Kevin Madden: Mayo can halt the Dublin juggernaut in All-Ireland senior final
There’s something about Mayo on the third Sunday of September that makes All-Ireland Final weekend that little bit special.
Perhaps it is the anticipation that they could finally break the dreaded 66 year curse. Who wouldn’t want to experience the outpouring of emotion after that?
Part of it is also the unbreakable spirit displayed by everyone associated with this great county. Players, management, supporters, and the exiled die hards like my good friend Kevin Brady who will make the 7,000 mile round trip from the Windy City of Chicgao Illinois.
Year after year, final after Semi-final they all keeping coming back for another crack.
In recent years they have also developed a serious resolve that almost always ensures drama, thrills, spills and a good old fashioned game played at a million miles an hour from start to finish.
The capitulations of 2004 and 2006 are a distant memory as Mayo will now almost guarantee you a serious run for your money.
In their last 16 games played in Croke Park, 10 have either finished in a draw or with a single point between them and their opponent.
But as the men from the West know better than anyone, there’s a gargantuan difference between competing and getting over line.
As we look ahead to this game of possibilities, there is a fair chance that a lot of you will be fighting a battle of your own. The one between the heart and the head....
I came across a powerful photo of Andy Moran during the week which was taken immediately after last year’s All-Ireland final replay defeat to Dublin.
Initially, I glanced at it but for some reason I was drawn back to this intense moment of privacy which depicted sorrow, love, contentment, regret, anguish and hope all in the one solitary image.
With his head bowed, sitting upright, his face cut an intense expression as his eyes bore through the hallow Croke Park turf.
Sat on his knee with his arms draped around, and his head pressed against hers, his toddler daughter oblivious to all the drama gazed right through the camera.
The headline below read: “It’s back to drawing board but Mayo will come back again.”
But I never believed for a second that they would be back, not with the exact same group of players anyway.
After last year's replay, Andy Moran and Keith Higgins were the last two players to leave the pitch. It was almost like they were saying a long goodbye to the coliseum where they brought so many of their dreams to life only to be shattered in spectacular fashion.
But they obviously decided that it wasn’t their time, so Mayo’s best and most reliable gladiators came back for one more crack.
Both men have been playing the best football of their careers and if any duet ever deserved an All-Ireland medal it will be them.
But we must remember that on the blue side of the fence, there’s an extremely hungry, ambitious and talented group of young men chasing a dream of their very own.
As we look ahead to a couple of key facets of the game, what better place to start than with the man between the sticks, Dublin’s very own puppet master Stephen Cluxton. People may be forgiven for associating him with having a complex kick-out strategy that involves move A,B,C,D,E and so on.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
In the modern game where teams forensically analyse every aspect of the opposition that would be actually be too predictable and regimental for a man of the talents of Stephen Cluxton.
In truth, bizarrely, there is no real pattern to his kick-outs.
When he sets that ball down he becomes the conductor in his finely tuned orchestra. Finding the right man consistently, takes multi-directional movement from up to eight or nine outfield players.
They all make numerous runs but critically these are done at pace. It also takes spatial awareness to create those pockets for him to kick the ball into.
It relies on communication so that players are vacating and moving to space continuously. It also takes football intelligence and a commitment to win that ball.
Cluxton is the final piece of the jigsaw as his vision and precise kicking more often than not will find, not any man, but the one best placed to launch the attack.
David Clarke is an outstanding goal-keeper and in my opinion he is the best shot stopper in the game bar none.
If All-Stars were awarded on that basis he would be a shoe-in already. But in reality he has struggled at times this year when the opposition has pressed up on his restarts.
How Mayo can set-up and counter-act Cluxton will be important.
But perhaps even more significant will be Clarke making sure when Dublin put the full press on, he doesn’t make any cardinal errors.
For Mayo to have any chance, they mustn't gift Dublin a goal.
He mightn’t have known the difference between Sean and Seamie Quigley a number of years ago but Jim Gavin knows his onions.
I have to admit my ability to guess the Dublin starting team and the match-ups they would choose for the Tyrone game were a poor effort.
I think I got it fairly spot on how they would set-up, who they would man-mark and how they would go about all of that.
But that is the thing.
They are that good and they have so many men that can perform the same job, it is nearly impossible to guess their line-up and match-ups.
Stephen Rochford has been battered that badly for some of his decision making the last two seasons, he is surely immune to it all now.
In fairness most of his calls this year have been spot on.
But the big imponderable now is ‘What are we going to do with Aidan’?
One thing we can be sure of is, we won’t see him at full-back.
Playing him at full-forward hasn’t worked against Dublin in the past either. It is nearly too big of a risk to take that could disrupt the fluency of the football they are playing currently.
The most likely change from the last day will be Lee Keegan back into half-back and O’Shea into the half-forward line.
But playing him at centre forward also changes the dynamic of their attacking play as he likes to hold things up and ride tackles.
Tom Parsons has to play in this game.
I wouldn't rule out his brother Seamie getting the chop with Aidan to midfield and a start for talented youngster Patrick Durcan.
But we also must consider that Rochford has form when it comes to firing the unthinkable curveball.
If there is one, this year it could be Aidan O’Shea from the bench.
The stage is set.
Some are hailing them as the greatest team ever to play the game - now going for three in a row.
An embarrassment of riches and that’s merely their sub bench I refer to. Standing in their way are a group of gallant men who year after year, final after final, manage to keep coming up a yard short.
Anticipation and expectation have always been met with huge disappointment. Sometimes it’s ended in spectacular failure but more often than not a gallant defeat. Except this time they are entering slightly different territory. There’s barely a pundit out there predicting a Mayo win.
I wrote them off after the Derry game but the landscape has changed dramatically since then. As they enter their tenth game 'the old dog for the hard road' have an opportunity to win the final of all finals.
Their legacy would be that the 'Holy Grail' finally came in the final they were given no hope in.
Against the invincibles.
By toppling the juggernaut, the team they all professed couldn't be beaten. What a way to finally win it.
But it's hard to back against a side unbeaten in Championship football since 2014 who seem to be actually getting stronger with each passing season.
They are the complete unit all over the pitch, on the sub bench and on the line.
In Mayo’s defence, I feel Stephen Rochford’s men aren’t carrying the baggage of previous defeats.
Up until the Kerry victory they burrowed their way through in very uninspiring fashion. Winning while playing poorly can be a good thing believe it or not. I really believe that Mayo will bring a ferocious level of intensity that will at the very least match Dublin’s. It will be helter skelter.
It has to be for Mayo to compete.
But can they stay with them like last year?
All the logical and intelligent analysis would point to a Dublin victory pulling away.
But if Mayo can bring this game down to the wire, then I think they will have enough quality, spirit and resolve to get over the line.
That's what my heart is hoping for. My head tells me they can do it but I know they will need an awful lot of things to fall right for them on the day.
If it is going to ever be for these boys then this is the way they were destined to do it.
This year especially, 'There is something about Mayo'.
Mayo by a point.
Derry minors are in a similar boat as they come against an exceptional Kerry team striving for a remarkable fourth All-Ireland in a row.
Damian McErlain has done a fantastic job the last couple of years and it is no surprise to see that he will get the opportunity to step up to the seniors after Sunday.
Like Mayo, Derry have a fighting chance but they will need to be able to deal with the exceptional talent that is David Clifford.
It's likely that Conor McCluskey will pick him up.
The young Magherafelt man has a growing reputation as one of the best man markers in the minor game.
But he will need cover and support as Clifford is easily the best minor in the country. Derry have some fantastic players but they also have a very strong squad and if the game stays tight they will use their bench very effectively.
You know you have a good minor team when you can afford to use a MacRory Cup winning captain from the bench (Declan Cassidy was brought in the last day).
The more probable outcome on All-Ireland final day will be a Kerry and Dublin double. But here's hoping that Mayo and Derry can cause an upset.