If Mayo get the match-ups right this time they will do it
Phoney war over as James Horan’s men set about dethroning All-Ireland champions Donegal
The return to fitness of forward Andy Moran, here celebrating his goal against Galway in the Connacht quarter-final, has given his county a massive boost. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Well now. That got nasty in a hurry. Remember the run-up to last year’s All-Ireland final? Remember how fun and novel it all seemed? Lord, it even felt warm and fuzzy for a while. Two teams with whom nobody had a bone to pick, two sides with no particular quarrel amongst themselves to speak of either. Yet somehow now it’s The Crips v The Bloods.
We shouldn’t get too carried away, mind. Even if the various agitators on either sideline could have chosen their words with a little less mischief this past week, most of it is still really just fluff.
Jim McGuinness didn’t mention Mayo once after the Laois game last week, yet the whole county took offence. James Horan probably should have passed on the bait but he’s built a Mayo side that drinks its whiskey neat and keeps its holster unbuttoned. Better to be the one who calls pistols at dawn than the one who’s surprised by it.
Once Joe McQuillan throws the ball in the air, the he-said-they-said ceases to matter. As last September showed, the initial match-ups are everything. The All-Ireland final was lost in those opening minutes when Kevin Keane was outjumped by Michael Murphy for the first goal and then dropped the ball off the post for Colm McFadden’s.
Tom Cunniffe’s return this summer has edged Keane out and he’s the only change in their defence from back then. It’s inconceivable Donegal will be treated to as perfect a start again. Much more likely is a nip-and-tuck encounter that is not altogether pleasant for long periods.
McGuinness wasn’t wrong when he said his players are being stopped at source a lot more this year. His only oversight was to imply it was a burden his team alone had to carry. One of Donegal’s greatest assets has been their ability to craft specific plans to negate specific strengths in the opposition – witness the nightmare they inflicted on Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan back in May. Why would other teams not do the same to them?
Preventing them running from deep has stopped them spreading scores across the team. After four games last year, Donegal averaged 8.5 scorers a game. This year, that number is down to five.
It means none of their trio of inside forwards can afford to have an off-day and when McFadden and Patrick McBrearty did against Monaghan, there was nowhere for the scores to come from.
Everything points to Mayo taking advantage. The idea they’d have preferred a more taxing Connacht championship must seem pretty funny to the Donegal medical staff. They started the championship without Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor and both are hopping off the ground at the right time.
Throughout the side they boast players well versed in taking the right option under pressure and if the can avoid the atrocious shooting of the Connacht final, they can end the reign of the All-Ireland champions for the third year in a row.
Verdict: Mayo by three