Mayo won't stop believing but Dublin machine will make it three in-a-row
All-Ireland Senior Football Championship final: Dublin v Mayo (Sunday, Croke Park, 3.30pm, live on RTE2/Sky Sports)
I HEARD a story this week about a young lad from Ballinrobe. Mayo mad, he’s been to every match this year – all nine of them – but can’t get a ticket for the big one.
This lad’s grandfather was in Croke Park when Mayo last won the All-Ireland way back in 1951 but everyone’s got a story in the west where the clamour for the Sam Maguire has grown to hysteria.
Tomorrow’s final is Mayo’s fourth in six years and the county’s faithful fans approach it as if the last seven years, and all those long journeys back home from Dublin with dreams shattered, never happened. Dreams get mended, money scrapped together, new flags on the motor and off they go. Mayo believes the breakthrough will come tomorrow.
Will it? To be the best you have to beat the best and Mayo, for all their spirit, fitness and skill and despite doing an awful lot of things right, have always found a way not to win when it comes down to it.
Cast your mind back to two years ago. Mayo were four up and victory was within their grasp in a semi-final replay when Lee Keegan – as loyal and gifted a soldier as the county has produced – got on the ball in front of the Dublin posts.
All he had to do was knock it over and there was no way back, but he dropped his shot into Stephen Cluxton’s grateful hands. Dublin counterattacked and Mayo ended up getting whipped.
In last year’s final, Mayo held Dublin scoreless for almost half-an-hour but granted them two own-goals and were held to draw. For the replay, the management replaced Allstar elect goalkeeper David Clarke with Rob Hennelly. Ball comes in, Hennelly drops it, Dublin get penalty and Mayo lost by a point. So close, yet so far.
But somehow Mayo have found a new gear this season.
Back in May it looked as if they had finally got sick of chasing dreams all summer.
Galway sent them out of Connacht and into the Qualifiers where Derry and then Cork had them on the rack but couldn’t finish them off. Neither could Roscommon in the quarter-final or Kerry in the semis when Mayo’s win in the replay must rank as one their most impressive performances ever at Croke Park.
The class of 2017 will never be regarded as Kerry’s finest, but Mayo played with a confidence and quality that bodes well for them tomorrow.
They have six quality defenders, a fully-functioning midfield and an attack spearheaded by evergreen Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor that will cause Dublin problems. Throw in Jason Doherty and Aidan O’Shea, who can play at full-forward and full-back but will probably be used at centre half-forward, and this is a formidable unit.
The Connacht men would be worthy champions, there’s no question about that, but they are up against a hard thumping, high jumping, all-conquering Dublin machine.
There’ll be young lads in Dublin without tickets too of course as corporate fat-cats snaffle them for breakfast but, whether Dublin win tomorrow or not, they’ll be back in the final again.
This year the Dubs have cut a blitzkrieg swathe through the country, annihilating everything in their path including plucky Carlow (who kept it down to 12 points) and Kildare, who grabbed a late goal, but still lost by nine.
They followed that up with the annihilation of Tyrone and now they say the Dubs haven’t been tested. But when did beating everyone else out through the game become a weakness?
Dublin have been too good so far this year and there is no way they will crumble if Mayo put it up to them – and they will - because there are deep reserves of experience in the team.
A dozen of the side that started against the Red Hands lined out in the All-Ireland final replay last year and the other three – Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon and Diarmuid Connolly – all came on as subs.
Dublin were superior to the Red Hands all over the pitch and whether he over-estimated his own side, or under-estimated Dublin, Mickey Harte’s tactics played into Jim Gavin’s hands.
With no full-forward line to kick to, Tyrone tried to run the ball and were repeatedly dispossessed. Dublin attacked in a wide blue wave across the pitch and Tyrone’s zonal marking granted them numbers around the ball to work shooting positions. Their finishing was an exhibition.
Mayo don’t play that way though. Their defenders will mark their men and stick to them, hoping to force the Dublin forwards to take them on or go backwards.
If they do that the likes of Cian O’Sullivan and Kieran Kilkenny won’t find themselves standing in an acre of space with time to get their heads up because the Mayo forwards will be on them in a flash.
Of course, Dublin will know all about that. They’ve tangled with them four times in the Championship over two seasons. We’ve had replays, Mayo have had chances, but Dublin have come out on top.
No neutral – and a lot of Dublin fans – would begrudge Mayo the Sam Maguire their cumulative efforts deserve. The country will be behind them as they strive for that magic breakthrough that will end their quest but, Dublin will have to be short of their best for Mayo to win.
The pace of the Dubs – with the ball or without it - is what will decide this game over 70 minutes. It will be intense, it could be a classic and Mayo may stay with them for an hour, but ultimately Dublin’s relentless movement will break them. A crucial tackle missed here, a run not tracked there and, BOOM, the ball will be in the back of their net.
Mayo have been inches away so many times, but those inches are the hardest to find and, ultimately, that’s the difference.
Let’s hope the young fella from Ballinrobe gets his ticket. If he does he’ll be telling his classmates a familiar story at school on Monday morning. It’s about what might have been.