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Friday 9 December 2016

Dubs have it all to do after a scary collapse

Connolly red card and loss of seven-point lead leave Blues with a pounding replay headache

Kevin McManamon celebrates scoring Dublin’s second goal during yesterday’s All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park
Kevin McManamon celebrates scoring Dublin’s second goal during yesterday’s All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park

You couldn't make it up. You wouldn't even try, unless you came armed with the DVD to prove that your fanciful case was actually fact, not fiction.

Nine years ago, Pillar's Dubs were pilloried for losing a seven-point lead in the last 25 minutes of a madcap semi-final.

Yesterday Jim Gavin's Dublin also led by seven points - only this time beyond the hour. Jack McCaffrey's point after 61 minutes appeared like the final nail in a wilting Mayo's coffin.

Incredibly, eight minutes later, Lazarus from the west were level. It was a stunning Mayo comeback but, by the same token, a spectacular meltdown from our increasingly jittery Blues, none more addled than their skipper, Stephen Cluxton.

There followed one more minute of normal time plus five minutes and 47 seconds of stoppage time. Not a single score was added during this fraught finale, Cluxton's second half misery complete when missing his third free into Hill 16.

Thus, it will be back to Croke Park next Saturday (5pm) ... but Jim Gavin must wonder how it came to this.

When the hard questions were belatedly asked here, his team crumbled. The only saving grace is that unlike in '06, this one finished 1-15 (instead of 1-16) to 2-12.

Now comes the really hard part for Gavin. We'll start with his biggest conundrum: barring some more CHC melodrama, Diarmuid Connolly is facing a one-match suspension after he was deemed the more guilty party for his injury-time wrestling match with Lee Keegan.

After consulting with his linesman, referee Joe McQuillan brandished yellow to Keegan but a straight red to Connolly. Disaster.

Dublin had already been awarded a free-in elsewhere; Connolly was actually shaping up to take it before his banishment, and the irony is that if Cluxton had eventually converted, Dublin would have won and their mercurial No 12 would stand to miss the All-Ireland.

Leaving aside the likelihood that Connolly will miss the replay, Gavin has a handful of major headaches to contend with. He felt compelled to replace freetaker Dean Rock at half-time, even though his team led by 1-7 to 0-7, aided by the point-taking acumen of Ciarán Kilkenny (0-3) and Paddy Andrews (0-2).

Connolly had provided an initial two-point buffer, burying a fifth minute after Jason Doherty tripped Paul Flynn - an early indicator that the latter's All Star mojo was back.

When Bernard Brogan pointed after 13 minutes, the lead was out to five and Mayo appeared in serious distress.

But a mixture of Dublin fouling and two cases of dissent contributed to Cillian O'Connor haul of six first half frees, keeping Mayo in touch even as their attacking game-plan floundered. They had claims for a first half penalty too, although the 'foul' on Aidan O'Shea looked far from obvious on second viewing.

On the restart, Mayo cast aside some of their caution and, suddenly, Dublin were labouring. The deficit was cut to one; then Kevin McLoughlin, Diarmuid O'Connor and sub Andy Moran fluffed presentable chances to equalise while Dublin lost Michael Darragh Macauley to a black card.

Connolly's free from the wing - superbly converted even as Cluxton ventured halfway up the field - edged them two up. Then Kevin McManamon's 57th minute goal - toe-poking a loose ball home after Brian Fenton's first effort was saved - not alone reaffirmed his status as king of the impact subs but seemed to bury Mayo.

When Dublin, belief suddenly soaring, landed three of the next four points, it definitively was game over ...

And then it wasn't. Moran, after two errant efforts, found his range to kickstart the comeback on 62 minutes. Keith Higgins bombed forward to score next; then Cluxton almost gifted a goal to Moran, who blocked his clearance only to see John Small spare his captain's blushes with a goal-line block.

And still Mayo kept pressing, with Freeman's point followed quickly by a debatable 69th minute penalty won by Colm Boyle and nervelessly converted by Cillian O'Connor. Cluxton kicked the next kickout straight to a green-and-red jersey: three passes later, Moran kicked over.

There ended the scoring ... but the debate has only started.

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