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MacKenna On Monday: Inter-County Football Didn’t Die On Saturday, It Was Already Dead

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

For 35 minutes they raged.

Lee Keegan raged. Paddy Durcan raged. Aidan O’Shea raged. Donal Vaughan raged.

Mayo’s game management was superb. The aggression was predictable but what’s that without the level of control they shackled to it? For a team whose forward flakiness is oft highlighted, eight of their 12 shots flew over. They should know better though for it’s the hope that kills you.

The reality is Mayo were never going to beat Dublin. Even the clinical, surgical coldness of the bookies was duped by the storyline, however, as they offered an insane five-point handicap when a massacre was always going to occur. The desperation for some decent narrative, any decent narrative, in the world of Gaelic football had brought about a fiction and removed all logic. It’s tragic that we’ve been reduced to lying to ourselves just to fawn some interest for an afternoon.

dublin mayo 12

There were a couple of substitutions on Saturday that surmised so much. A regularly overlooked trait of Dublin’s unquestionable brilliance is the fact they never panic and anyone who didn’t let emotion get in the way knew that at some point they’d swat away the second-best team of this decade as if a fly briefly resting on their arm and causing a slight itch. It was Brian Fenton and Con O’Callaghan that did the most damage, meanwhile Mayo turned to Kevin McLoughlin and Andy Moran at that juncture. That’s the difference between a conveyor belt and a golden generation for when Moran was getting the goal in the 2006 semi against the same opposition, Dublin’s latest stars were playing with the under-14s up in Raheny and under-10s out in Cuala.

Time waits for no men. Even superheroes age and grow a gut.

By the finish, those who’d bothered to hang around may have been applauding the greatest we’ve ever seen in football, but in doing so they reminded of those who clap when an airplane lands safely. In other words, they celebrate what it should do and what it almost always will do.

dublin mayo 12

Some will say this was the day intercounty football died. They are wrong though.

This was merely the rotting, stinking corpse being chucked into a hastily dug hole in the ground.

Left there to be forgotten about. Move on, there’s genuinely nothing to see here.

* * *

The superb writer Paul Howard tells a story about an incident way back in 1997. He’d been in the London Arena earlier that night to watch Naseem Hamed knock out Tom Johnson in their featherweight title fight and happened upon the American in a hotel lobby. Getting chatting, Johnson said that the devastating result was a clear sign, with the presumption being he would retire. But after pausing for a mere moment he then added: “I should move up to lightweight”.

paul mannion

Sport is as brutal as they come. Here you rarely bow out at the top for your athletic prowess comes to define you, and thus you cling on to it even when it starts to define your weakness rather than your greatness. However, this death rattle for Mayo was different as it wasn’t some natural ending as if they merely faded away. It was professionals humiliating amateurs with the assistance and financial doping of the governing body. That’s a shame. The sport deserves better.

Mayo, in particular, deserves better.

There have been many misconceptions around this group, as if they just weren’t good enough, when in fact they’d been handed a knife in a gunfight. In 2016, for example, it was noted their county board had spent €1.6m when going so close to winning that All Ireland. What was overlooked was that €580,547 was on travel expenses, a cost for an element that actually reduces the quality of their play and one that Dublin barely had, while another €447,280 went on catering when the capital had an official partner for it. What it meant was that not only could Dublin put such money into other areas to make themselves stronger, faster, higher, how they got that money was also crucial. For while Mayo had to take their time and energy and fundraise over a million, Dublin fundraised just €50,000 as they’d others throwing cheques their way.

Con O'Callaghan

And still, there was only a point between them after a gripping two-game saga. Some used those scorelines as an example of parity and equality when it was Mayo battling inevitability so bravely. They never got the medals but in defeat, they arguably earned more respect than the victors.

Can you imagine this past decade of the sport without Mayo? The GAA would have not only survived but actually thrived without Dublin, but minus the Connacht side it would have withered away. Initially, their quest reminded of Munster and the Heineken Cup in the 2000s but it actually outgrew that to become a cornerstone of Irish sport. On the field. And off the field too for relatively their support from an accounting and emotional standpoint has been unmatched.

If you remove last year’s slip up, look at the other efforts across the 2010s. A semi-final in 2011, the final in both 2012 and 2013, a semi-final in 2014, another semi-final in 2015, a final via the back door in 2016 and 2017. The earliest they left the stage in all that time was 21 August.

james horan

Physically exhausting.

Mentally draining.

Yet they kept coming back for more, believing they could actually beat Dublin. That’s something remarkable and should be admired for years to come. For instance eight of the starters on Saturday were there for throw in when they lost to Dublin in 2013. Yet if 29 is the start of the down-slope – given the miles on their clock it’s likely well into it in their case – then the fact that eight of their latest starters have already peaked suggests this is very much the end of an era.

Dublin are improving (in this semi-final, as good as they were for 15 minutes, it was still only 15 minutes) while they are simply getting older and a place of their size and resources can’t keep going. Thus it’ll be in their absence that even the champions will realise their importance for while some liken Jim Gavin’s side to Manchester City, they at least have Liverpool; while some liken them to Real Madrid, they at least have Barcelona. This is now more akin to PSG.

A one-horse race.

There were those who put Dublin’s domination and destruction of Leinster down to others not getting their houses in order, but they were merely the dead canary in the cage. It was ignored meaning the same fate for the entire championship. Without competition, there’s no point.

Recently a photo emerged of a young Mayo supporter in the stand clutching a statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague. Before this game, AIG were busy releasing footage of the New Zealand rugby team wishing the Dublin side all the very best. Compare. Contrast. Cringe.

Blind faith versus big business. That’s not a sustainable situation.

Dublin have played seven championship matches this year with an average winning margin of 14.9 points. Officialdom though panders to them, acting as a PR machine, throwing out ideas like a B championship when such an event would need 31 teams. How many All Irelands in a row will it take for them to realise what’s happening? Too many probably, as already there are many who stay away and put their care and energy into worthwhile pursuits that aren’t close to rigged.

james horan mayo

Many in Mayo will now join them. That’s everyone’s loss.

This decade will be spoken about as Dublin’s. But spare a thought for Mayo for this was their farewell having been the best amateur county of recent years and the best side never to climb the September steps. A requiem for a team that raged, raged against the dying of the light.

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Author: Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.