Tuesday 25 October 2016

Focus is the key if Connolly & Co are to finish mission

On top form Diarmuid Connolly is unstoppable
On top form Diarmuid Connolly is unstoppable

September is the month that proves that old GAA adage, year after year: history is written by the winners.

As Diarmuid Connolly grabbed the ball off Ciarán Kilkenny on the Hogan Stand touchline, it was obvious that only one thing was on his mind: to go for the sideline jackpot, to double Dublin's one-point lead and thus ensure that Sam would be staying in the capital.

It was audacious and, if it came off, Connolly would have been feted as a 'ballsy' genius - the Maurice Fitzgerald of his era.

But it was also a very low percentage shot on a day when Dublin's strike rate had plummeted. The 23-year-old Kilkenny - exactly six years Connolly's junior - preferred the boring yet eminently sounder option of recycling possession.

All they had to do was run down the clock for the little time that remained and Dublin would now be back-to-back champions …


Instead, Connolly gambled, the ball veered well wide, and Mayo were allowed to work the resultant kickout up the field for Cillian O'Connor to nail that nerveless, genuinely ballsy equaliser.

That score preserved the possibility of O'Connor lifting Sam next Saturday. In which case, this year's history will be writ large in glorious green and red ink.

The above cameo, already much debated, could potentially be cited as an example of Dublin's focus not being quite right nine days ago. Leave aside the lottery of the rain (this happens in Ireland!) and the misfiring of their forward-line (this happens to Dublin too!) or even the questions now being raised about a risk-averse staidness creeping into their game-plan.

Observers are entitled to wonder if all the talk of two-in-a-row greatness, the widespread predictions of an inevitable Sky Blue coronation, had seeped into the dressing-room.

A manager's antennae are forever on alert for signs of complacency but he can only do so much. There was a sufficient quorum of off-colour Dubs the last day to make you wonder if their focus was somehow less than Mayo's ...

And then we discovered Diarmuid Connolly had spent the evening before his date with destiny/Lee Keegan watching his St Vincent's clubmates play a challenge in Crossmaglen Rangers.

Now, this column has no idea what it's like to mentally prepare for an All-Ireland final; how the clock must crawl as you count down the days, hours, minutes, seconds. We also appreciate that every player is different and there is no proven best way to relax. Maybe a trip to south Armagh is the ideal antidote to pre-final nerves or even boredom.

But you are still talking about a round trip of approximately 200km and over two hours. Keegan will have faced his own cross-country hike that Saturday - but as part of the Mayo collective.

Moreover, for all of Keegan's ability to simultaneously get at your jersey and under your skin, it's fair to surmise that he has enjoyed the upper hand, overall, in his running battle with Connolly. Starting with the 2013 All-Ireland final, they've gone head-to-head four times in SFC combat and - in open play - the Mayo half-back has actually outscored the Dublin half-forward, 0-4 to 0-3.

And yet, on one of his unstoppable days, Connolly could score that twice over in 70 minutes. That's why Mayo will persist with Keegan as his shadow, even if they lose some counter-attacking menace in the process.

Jim Gavin is a master of saying lots while revealing zilch at his media briefings, but there was a straight-to-the-point honesty about his post-match admission that Dublin didn't deserve to win the first day.

Shaken and stirred, his players should be sharper and more focused on Saturday. There will be - there can't be - any room for presumption.


And yet, even if totally blameless, Dublin haven't been helped by the public leaking over the weekend of a health and well-being event, promoted by Irish Life and supposedly taking place two days after Saturday's replay.

Philly McMahon is pictured on the PR bumph but it's the bottom line - we suspect - that will be pounced on by Mayo and leave Gavin privately seething.

"Get your photograph taken," it says, "with the legendary Sam Maguire Cup!"

Dublin need less of this distraction in this of all weeks; their focus must be total if Sam is, indeed, to be still in the capital by Monday.

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