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Michael Murphy: All-Ireland race hots up as the final 12 get ready for the last lap

Mayo again showed their fearlessness against Dublin but once more the champions had the answers

Dublin’s Ciaran Kilkenny and Jordan Flynn of Mayo during their senior championship match at Dr Hyde Park, Roscommon. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

With all the excitement about athletics in the past week you could describe the All-Ireland as a race. So, what was the weekend? Did it fire the starting gun? Not really. The runners have been at it a while now.

It was more like a middle-distance event. We can see the athletes who aren’t going to win and the ones who are in contention. The final group matches are like taking the bell for the competitors: one lap to go and you are making sure you’re in the best position to go on and win.

Dublin are the front-running contenders and it was interesting to see Mayo’s approach on Sunday. Kevin McStay’s irrepressible belief in his playing group is the outward sign of Mayo’s underlying confidence when it comes to playing Dublin. It mightn’t be a winning tradition but they’re rarely less than competitive and the moves to take out Dublin’s key personnel – Donnchadh McHugh on Brian Fenton and Sam Callinan on Con O’Callaghan – worked really well. Anyone hoping to win this year’s All-Ireland will almost certainly have to beat Dublin.

Mayo gave that a good rattle but it ended up underlining Dublin’s status. Despite Mayo doing so much right, Dublin still had the answers. With Fenton and Con quiet, Cormac Costello stepped up. They have so many tested, quality players and are able to bring the likes of Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion off the bench.


Then Ciarán Kilkenny rose, literally, in the time of crisis to make that catch at the end. He’s done it before. In the 2022 semi-final against Kerry, he, Fenton and James McCarthy dragged Dublin back into the game and turned what looked like a bad beating into a one-point defeat. For him to go up like a skyscraper on Sunday and win that ball – what a catch!

Kerry’s Brian Ó Beaglaoich and Dylan McHugh of Galway. Ó Beaglaoich has really added to his game and is able to man mark, carry the ball forward and now take scores. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

It showed Mayo’s honesty as a team, a lack of cynicism that has arguably come against them. If the shoe was on the other foot there’s not a hope in hell that kick out would have been taken so quickly. The ball would have been challenged more vigorously in the air and not allowed to get out of the pack to Jack McCaffrey.

What should disappoint Mayo is that not a hand was laid on any of the Dublin players right up until Cormac Costello got the ball in front of goal. There’ll be all sorts of reviews of what happened and they’ll have had the answers – a day later.

I don’t want to be overly critical because Mayo brought so much to the match and they were so determined but at the precise moment an intervention was needed the instinct didn’t kick in. That instinct would kick in, I guarantee, with a Dublin, with a Kerry, with a Tyrone where a move like that would have been stopped.

Kerry are the only team with a 100 per cent record. I think they are playing with greater consistency and I have been so, so impressed by Brian Ó Beaglaoich. He’s not new but has really added to his game and is able to man mark, carry the ball forward and now take scores.

He and Tom O’Sullivan are perfect defenders in the modern game, comfortable at both ends and crucial for a Kerry team that needs more variety in their scoring. I understand that we can’t be certain about them until they play a quarter-final as their progress so far has been largely unchallenged.

The draw for the preliminary quarter-finals is huge for Derry. They were again below par on Saturday evening against Westmeath, but they just needed to win to put a stop to a terrible championship run and they did.

Westmeath's David Lynch tackling Ethan Doherty of Derry in Pairc Esler, Newry, Armagh. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

The wheels have come off in a big way and there’s no point pretending that the bubble around a county team will keep everything out. Noise and distraction from the outside do get through and that looks to me to be affecting Derry, but the draw against Mayo gives them an immediate focus.

A big game is the perfect challenge for that group of players. There can’t be any more dithering. It’s do-or die for them. If there’s no serious improvement Mayo will win and I’d say even Derry would be glad to bow out after what would be a fourth championship defeat.

There’s also danger for Mayo. Their style of play is quite attritional and although you’d have to make them favourites after their performance at the weekend what will such a high-profile match leave in their tank for an All-Ireland quarter-final a week later?

Even if that is negotiated there’s a semi-final two weeks later. The format makes constant demands if you can’t get into an ideal position. At least Mayo will be at home whereas Derry have to travel.

I would think they’ll probably overnight before the match, which isn’t as advantageous as it looks. In the early season we would have stayed in a few hotels, which was great for getting to know younger players, who had just joined the panel. By now that will have worn off and it’s just a big imposition for the weekend. The priority has to be getting as rested as possible for a big game but it’s a bit of a grind.

You can see why automatically reaching the quarter-finals is so desirable. You’re running freely, leaving others to be boxed in.