Alan Dillon can reflect on six All-Ireland finals, more than half of the 10 Mayo have contested since the last win 70 years ago. Saturday is the first one in his experience for which the county are favourites.
The twice All Star and former captain, who retired in 2017, doesn’t believe that it affects teams directly but just states a perspective
“I don’t think players or managers take being favourites or underdogs to heart. They’re simply the opinions formulated by bookmakers or analysts and have little bearing on the discussion of tactics and game plans.
“In semi-finals and quarter-finals, we’ve gone in as both. I don’t think it will change Mayo’s focus or direction. It’s never something that’s talked about – control the controllables.”
For Dillon there were degrees of underdog status. His first two finals against Kerry in 2004 and '06 were chastening affairs – early goals settling the latter at an early stage and both comprehensive in their outcome but the third in 2012 was finely balanced only for more early goals to be inflicted.
Whereas such setbacks are challenging regardless of who the favourites are, there is something about a match so quickly conforming to expectations that puts pressure on teams.
Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden hit the net in the third and 11th minutes and although Mayo recovered to cut the deficit, those early scores told in the end, as Donegal won by four, 2-11 to 0-13.
“As a player you’re trying to control your emotions in the face of setbacks like that,” he says. “You’ve two options: keep going or throw in the towel. Make the next play, get on the breaking ball – that’s the only way and it has to be process driven; if players start doing their own thing, it completely breaks down.
“You get back in, play by play and score by score. Keep plugging away. It’s the only answer to setbacks like that. Goals are more significant in a final than a run of points because they give the opposition huge energy. We probably played well after conceding the goals but never got a run of scores and never threatened to get inside their defensive set-up.
“It was hugely disappointing. The ball that came off the post into Colm McFadden’s hand was hard to take.”
Mayo's approach under James Horan was always to take matches as enumerated tasks in the championship, match one, match four, etc. But All-Ireland finals are different. The tension is that bit higher. In other years the crowd came in at more than 82,000, creating its own sense of a different challenge.
“There is significant pressure in finals. It’s a different occasion, a different event. It’s probably learning how to do things better, organising your week, your day and micro-managing what you need to take care of. Don’t complicate it. And enjoy it – don’t get bogged down in overanalysing and overthinking it.
“If you let your mind wander into negative affirmations – what about this or what if that happens?
“James will have done a lot of scenario planning in terms of, say, players getting sent off. What if you’re a man up; a man down? If you’re two points down, what to do, and I think we got better at planning those types of things.
“Finals bring their own element of chaos. No-one really knows what’s going to pan out on the day but planning helps you to deal with whatever the game throws at you.”
Dillon says that whereas the crowd can create additional pressure, it shouldn’t get to players even if the sizeable Mayo support frequently adds a dimension to those passages of play when the county has momentum.
“They certainly can [add to the pressure] but I’d question to what degree the crowd can influence a player’s thought process. When momentum is with you it’s great to have them on your side. Mayo are probably the best in the country when at that tempo and that level but I suppose there’s an uneasiness around mistakes and the “oohs” and “ahhs” from the crowd in the ebb and flow.
"Some players thrive in it and others find it difficult and it would be different if they had no Croke Park experience but they've played there twice, against Galway and Dublin and the crowd still won't be full capacity so it lessens the microscopic feel of the occasion."
He sees Mayo’s favouritism as partly a reflection of beating six-times champions, Dublin, in the semi-final. He’s less impressed by the idea that Tyrone are preferable opposition to Kerry.
“I’d be scared in terms of that mentality. It’s not something that Mayo can look back on – obviously the teams are different. I remember in 2008 when Tyrone went on to win the All-Ireland and we were three points up going into the last quarter of a qualifier. We lost that one but could have won it. Is that relevant to this weekend?”