Posted by Shane Stapleton at Croke Park

2012 Mayo Dublin 520x280

Mayo were guilty of unforced errors on the pitch, Dublin off it.

The difference was that Mayo addressed theirs for long enough to stem the bleeding, or what manager James Horan afterwards referred to as “torture”. Even if they needed a brave save from David Clarke to keep out Bernard Brogan in the 67th minute for a score that would have levelled the game.

Plunketts man Brogan hasn’t quite been able to find the target with the same ease this season and it was a chance that, even under pressure, we expected to see finished.

Had he, Mayo would have been too because they, like their minors who were ultimately beaten by Meath goals last week, failed to score for a large tract of the second half and they were lolling on the ropes.

The Connacht champions needed to get leaders such as Alan Dillon on the ball late on but struggled to as the Dubs washed forward. When Dillon did get in possession down the stretch, he panicked and hit a poor foot pass that allowed Dublin almost level with that Brogan goal chance.

Not to discount the outstanding efforts of Dillon on the day because he was exceptional for long spells — a Rolls Royce at times. He led the team in Andy Moran’s absence but he wasn’t alone. Aidan O’Shea and Barry Moran cleaned out the Dublin midfield for long spells and it was no surprise that Dublin’s resurgence coincided with Michael Darragh Macauley’s repositioning in the centrefield area.

The Ballyboden man was also a threat at centre-forward from the start but it backfired not having him between the 65s from the off. Eamon Fennell and Denis Bastick may have size and power but the game mostly passed them by. Speed killed them and, in terms of high ball, the duo weren’t a massive factor either. No doubt Dublin suffered in this sector and it looks doubly remiss given how many forward options they had for the number 11 shirt, which would have released MDMA to the middle.

Kevin McManamon was one of those options and it’s difficult to understand why he remained on the bench, both from the start and then for so long into the second half.

Nothing upsets a defender more than a man running at him (ask Donegal when the St Jude’s man came on at this stage last year) but Gilroy chose to bring on Eoghan O’Gara before him.

Alan Brogan didn’t look right when he was introduced and the manager said afterwards that the reigning Footballer of the Year was set to start but then didn’t feel right in the warm-up. Gilroy added that Brogan was worth using because of his quality and it was a gamble that didn’t pay off, which is fair enough.

The manager can’t be blamed for using Brogan because most would have tried it, yet the effect was devastating to the team. They faltered and with Brogan unable to move with dynamism or kick with power, Mayo continued where they left off.

There was something of a transformation for Mayo during that first half. From the nervy side without their shepherd — Andy Moran — that looked as if it might hand Dublin victory with unforced errors, the Connacht champions took a crook to the necks of the All-Ireland holders.

Again though, it did look a tad ominous early on. A needless fouling of the ball from Kevin Keane gave Bernard Brogan his first scoreable free a couple of minutes in, while centre-back Donal Vaughan almost gifted Paul Flynn a goal shortly after. Two Mayo defenders hesitated and gave up possession to Ciaran Kilkenny on 11 minutes too but Diarmuid Connolly hit his effort short; Dublin were two up before the Mayo men got going but it could have been more.

For a side that was competing and breaking even on contested balls into the red zone, it was silly mistakes that were the biggest worry for the Connacht men. Those being the sort of costly errors that, in certain circumstances, could kill off a game early.

There were explanations for it, with the Dubs pressing hard so high up pitch from the start. As well as Keane and Vaughan being caught out, Lee Keegan was almost collared by Kilkenny near his own goal. Because of Dublin’s pressing, Mayo were then playing 50-50 ball into their forwards, which were coming out easily.

How it changed, and how the leaders quickly emerged. Dillon and O’Shea took over out the field, and because of the exuberance pregnant within the Mayo crowd, it took very little to spark encouragement from the stands. The Mayo enthusiasm fed itself and devoured Dublin for the rest of the half.

There were enlivening cheers for Cillian O’Connor’s 45s and Michael Conroy’s superb turn and point after a quick O’Shea free. The Mayo crowd were looking for any excuse to explode, as Dublin imploded at Croke Park. It took them 22 minutes to score from play through Connolly; while after going two up early on, Mayo then scored 12 of the next 16 points.

Mayo might have been losing the game in the middle third but their forward line began to struggle too, or possibly tired. Whereas early on they were darting into open country to offer ball carriers a couple of outs, the second half saw them make runs but often in the wrong directions. With chances to kill the game off, they didn’t take them. Thanks to Clarke in goals, it wasn’t fatal.

Think of that cruel wide by Conroy at the start of the second half when a point would have been a big nail in the Dublin coffin; just 30 seconds later and Connolly had a goal on after turning Richie Feeney but Clarke saved with his toe. That was massive.

There were key differences in this game. Out of the adversity of losing players throughout the game to injury, Mayo hung on. Yes there was the sort of mini-collapse that no one could ever expect from this Donegal team but still players stood up when truly needed. From Clarke’s saves to the nine different outfield point-scorers; it was notable that had just three (Kilkenny, Flynn and Connolly).

From the placed balls, Cillian O’Connor was exceptional. His composure with four first-half conversions gave his side a great platform for victory. He wasn’t just wearing Moran’s number 14 jersey, he was carrying the leadership qualities with it too. It might have taken him 45 minutes to score his only point from play but his total of eight can’t be understated.

There was a sense of the frantic to this game as we entered the final minutes. Mayo botched goal chances through O’Connor and Conroy, while Dublin’s O’Gara could have fed McManamon in the box in injury time but took an extra moment which allowed Mayo to foul him. Anyone could have won it and ultimately Dublin lost what should never have been theirs, given how well Mayo had been motoring. Certainly not after being 10 points down.

It’s to their massive credit that Dublin almost keep their title reign alive for another day; as For Mayo, that they almost allowed it slip will rightly place them as underdogs.

When you’ve dethroned the All-Ireland champions two years running, that’s not a bad place to be. And so to a first Ulster-Connacht final since Cavan beat Mayo in 1948.

If the game is half as electric as the atmosphere these Mayo and Donegal fans usually generate, it will be a classic.

Chat to Shane Stapleton on Twitter @shanesaint