GAA Football

The gap has closed - but big game muscle memory will see Dublin past Mayo

The Dublin players celebrate last December's All-Ireland final victory over Mayo - can they repeat the dose at Croke Park this evening? Picture by Philip Walsh
Neil Loughran

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final: Dublin v Mayo (tonight, Croke Park, 6pm, live on RTE2 and Sky Sports Arena)

IT'S fairly odd that an All-Ireland semi-final meeting between Dublin and Mayo should find itself in the shade at the height of Championship summer, but that is how the week has played out leading into tonight's Croke Park clash.

Instead, much of the talk has been dominated by a game that isn't actually being played after a Covid-19 outbreak in the Tyrone camp saw their last four date with old foes Kerry, scheduled for tomorrow afternoon, put back until next Saturday.

Yet while that one might have occupied the back pages, arguably the greater intrigue has laid on the other side of the draw since provincial business was taken care of a few weeks back.

The Kingdom were already heavy favourites to progress before the Red Hands' plans were thrown into disarray, but the usual presumption of Dublin's serial All-Ireland winners waiting in the wings for the winner has been met with caveats and asterisks rather than rolling eyes and resignation.

As ever, some merit consideration while others can be taken with a pinch of salt.

The Stephen Cluxton situation has undoubtedly cast a shadow, the wholly unnecessary uncertainty created surely helping absolutely no-one. Furthermore, it has raised question marks over what exactly is going on between Dessie Farrell and his panel, and whether such a sideshow would have been allowed to unfold under Jim Gavin.

This has contributed to a growing sense that their razor-sharp focus has slipped under Farrell's leadership.

The absence of their captain and talisman also presents a rare opportunity for James Horan. Preparing for a Championship clash with a Cluxtonless Dublin for the first time across two stints at the helm, the Mayo boss must surely be planning to turn up the heat on Evan Comerford when the white line is crossed this evening.

Aidan O'Shea occupied a deep-lying midfield role in the first half of their Connacht final win over Galway, but was much more effective as the focal point of the full-forward line after the break.

If Mayo are going to pile the pressure on Comerford's kick-outs and go man-to-man, they will need O'Shea – arguably their best tackler – leading the charge from the front.

It is just Mayo's luck that, in a year when Dublin are deemed to be at their most vulnerable, they lose Cillian O'Connor to injury for the year, while the injury doubts over young defenders Oisin Mullin and Padraig O'Hora have handed Horan a headache he could have done without.

Another reason to doubt the Dubs is the diminishing power of their bench. During their peak years, the men watching and waiting - Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly, Kevin McManamon and Michael Darragh Macauley among them - were always considered their ace in the hole.

Even last year, Brian Howard, Paul Mannion, Colm Basquel and Cormac Costello were all sprung from the bench by Farrell in the All-Ireland final. With Howard and Costello since nailing down starting spots, and Mannion opting off the panel, Basquel is their main scoring option among the subs.

Yet Mayo aren't exactly bursting at the seams with game-changers on the sidelines either, so how much has the gap actually narrowed?

One argument that is difficult to read too much into is Dublin's lacklustre showings on the way to another Leinster title success. Wexford, Meath and Kildare were ultimately brushed aside without too much fuss, but the absence of consecutive whitewashes has created suspicion over where the Dubs stand.

If they have a look a bit bored so far, well, it's probably because they are. Leinster has been a one-horse race for over a decade and, for all the talk of only focusing on the next game, they are all too aware that potential banana skins simply don't exist yet at provincial level.

Going through the motions was enough to get them here, with the likes of Brian Fenton and Con O'Callaghan able to have rare off days in the Leinster final without coming at any cost to the greater good.

But Mayo won't have been lulled into a false sense of security – they will be expecting the real Dublin to stand up this evening. And they have learnt from the harsh lessons of the past that a good 35 minutes or more of raising expectations simply won't cut it.

Look at the 12 minute spell that killed their dreams in 2019. The second half last December when the Dubs recalibrated and calmly took apart their prey.

The games that defined this rivalry in most peoples' eyes came in the nip and tuck All-Ireland finals of 2016 and '17 when a once-in-a-generation Mayo side went toe-to-toe with Gavin's Sky Blue machine.

Yet those last two Championship meetings fizzled out once the fireworks faded, the game long gone before the end eventually came. Mayo might have the momentum this year, but Dublin still have the muscle memory of winners when the big days, the ones that really matter, come around.

Tonight, they will show that.

KEY BATTLE

Brian Fenton (Dublin) v Diarmuid O'Connor (Mayo)

THIS was the battle that ultimately swung like a pendulum and ended up in Dublin's favour last December.

Despite trailing 2-6 to 0-10 at half-time in that All-Ireland final, Mayo were largely the better team in the first half, ripping into Dublin, setting a high tempo and generally making life uncomfortable.

O'Connor was central to this, running himself into the ground and ruling the skies as he edged his encounter with Fenton. However, a different story unfolded in the second half.

The Raheny man kept his composure and turned the screw as the Dubs began to dominate, winning three big kick-outs and slaloming forward to major effect while the legs left the Mayo challenge.

If James Horan's men are to have any chance today, they need O'Connor to keep pace with Fenton for the entirety.

TEAM TALK

THERE remain so many what ifs heading into today's semi-final, mostly as a result of injury concerns over Mayo's Oisin Mullan and Padraig O'Hora. Whether one, both or none of this influential pair play will have a major say in how James Horan's men approach this game – and what the Ballintubber man chooses to do with Eoghan McLaughlin and Kevin McLoughlin.

Both came on and changed the Connacht final in Mayo's favour. At least one of them can be expected to come, possibly both.

Dessie Farrell may be tempted to draft in the pace of Eoin Murchan to deal with Ryan O'Donoghue, with Michael Fitzsimons likely to pick up the powerful Tommy Conroy.

Aidan O'Shea can be expected to drift out of the full-forward line, acting as a foil for that pair, and looks likely to have David Byrne for company.

Dublin (probable)

Evan Comerford

Michael Fitzsimons David Byrne Eoin Murchan

Tommy Conroy Aidan O'Shea Ryan O'Donoghue

Brian Howard Jonny Cooper John Small

Conor Loftus Darren McHale Kevin McLoughlin

Brian Fenton James McCarthy

Diarmuid O'Connor Matthew Ruane

Paddy Small Ciaran Kilkenny Niall Scully

Lee Keegan Paddy Durcan Eoghan McLaughlin

Cormac Costello Con O'Callaghan Dean Rock

Michael Plunkett Oisin Mullin Stephen Coen

Rob Hennelly

Mayo (probable)

THE BUILD-UP IN QUOTES

“I'd actually say we probably did hate Mayo, or we thought it was hate at the time. Because we look at it like ‘these guys are trying to take away our dreams of winning an All-Ireland'. We knew for four or five years, if we were to get where we were going, we had to beat these guys Without doubt Mayo were our biggest rivals”

Recently-retired Dublin forward Paddy Andrews on Newstalk's Off The Ball, lifting the lid on the siege mentality that lay behind the scenes of Jim Gavin's ultra-controlled environment

“I don't think it was because of that specific game. Those changes just happened naturally. I suppose in a county like Mayo, there's always brilliant talent coming through”

Stephen Coen doesn't believe the scars of Mayo's 2019 defeat to Dublin convinced several county stalwarts of the past decade to eventually call time on their careers

REFEREE

Conor Lane (Cork)

WHERE TO WATCH

* RTE2, coverage from 5pm

* Sky Sports Arena, coverage from 5pm

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