A COUPLE OF weeks ago, the day after Dublin routed Meath in the Leinster final to win the 10-in-a-row, Cavan and Tipperary restored a feel-good factor to Gaelic football with their historic provincial wins.
Mayo’s Padraig O’Hora and Lee Keegan celebrate after the game.
Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
A cloak of depression enveloped the sport when the final whistle sounded in Croke Park yesterday. The Dublin players barely raised a fist in celebration between them. Their 15 point win over Cavan was so absolute that it was hard to see how Mayo or Tipperary would get near them.
But Mayo looked lethal enough against Tipperary to give the impression we might just have a proper All-Ireland final on our hands after all. In 2016 and 2017, Mayo were dumped out by Galway in Connacht. Both years, they finished up in the All-Ireland final against Dublin. Over three games, the Sky Blues (including the 2016 replay) won by an aggregate of two points.
Mayo have shown in past All-Ireland finals that they can raise their game to go toe-to-toe with the Dubs for 70 minutes. Dublin have dished out a few hammerings over the years, but finals between the two have tended to go to the wire. That’s a very powerful belief for Mayo to have in their collective mindset over the next two weeks.
It might well turn out that the most important day in James Horan’s second stint over Mayo came on 10 August 2019.
What happened that day?
Mayo went in two points ahead of Dublin at half-time in the All-Ireland semi-final. Final score: Dublin 3-14 Mayo 1-10.
The damage was done in a devastating 12 minute spell after half-time. By the 47th minute, they turned a two point deficit into a 10 point advantage. It was a Dublin powerplay and possibly one of the greatest quarters they ever put down under Jim Gavin.
Dublin blitzed Mayo on the physical exchanges, dominating them in the air and on the ground. They hemmed Mayo in on Rob Hennelly’s kick-outs and rampaged forward with wave after wave of attack.
It might have been the moment Horan realised the team he built after taking over in late 2010 was at the end of the road.
Injury has hampered Brendan Harrison, Jason Doherty and Colm Boyle, but Keith Higgins, Eoghan O’Donoghue, Donal Vaughan, Seamie O’Shea, Fergal Boland, Fionn McDonagh, James Carr didn’t see any game-time today, while Andy Moran retired.
Horan decided that the team needed to evolve.
He knows that to live with Dublin for the entire game, you must match them athletically. Or else they’ll eventually grind you down and the floodgates will burst in the final quarter.
They’ve added youth and pacey athletes on every line. Oisin Mullin, Eoghan McLaughlin, Conor Loftus, Ryan O’Donoghue and Tommy Conroy have all added a new dimension to this team.
He introduced some form players from the club championship. Aidan O’Shea caught the eye at full-forward for Breaffy and he’s been a permanent fixture in the number 14 jersey since. Ballintubber’s early exit gave Cillian O’Connor a valuable rest after a few injury-hit years.
Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor lines up a free.
Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
The big thing they needed to add was speed in the full-forward line. It’s always been a glaring weakness for Mayo, particularly after they lost Moran’s movement. They’ve always required a foil for O’Connor, one that could ease some of the scoring pressure by chipping in with three or four points from play per game.
Conroy has been a blessing for the championship’s top scorer who is in devastating form.
His presence means O’Connor doesn’t need to waste energy by being the first man to make the run for the ball into the full-forward line. He can linger closer to goal and use his brain to move into shooting positions, similar to how Dean Rock operates for Dublin.
40 years on from Matt Connor’s legendary performance for Offaly in the 1980 All-Ireland final, where he scored 2-10, O’Connor gave a scoring exhibition with an incredible tally of 4-9.
The won’t be impacted by the big day jitters, having been to this stage plenty of times before. They have plenty of experience on the bench and the final could be the sort of tense battle where major contributions are required from Keith Higgins, Tom Parsons or even Colm Boyle, fitness permitting.
Darran O’Sullivan said recently he believed that if Kerry had one or two more experienced players to bring off the bench gainst Dublin in last year’s All-Ireland final replay they’d have beaten them. When it comes down to the last 10 minutes of the biggest game in the sport, calm heads are needed.
The lack of crowd might play into Mayo’s hands, without the sort of anxiety you could sense from the crowd during various stages in ’13, ’16 and ’17 when the finish line was in sight.
Horan’s young guns won’t have 82,500 supporters to deal with or many of the distractions that come with All-Ireland final day. They are more cut-off from the community and the hype won’t be as manic in Mayo as other years.
While there are plenty of positives for Mayo, the final is still Dublin’s to lose.
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Tipperary scored 3-13 and left five goals behind them, which won’t go unnoticed when Dessie Farrell sits down to analyse the game. Dublin’s three form forwards are Ciaran Kilkenny, Dean Rock and Con O’Callaghan. They scored 14 points between them against Cavan and if Mayo are to stand a chance of winning, at least two of them need to be shut down.
Rock roasted Mickey Graham’s team in the first-half. It’s often said he relies on frees but his contribution from play was telling and he kicked two points off his weaker left foot. O’Callaghan provides a kick-out option for Cluxton and has been scoring heavily. His tandem with Kilkenny, where they interchange at 11 and 14, is a devastating combination.
Lee Keegan will find himself tracking O’Callaghan or Kilkenny. It seems like a long time ago now, but in that 2019 semi-final Con turned Keegan for two goals after a quiet first-half. Neither man will have forgotten it either.
If the Mayo veteran takes the Cuala man then Paddy Durcan will likely track Kilkenny. If Keegan is on Kilkenny, Barrett may take O’Callaghan. The switching of Kilkenny and O’Callaghan could cause Mayo problems, but they’ll want to keep Keegan closer to home and allow Durcan bomb forward from the half-back line.
Mullin will take Rock and attempt to hurt him going in the other direction. Cavan didn’t lay a glove on Dublin or lay down the law physically. At the very least, you’d expect Mayo to bring the fire and shake them with a few big hits.
Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea and selector Ciaran McDonald after the game.
Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Even if Mayo can get the upper hand in those battles, they still have Brian Fenton and James McCarthy to deal with. Their powerful running will be major threats from deep. Mayo’s midfield and half-forward line need to be constantly switched on and track the runners from deep.
John Small, Robbie McDaid, Niall Scully and Sean Bugler are also capable of causing problems.
Like Laois player Kieran Lillis stated, facing Dublin is like playing a game of whack-a-mole. No matter how many you hammer into submission, others keep popping up.
It’s true that Dublin’s path to the final was far easier than in previous years.
They beat Westmeath, Laois, Meath and Cavan. In 2021, three of those sides will occupy Division 2 and another will be in Division 3.
A qualifier system would have meant they could have faced a Kerry, Donegal or Tyrone in the semi-final, who you’d expect to give a stern test.
But the ruthless manner by which they scored 27 points and conceded nine on average over the four games shows they remain a merciless, killing machine. Playing without any fans, you’d have forgiven Dublin for losing some of their spark but they’ve been exceptional.
“At this stage of the competition, every time we progress the competition is stiffer and we pride ourselves and prepared accordingly,” remarked Farrell. “All we can do is get ready for what the opposition presents.”
They truly are a special group of players. They’re devoid of any complacency that would seep into most teams who’ve dominated a competition like they have. Especially in this year where Kerry were caught on the hop by Cork and Donegal were gunned down by Cavan.
When Cavan boss Graham was asked what impressed him most about Dublin after seeing them up close, he didn’t mention their shooting efficiency or athleticism. It was their “work ethic” and “intensity” that jumped out.
“When they didn’t have the ball, how quickly they wanted to get it back,” he observed. “That’s what we need to get into our game and every other team that’s gone before us probably.
“A wee bit like Barcelona under Pep Guardiola kind of thing, that’s a credit to them and that’s the standard they’ve set.”
It’s worth remembering that Barcelona team were taken out by Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in the 2010 Champions League semi-final.
If Mayo were to produce a performance of the ages and lift the Sam Maguire, the army would have to be deployed in order to keep the celebrations out west in check.
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Their attacking display today gives them a puncher’s chance.
Stranger things have happened in 2020.