and neck race.
3: Unlimited heartbreak for Mayo
Mayo have endured plenty Croke Park heartache in recent years, but surely this was the sorest defeat of all.
They did so much right yesterday and had the upper hand in so many key battles, and yet still they came up just short.
In the final reckoning, they simply weren’t quite clinical enough.
They created more than twice as many scoring chances from play in the first half than Dublin did – 15 compared to 7 – and yet still only led by a point at half-time.
What hurt them the most though was the red-carding of Donal Vaughan in the second-half for a reckless off-the-ball hit on John Small after the Dublin defender had floored Colm Boyle with a high tackle that would earn him his marching orders for a second yellow card.
Had Vaughan kept his cool, then Dublin would have been a man down and Cillian O’Connor would more than likely kicked the resultant free to draw his side level.
With 30 minutes left to play in the match including injury-time, it’s hard to believe that a team as experienced as Mayo wouldn’t have made that extra-man count and won the match.
Instead Vaughan rushed in and was also sent to the line with Small. While the free that Boyle had earned was overturned and the ball thrown in instead.
A 14-a-side match suited Dublin more than Mayo because it gave the previously well-contained duo of Brian Fenton and James McCarthy greater space in the middle third and they took advantage of it by scoring three crucial points in the final 25 minutes of the game.
Perhaps Andy Moran and Jason Doherty would have been able to go right to the end in a 15-a-side game, but with extra ground to cover now their batteries drained more quickly and both were subbed late in the contest.
The Mayo attack lost its shape and cutting edge with their departure, and yet maybe the Connacht side would have at least been able to salvage a draw or even hold out for a win had Cillian O’Connor’s free at the end of normal time gone over instead of hitting a post.
That moment was yet another heart-breaker for a side that just seems to always come out on the wrong side of those fine-margin moments.
4: Thoughts already turn to 2018
You’d wonder how this Mayo team could recover from the grief of losing an All-Ireland Final in this manner, but as they’ve proven so often now they’re a special bunch who seem immune to adversity.
Team captain Cillian O’Connor gave a heart-felt speech in their team hotel after the match and vowed they’ll be back again next year to continue their quest to win the Sam Maguire Cup.
"There is very little that I can say that can soften or reduce the sadness in all of us, as the players and management and supporters of the Mayo football can acknowledge,” said O’Connor.
“Defeat has visited us once again. In this very position last year, I spoke about fighting the good fight and hanging in there. Today, we did that. All year long, we've done that. For years, we've done that.
"But what's more, moving forward into the future, we're going to continue to fight the good fight."
You wouldn’t doubt O’Connor or the rest of this Mayo team, but you’d also have to wonder just how much more they have left to give.
Andy Moran was excellent this year, but will be 34 by next summer so will he be able to maintain those standards into 2018?
Other key men like David Clarke (33), Keith Higgins (32), Colm Boyle (31) and Seamus O’Shea (30) can also be classed as veterans by now, so the law of diminishing returns may apply.
Despite that concern, Mayo will still go into the 2018 season as the most likely pretenders to Dublin’s crown.
Kerry’s defensive flaws were badly exposed in the All-Ireland semi-final, and even though they have a lot of young talent coming through in the county after four All-Ireland minor titles in a row, it could be some time yet before the impact of that is felt in the senior grade.
Tyrone, too, were taught a sobering lesson at the All-Ireland semi-final stage, and may have to face up to the harsh truth that a counter-attacking strategy is never going to be good enough to take down big beasts like these Dublin and Mayo teams.
The chasing pack will pray Dublin's appetite be somewhat sated by the achievement of winning three All-Irelands in a row, but that would be a foolish hope.
There’s no reason they can’t even stronger next year, and with Jim Gavin cracking the whip and every player on the panel straining at the leash, there’s every chance they will be.
5: David Clifford is a bit special
It’s hard to imagine a young player has ever produced a more spectacular performance in an All-Ireland Minor Football Final than David Clifford did yesterday for Kerry against Derry.
It wasn’t just the sheer volume of scores he landed – a total of 4-4 from play – it was the quality of them.
His game intelligence and skill was just a joy to behold, especially the manner in which he created his goal-scoring opportunities through a combination of quick feet and even faster hands.
Time and again he made space for himself by soloing the ball from one hand to the other under pressure from would-be tacklers, and the more his fame grows the more you’ll have young kids all over the country practicing that skill.
He’s not just a finisher, he’s a creator too. The cross-field pass that set his namesake Fiachra Clifford up for a first-half goal against Derry was the finest piece of skill produced in Croke Park all day.
Clifford is such a special talent that it’s inevitable a number of AFL clubs will try to entice him to Australia.
Were he to go down that route he just be a huge loss not just for Kerry football but the game as a whole.