By Daire Walsh
Dublin turned on the style in the final-quarter at Croke Park on Saturday evening to keep their hands on the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship crown for yet another season.
This was the Sky Blues’ sixth Sam Maguire Cup final triumph in succession and their fourth at the expense of Mayo in the space of eight years.
To their credit, James Horan’s westerners recovered from a nightmare start to lead 0-8 to 1-3 inside the second-quarter. Even after a Con O’Callaghan goal moved Dublin into the ascendancy, the Connacht champions rallied to trail by a single point (2-9 to 0-14) with just 15 minutes of normal time remaining.
Yet with substitutes Brian Howard and Paul Mannion adding considerable energy, the holders discovered an extra gear and finally saw off the stubborn Mayo challenge.
Stephen Cluxton, Michael Fitzsimons, James McCarthy and Philly McMahon all saw action on the night and joined an elite group of players to have won eight All-Ireland senior football titles. Unused replacements Kevin McManamon and Michael Darragh Macauley – as well as extended squad member Cian O’Sullivan – have now accrued a similar list of honours, while there are a number of star performers within the current set-up who are not far behind them.
Mayo entered this contest seeking to bridge a 69-year gap to their last All-Ireland final victory. Their previous bids for a fourth All-Ireland have often been hampered by the concession of early goals and their latest showpiece appearance was no different.
At the end of a sweeping attack straight from the throw-in Dean Rock palmed over the head of the advancing David Clarke for a first minute major. Clocking in at 13 seconds, this was the fastest goal ever recorded in an All-Ireland senior football championship final.
Remarkably, this was also the third time Mayo had a leaked a three-pointer inside the opening five minutes of an All-Ireland SFC decider. Michael Murphy in 2012 and Con O’Callaghan in 2017 were the others to rattle the Connacht side’s net during the early exchanges of a final encounter.
In a similar vein to three years ago, however, Mayo produced a defiant response to this hammer blow. Following a point by raiding full-back Oisin Mullin, the in-form Cillian O’Connor added a brace of scores to bring them back on level terms.
This did little to curb the attacking threat of Dublin, with Dean Rock adding two points off placed balls to move his side back into the driving seat. In his first final outing at this grade, Seán Bugler also contributed a single to restore Dublin’s three-point buffer.
Yet Mayo are nothing if not resilient and showcased their intent either side of the first water break. Five points on the trot – three from Cillian O’Connor, one each for Conor Loftus and Ryan O’Donoghue – squeezed the challengers two points in front.
Watching at home from the comfort of their living rooms, Mayo’s loyal supporters were feeling greatly encouraged. However, Dublin are capable of shifting up the gears at the drop of a hat and they regained a foothold on the play in the 23rd-minute.
At the end of another patient attack, Con O’Callaghan executed a swift one-two with Niall Scully and punched powerfully beyond the reach of the helpless Clarke. This was a reverse of the 2018 final against Tyrone when O’Callaghan released Scully for an opening period goal.
O’Connor fired back with a pointed free, but the impressive O’Callaghan was coming into his own. The Cuala ace dissected the uprights from open play, in advance of a similar strike by O’Donoghue – his second of the tie.
Had it not been for the Rock and O’Callaghan goals, Mayo may well have found themselves in a strong position at the interval. Instead, Dublin ended the half in the driving seat courtesy of John Small and Ciarán Kilkenny points.
Dessie Farrell – in his first year as senior boss – would have been thrilled that his side had a 2-6 to 0-10 advantage at their disposal. At the same time, there was no reason for Mayo to despair and they had a numerical supremacy for the opening 10 minutes of the second half.
Robbie McDaid was black carded for a body check of Kevin McLoughlin just before referee David Coldrick sounded for half-time. In his absence, Dublin remained composed in possession and Scully kicked a fine point on 39 minutes.
Brian Fenton’s influence on the game was starting to grow and he posted another Dublin score three minutes later. Either side of it, Cillian O’Connor (free) and Stephen Coen (mark) found the target to keep Mayo within reach.
Their chances of success received an additional boost when O’Connor (who scored 4-9 in the semi-final win over Tipperary) added a brace of frees to his ever-increasing personal haul. There was no sense of panic within the Dublin ranks and a Rock free ensured they had a slender cushion upon the commencement of the second water break.
By then, Howard, Mannion and the lively Colm Basquel had entered the fray. All three players made their presence felt, but it was the inspirational Kilkenny who kicked their next point with 10 minutes left.
This heralded a dominant spell from the Sky Blues that effectively placed the outcome beyond doubt. An exquisite outside of the boot strike from Howard was supplemented by an excellent free off Mannion’s left-foot.
Thanks to another Rock free, Dublin had hit five consecutive points to match what Mayo had done in the opening half. Mayo persevered as the final whistle approached and substitute Darren Coen fired over on the run after linking up with his cousin Stephen.
Mayo required at least one goal in order to complete a dramatic comeback, but Stephen Cluxton’s shot-stopping capabilities were never truly placed under scrutiny. A third Kilkenny point (bringing his tally for the campaign up to 1-20) was the icing on the cake as Dublin eased towards their 30th All-Ireland title.
With next year’s championship set to finish in July, it is difficult at this juncture to see who will knock the capital county off their perch.
Scorers – Dublin: Dean Rock 1-4 (0-4 frees), Con O’Callaghan 1-1, Ciarán Kilkenny 0-3, Paul Mannion (free), John Small, Brian Fenton, Niall Scully, Seán Bugler, Brian Howard 0-1 each. Mayo: Cillian O’Connor 0-9 (5 frees, 2 marks), Ryan O’Donoghue 0-2, Stephen Coen (mark), Oisin Mullin, Conor Loftus, Darren Coen 0-1 each.
DUBLIN: Stephen Cluxton; Michael Fitzsimons, David Byrne, Jonny Cooper; Eoin Murchan, John Small, Robbie McDaid; Brian Fenton, James McCarthy; Niall Scully, Ciarán Kilkenny, Brian Howard; Paddy Small, Con O’Callaghan, Dean Rock. Subs: Brian Howard for Bugler (half-time), Paul Mannion for P Small (51), Colm Basquel for Cooper (54), Cormac Costello for Scully (71), Philly McMahon for Murchan (75).
MAYO: David Clarke; Chris Barrett, Oisin Mullin, Lee Keegan; Paddy Durcan, Stephen Coen, Eoghan McLaughlin; Conor Loftus, Matthew Ruane; Kevin McLoughlin, Ryan O’Donoghue, Diarmuid O’Connor; Tommy Conroy, Aidan O’Shea, Cillian O’Connor. Subs: Michael Plunkett for P Durcan (half-time), James Carr for Conroy (50), Darren Coen for O’Donoghue (57), Jordan Flynn for Loftus (61), James Durcan for McLaughlin (73).
Referee: David Coldrick (Meath).