The Championship

Aaron Kernan: Heart cries Mayo but head says Dublin

Mayo's Keith Higgins on the Croke Park pitch after last year's semi-final replay defeat to Dublin
Picture by Philip Walsh

WE ALL love to hate the favourites or reigning champions. The competitive nature in us all likes to see them knocked off their perch and the underdogs succeed. 

One thing is for certain - there isn’t a county neutrals would enjoy seeing break their famine and end their final day heartache more than Mayo. But sport can be very cruel and this Dublin team has a ruthless streak about them that means they are highly unlikely to show any sentiment when they get a sniff of blood.

All-Ireland final appearances are far from a rarity in Mayo, but heading west with Sam Maguire perched at the front of their bus has proved to be much more elusive. Dublin were, for a time, a bit like Mayo. Then, following their 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final capitulation to Kerry, manager Pat Gilroy saw the mindset of his squad and his defenders’ positional sense were not going to cut it at elite level.

He set about changing personnel and the tactics that had seen them fail in a number of All-Ireland attempts since their previous triumph in 1995. He went with a new breed of defender, which included Rory O’Carroll and Cian O’Sullivan, to give them a solid foundation at the back. He also introduced a very effective zonal defensive system, which was anchored in the centre at all times by Ger Brennan.

It must be remembered Gilroy’s team, at the beginning of his project, contained many of the current outfit - the majority of whom are now hailed as the greatest Dublin players ever in their positions. But back then, as they tried to rid themselves of the perennial ‘chokers’ tag, they were, first and foremost, defensively sound and extremely hard working, but were overly reliant on Bernard Brogan shooting the lights out each day to get them over the line.

It took time for the present day Dublin team to evolve into the swashbuckling, attacking force we now recognise them as and, without a few moments of good fortune in the 2011 All-Ireland win over Kerry, I have my doubts if they all would have hung around to help turn them into the consistent force they are today. 

As Páidí Ó Sé once famously said: “A grain of rice can tip the scale.”

How true that saying is when it comes to the modern day Dubs, as that 2011 win was the catapult to help them grow in confidence to practically dominate the game ever since. However, when we turn the tables and look at this Mayo side, which has changed from the powerful, running style led by the half-back line of Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle into the more defensively aware and cautious outfit, we see that almost everyone, myself included, have dismissed their chances of succeeding on Sunday.

Dublin's Alan Brogan with Sam Maguire after their breakthrough All-Ireland win in 2011  

That’s because they no longer express themselves as much as we had become accustomed to because protecting their goal has become the number one priority. Although not tested to the same extent as it will be this Sunday, their defensive plan has been largely successful, as they have only conceded three goals in their last seven Championship games.

They have good reason to be wary of conceding goals because, in the four seasons prior to 2016, the counties who knocked Mayo out of the All-Ireland series have all gone on to lift Sam Maguire and one of the key reasons for all those defeats was Mayo’s concession of soft goals.

In Mayo’s two semi-final and two final defeats since 2012, they conceded 10 goals. Their combined margin of defeat throughout those four games was a measly 15 points, 3.75 points per defeat. It’s not rocket science to understand why the new Mayo management team have gone down the route they chose for 2016. Having said that, the Mayo management team and players will not give one damn how they are labelled after Sunday’s game if they avoid conceding goals and, at long last deliver, Sam to their county.

Mayo also have areas in their attacking game they can improve on from the semi-final win against Tipperary without leaving themselves exposed at the back. During that semi-final, Mayo lost 13 balls in their inside-forward line, but didn’t concede any scores from the resulting Tipperary counter-attacks. In contrast, they lost 11 balls on their attacking 65-metre line and conceded five points as a result. 

The moral of the story is Mayo need to get the ball into their full-forward line as early and often as possible as it creates a scoring opportunity closer to the goals. If they don’t get a score, Dublin will have to work a lot harder to score themselves.

Mayo have the ability and personnel to go more direct than they have done to date, but they’ll need to mix their game up and run at Dublin at the right times. Mayo have immense talent, but it depends what Mayo team turns up. When they’re at their best they’re as good as anyone. But they won’t be competitive with brief scoring bursts against a Dublin team on the verge of back-to-back All-Ireland titles.

If you were to add up the combined scores from the final 10 minutes of all Kerry v Dublin games since August 2013 until last month’s semi-final, Dublin have won them by 4-15 to 0-6. That gives a great insight not only into their fitness levels, their belief in their gameplan and each other, but also their ability to remain calm and clinical in their execution when most others are gasping for air.

It’s for this reason I’ll go with my head and tip Dublin to succeed, even though I’d love nothing more than to see my good friend and club-mate Tony McEntee help this Mayo squad finally reach the promised land.

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