Finishing power tilts the verdict towards Dublin
Dublin will be better able to raise the tempo in the final quarter than Mayo
These last few hours before Sunday’s All-Ireland football final constitute the happiest time for the greatest number. Anticipation is at its height. For supporters of both counties the possibility is still there and for neutrals, excitement at the prospect of a match that promises so much is palpable.
All-Irelands are however judged exclusively by their outcome and not by the prevailing sentiment before they happen. For all the atmosphere in a heaving Croke Park and the psychic energy swirling around Mayo’s latest date with destiny and attempt to bridge the gap back to 1951, by the end of the afternoon one set of supporters barring a draw won’t want even to think about the day again.
It would be possible to write a persuasive preview advocating the claims of either county. Mayo’s rise under James Horan has had nothing to do with the county’s familiar qualities of springing major surprises along the way but has been characterised by consistency and incremental improvement from season to season.
The recognisable route of losing in succession All-Ireland semi-final and final leaves just one step to take. The last three teams to return to an All-Ireland final the year after losing one - Cork (2010), Kerry (2009) and Galway (2001) – have redeemed themselves.
The last county not to, was Mayo who in 1997 lost, maybe a little ominously, to the team they’d beaten in the previous year’s semi-final, Kerry.
Among Horan’s achievements however has been to disable the influence of piseogs and myth and concentrate on the here and now: performance and what can be done to enhance it.
They have steamrolled their way through Connacht, ransacked the once proud defensive fortress of last year’s champions Donegal and managed to undo Tyrone’s security conscious set-up without undue fuss.
The impressive aspect of these performances is that even though the resistance was largely non-existent they played to their own tempo and never let up. Their standards didn’t allow them “to do enough” to win.
Room for improvement
Dublin haven’t been as consistent in one sense. Their performances have been at times wasteful and leaving a fair bit of room for improvement. Yet over the year as a whole they have lost just two competitive matches.
But in Dublin’s favour they have played a couple of serious All-Ireland matches to date. Cork and Kerry are the most experienced practitioners of August football and whereas neither are at their peak they posed a significant challenge.
Despite Kerryl smarting at being labelled underdogs and having thrown the kitchen sink at the Hill in the first half, they were beaten.
Slightly obscured by the breath-taking nature of the match was the improvement in Dublin’s conversion rate. They created fewer goal chances - seven – but scored three.
Their centrefield went into the match expected to struggle against Kerry but Michael Darragh Macauley, Cian O’Sullivan and Denis Bastick ended up having the better of that argument. The O’Shea brothers are more formidable again with Aidan having his best season but so far Dublin have done enough to prevent the sector being used decisively against them and compete well on opposition kick-outs.
Mayo, with their more aggressive attack, will push up on Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs although Kerry’s ploy of encouraging short re-starts to static defenders created difficulty for Dublin. But Mayo don’t have a Colm Cooper to orchestrate the moves that nearly killed off the semi-final in the first half.
They do have work rate and a menacing turnover threat but they also have full fitness issues over two of their top attackers, Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor, whose shoulder might last or might not, hardly an ideal state of affairs for him or the team but such is his importance from frees as well as play that there was no real alternative.
If Mayo’s combination game catches Dublin flat footed - and with Keith Higgins’s pace and class now operating in attack, it’s a possibility - they’ll get the goals that are almost certainly going to be needed to win.
Maybe more significantly, how will matters progress at the other end of the field?
Mayo’s defence is so fast and clever that it poses an offensive threat – as the points at the end of the first half against Tyrone proved – and although Dublin’s forwards are more associated with getting scores they’re going to have to make counter attacks as hard as possible to launch, knowing that if they run out of puff, reinforcements will arrive.
I think Dublin will win this. They don’t have the hurt of last year’s final to drive them but they’re a newly constructed team under new management with the salutary experience of last year’s semi-final.
They can mobilise a formidable bench, which allows them to raise the tempo in the final quarter and even though they won’t have the usual conspicuous advantage of pace throughout the 70 minutes, the bench has consistently brought scores in a way that Mayo’s replacements won’t match.
If we accept that this match isn’t going to be won easily, then the final 10 minutes will be vital and Dublin have been there more often than Mayo whose victories have been wrapped up by the final quarter never mind the closing minutes.
It’s finely balanced but the tilt is towards Dublin.
DUBLIN (SFC v Mayo): Stephen Cluxton(capt.); Philly McMahon, Rory O’Carroll, Johnny Cooper; James McCarthy, Ger Brennan, Jack McCaffrey; Michael Dara Macauley, Cian O’Sullivan; Paul Flynn, Ciarán Kilkenny, Diarmuid Connolly; Paul Mannion, Paddy Andrews, Bernard Brogan.
Probable subs: Shane Supple, Denis Bastick, Shane Carthy, Kevin O’Brien, Bryan Cullen, Darren Daly, Michael Fitzsimons, Kevin McManamon, Kevin Nolan, Eoghan O’Gara, Dean Rock
MAYO (SFC v Dublin): Robert Hennelly; Tom Cunniffe, Ger Cafferkey, Chris Barrett; Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle; Aidan O’Shea, Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin, Keith Higgins, Alan Dillon; Cillian O’Connor, Alan Freeman, Andy Moran (capt).
Probable subs: Brendan Walsh, David Clarke, Shane McHale, Kevin Keane, Brendan Harrison, Barry Moran, Jason Gibbons, Cathal Carolan, Richie Feeney, Enda Varley, Jason Doherty, Michael Conroy.