GAA Football

Today could be the day Mayo's heartbreak ends

Paddy Andrews consoles Cillian O'Connor after the 2016 All-Ireland final. Dublin have beaten Mayo in three finals since 2013, all by a point. Picture by Seamus Loughran

All-Ireland SFC final: Dublin v Mayo (today, 5pm, Croke Park, live on RTÉ2 & Sky Sports Mix)

ROMANCE changes form but the basic idea never dies.

The All-Ireland championships of 2020 have been speed-dating on grass, rattled through from start to finish in 12 short weeks.

Genetics still shone through. Two of the four best lookers when they stepped cautiously into the room are the ones paired up under the mistletoe, but it's the one in the red and green dress whose heart needs fixing.

The people of Mayo engage so fully with the romance of Gaelic football that they are Gaelic football. They are eternally unbowed. There are times you wish someone would throw the towel in for them, yet they have this knack of taking it to the scorecard, no matter how bloodied and hurt.

They always lose and they keep coming back. We assume that Mayo football cannot keep existing in this endless purgatorial state. But it's all they are, all they've ever been, and we must hope they never change.

For when they come to Croke Park, they breathe fire through the place. They know nothing other than to attack the game.

Their pain threshold is off the scale.

Nine All-Ireland finals they've lost since Anthony Finnerty missed the chance to put Cork to bed in '89. Nothing but sleepless nights since.

Three times since 2013 they've been beaten by a single point by the Dubs. 2016 went to a replay. They should have won 2017, and there was also the 2014 semi-final they squandered.

A team that would have won so much in any other era finds itself still somehow longing to win just once.

If you want to knock the romantic notions out of yourself, consider the actual state of being for what has been Gaelic football's eminent rivalry of this era.

This will be the 16th meeting of Dublin and Mayo in league or championship since 2013. Dublin haven't lost any of the previous 15.

Is that a mental thing, or a physical thing? Because as much as you can point to Mayo going two up with seven minutes to go and failing to see it out in 2017, you must also look at how Dublin took the next kickout, kept the ball for 30 passes and took the point when the goal was on.

Within three minutes of going behind, they'd gone in front, and Mayo had done very little wrong.

The way Dublin took it back, the way they did so against Kerry in the drawn game last year, is why they get their trophies.

Their current middle-third intensity is like an insatiable, unending version of those last few minutes against Kerry. They're bigger than you, stronger than you, faster than you, fitter than you. So they've decided this year to step right up and squeeze the life out of teams around the middle.

That not only protects their full-back line in a different way but creates turnovers higher up the pitch, which makes them a somehow equally potent counter-attacking threat despite the loss of Jack McCaffrey.

So often their go-to man, he hardly got a kick in this fixture last year. Patrick Durcan took him completely out of it, scoring 0-2 himself while missing a glut of other chances.

Mayo's first-half performance that day was finely crafted and understated. They patiently, meticulously pulled apart the Dublin cover by keeping the ball out of contact. They played without a full-forward and put up a wall in front of their own goal that stripped possession from the blue shirts at a rate unseen in recent years.

The 12-post-half-time minutes have had enough airing in the last fortnight. Their impact was so emphatic, so overwhelming, so frightening that only 33,848 people turned up for Tyrone-Kerry the following day.

Dublin have changed less since then than Mayo. Paddy Small is expected to keep his place ahead of Paul Mannion, but Brian Howard looks likely to come in for Davy Byrne. He'd go to midfield and James McCarthy back to pick up Aidan O'Shea, wherever he ends up.

Sean Bugler and Robbie McDaid have made major impressions, but they have yet to be examined under any significant pressure.

Mayo's own transformation over the last 12 months has been more radical. In losing Brendan Harrison, Seamus O'Shea and Jason Doherty to injuries, they haven't been as traumatically wounded as might have been expected.

Yet, anyway. It's O'Shea's absence and his brother's permanent station at full-forward that gives most cause for concern. Mayo's poor return on their own kickouts is another area that needs no more scrutiny attached.

Defensively, Lee Keegan hasn't looked comfortable in the full-back line, and the way Con O'Callaghan scarred him last year could mean a shift back to the wing for the former Footballer of the Year.

Stephen Coen has gone well at six but might have to go to three, if only to ensure that Patrick Durcan isn't the one tied up. They will need his attacking verve, for they may well miss Colm Boyle's.

He was their outstanding player last year, setting the tempo for their aggression, nullifying Ciaran Kilkenny and being an all-round nuisance. If the game stays tight, even a big 25 minutes of that from him and Keith Higgins both could have a huge impact.

Mayo need their bench to function. In their eight knockout championship losses since 2012, their subs have scored 0-8 and the opposition's have hit 1-16. It is has been an area of significant weakness that James Horan has spent two years trying to address.

They won't concede the goal chances they did against Tipperary but one of the great strengths Mayo have had the last decade is the ability to leave their defence man-on-man at times, safe in the knowledge they could cope physically.

That safehouse may no longer exist.

It is on the counter-attack that they will be most vulnerable. If Dublin's middle-third press does what it's supposed to then the Mayo defence could be exposed and overwhelmed.

Even the mythological spell after half-time, the idea that Mayo couldn't get out dies under the microscope. They won five of their first nine kickouts. They just didn't score, and Dublin did.

No cavalcade will skip hopefully down past the red brick homes on the Clonliffe Road today, turning right as Croke Park unfolds itself up to the sky. To the heaven they have craved to see for 69 years.

As Keith Duggan wrote in his acclaimed book House of Pain: “Mayo stands at a strange and lonely impasse, in that it seems destined to be the county that almost always nearly wins.”

There is no logical explanation for expecting today to be the day they go better than to nearly win.

Dublin have faced down every challenge in their way for six years. Brian Fenton still hasn't lost a championship match and he's coming 27 in March.

But some days the romance catches you.

Mayo by two.

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