Ten days out from the football final, one interesting thing we should look at is the age profile of the two teams.
In general, Mayo are old and getting older and the Dubs are young and getting younger. I don’t say that to make out that either team has an advantage – I just think it’s interesting in that it shows there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
People like to say about Mayo that they’re still relying on the same fellas they have been for years, making out that it’s a sign of their lack of strength in depth. I suppose you could look at it that way alright. But my argument would be this – if they had a load of strength in depth and a heap of young fellas to come in and replace what they have, who would you be sending to sit on the bench?
Mayo are a team that gets scrutinised nearly more than any other in the country and the upshot of that is that every one of them have had days when the pundits and everyone else has them boxed off and sent to the scrapheap.
How many times have you heard Seamie O’Shea written off? Or Andy Moran? Or Jason Doherty? Hundreds. Thousands, maybe.
But they’re still here and still coming back for more. Seamie O’Shea had one of his best ever games in a Mayo jersey against Kerry in the replay. Moran is in the running for Footballer of the Year. Doherty has been massive for them this summer. Whether their year ends with Sam Maguire or not, they have played some of the football of their lives.
In a way, yes, they’re still relying on the same fellas. But that would only be a problem if these lads were the same players as they were back in 2011 at the start of James Horan’s time. Anyone see that that’s not the case. Every last one of them is a better player now than they were then. Every one of them is fitter, stronger, cuter and more skilful.
I’ve never seen a Mayo team in better shape. This isn’t Dad’s Army, trying to keep the whole show on the road even though the wheels are falling off. They’re more like The Dirty Dozen – battle-hardened gunslingers who have no time for nonsense and no notion for playing nice. They pack the hardest punch in the game at the minute and that’s because everything they do carries years of experience.
Dublin are going a different way about it. They can afford to do that because they have a deeper panel but, as well as that, Jim Gavin is playing for more than just this All-Ireland. Dublin want to dominate like Kilkenny did in hurling. And how did Brian Cody do that? Constant turnover and regeneration. Kilkenny were never going to run out of hurlers, the Dubs won't run out of footballers.
So Gavin keeps injecting young guys into the team and over the past 18 months, he has started moving the older players onto the bench. His message to the likes of Bernard Brogan and Michael Darragh Macauley and Paul Flynn and all these fellas is simple – this is a moving train and you can be on it on my terms or you can stand on the platform on yours.
They’re hanging in because there’s a chance at another All-Ireland but they’ll only do it for so long. Gavin isn’t just planning for when after they go, he’s bringing that time forward whether they like it or not.
The beauty of this final is that neither way is 100 per cent right or 100 per cent wrong. Gavin has earned the right to play whatever team he likes, young or old. Mayo are a bit more restricted but this is still the best team they’ve had and they’re going into the final in the best shape they’ve been.
Not that you’d know it sometimes, the way people talk about them. The funny thing with Mayo is that they get credit for how brave they are but almost never for how good they are. You’d think by now, after all these years, people would be wise to the quality they have. But no. It’s always guts and character and all that kind of thing that people go to first.
Think of how their season has been seen. When they dug it out in extra-time against Derry, people were shaking their heads at the horror of it. Extra-time against Derry! The shame! And then they had to do the same against Cork and you even heard people going, “Ah would somebody not put them out of their misery?”
When they drew with Roscommon, that was it, they were definitely gone. And when they hammered them in the replay, well sure that was one of the worst Roscommon teams ever to play in Croke Park.
They were underdogs against Kerry for the semi-final and then, even though they were by far the better team in the drawn game, they were still 2/1 outsiders in the replay. And again, all the talk since they beat Kerry out the gate is that Eamonn Fitzmaurice has no players at all down in Kerry. Nothing to do with Mayo being a superior team.
So basically Mayo have got to the final as an invisible team. They’re the worst team out there, apart from all the other teams who are worse again. And all the other teams who have been worse than them over the past five or six years. They’re 3/1 for the final against a team who only beat them by a point after a replay last year. Tyrone were only 5/2 for the semi-final – that’s how little credit Mayo get.
If anyone thinks this final will be anything other than a close battle, they haven’t been paying attention. Mayo are at a point in their lives now where experience is one of the greatest weapons they have. They never panic. They know better than to panic.
Even go back to their goal against Derry away back in that qualifier when they were dead and gone. They ran the ball from their own endline and laced together a brilliant move. Nobody panicked. Seamie O'Shea made a 40-yard run down the sideline and never once did it cross his mind to lump a high ball in and hope for the best. He played a one-two with Diarmuid O'Connor and kept his head up to see where the run was coming from inside. Cillian O'Connor came out for him, O'Shea's ball in was on the money and Conor Loftus timed his run perfectly.
People talk about guts and character all the time but I often think they’re talking about the wrong thing. They talk about keeping going and not letting the heads drop but that’s only a small part of it. Real character is still being brave with the ball, trying to pick the right passes instead of just moving it on.
You want guys who are still trying to make the intelligent runs rather than chasing around the place so that people see them making an effort. A fella who comes screaming out making a big show of looking for a ball can be worse than the lad whose head has dropped. At least you can ignore the guy whose head is down. In the heat of battle, the first guy can cause you to make a snap decision and give him the ball. Next thing you know, he’s turned over and you’re in trouble again.
It takes way more character to stay calm. And the best way to cultivate that is through experience. During the 2000 All-Ireland campaign, Kerry drew twice with Armagh and we needed a replay to get over Galway in the final as well. We were a different team by the end of the year than we were at the start. Never mind that, we were a different team at the start of October than we were at the end of August.
You learn so much as you go on. In the drawn game against Armagh, Cathal O’Rourke kept taking me out of it with third-man tackles on kick-outs. Any ball that came our way, I’d go for it but my run would be checked by O’Rourke. So at half-time, Páidí said to Killian Burns that he was to take care of that problem. But it kept happening.
The game ended in a draw and Páidí had his mind made up for the replay. That wasn’t happening again. Killian was dropped and Tomás Ó Sé came in for the replay with the firm instruction the first time O’Rourke did it, he was to be brained. No ifs, ands or buts. No excuses. And that’s what happened. Job done. It was tough on Killian to be dropped but that’s how the team evolved, learning on the run.
In those games and the games against Galway, we got gradually better. We stopped conceding goals. We kept our head when the games got close. We found our men and stuck to our plan because we knew that we could come through in tight spots. We had comfort in games that went to extra-time because we had been there before. If we went behind and there were 10 minutes left on the clock, our attitude wasn’t, “Shit, time is running out.” It was, “Here, there’s 10 minutes left in this. Plenty of time.”
You can see that same attitude in Mayo. Go back to the drawn game against Kerry when they were behind in injury-time. The board went up saying there was going to be five minutes played. It was a dead cert that Mayo were going to carve out a chance for themselves in those five minutes.
Even the way they did it was so calm and collected. As Keith Higgins came up the pitch soloing the ball, he had his head up all the time. Paddy Durcan came sprinting off his shoulder and passed four Kerry players in the blink of an eye and dished out a ball to Donal Vaughan 25 yards out from goal out on the left.
In a less experienced, less composed team, Vaughan would have taken on the shot there. He had a look at the posts so it definitely crossed his mind. But instead, he carried a few steps to draw a defender, left space for Durcan behind him and then turned to put him away. Durcan came running onto the ball and kicked from a perfect shooting position – on the 20-metre line, on the edge of the D. You can’t ask for a better put-together score under time pressure than that.
All of this is my way of saying that any time you hear somebody talk about miles on the clock when it comes to Mayo over the next week and a half, don’t let anyone tell you it’s a bad thing. Those miles aren’t a hindrance to Mayo in this final. I’d say it’s closer to the truth to say that they’re what has got them here.