GAA weekend that was: Glimpse of the future, encouragement from the past

Although Dublin gave an awesome display there are positive echoes for a resilient Mayo

Mayo’s Brendan Harrison in action against Donnchadh Walsh and Paul Geaney of Kerry during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay at Croke Park. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

Mayo’s Brendan Harrison in action against Donnchadh Walsh and Paul Geaney of Kerry during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay at Croke Park. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

 

We have seen the future

It wasn’t much remarked on in the lead-up or over the weekend but the two football semi-finals inadvertently gave us a taste of the future. The three-year trial of championship changes, which begins in 2018 and features a round-robin format for the last eight in the All-Ireland football, features a provision for both semi-finals to be staged on the one weekend.

Maybe the idea crystallised 12 months ago when a similar situation in hurling produced two classic matches – the Waterford-Kilkenny replay in Thurles on Saturday and the Tipperary-Galway match in Croke Park the following day. The impact on the same weekend was noticeable.

Of course not all of the semi-finals are classics and last weekend produced two fairly one-sided matches but the excitement of Mayo reaching another final and beating Kerry, together with the quality of Dublin’s display created excitement for the final and in the lead-up – when most people expected tight contests – there was great anticipation.

See you again, next year.

Winning the hard way

For all Dublin’s domination of Tyrone, not many believe that the final will be easily won. For a start there’s precedent. The county’s four Al-Irelands this decade have been won by a single point on three occasions, including last year’s replay, and the other ended in a three-point defeat of Kerry two years ago.

The contests between Mayo and Dublin have reflected that trend. The clearest-cut win in the sequence was Dublin’s seven-point semi-final win two years ago and even that came after a replay. Mayo won by three in 2012 whereas the other four have been divided between two draws and two one-point wins.

Mayo will equal Tyrone’s tally of 10 championship matches – and may even exceed it if there’s another draw in three weeks – which was set in the 2005 championship. That run featured draws with Cavan, Armagh and Dublin and obviously didn’t do the team any harm as they defeated previously unbeaten defending champions Kerry in the final – having for added coincidence narrowly edged out the league winners (Armagh) in the All-Ireland semi-final.

There’s no mystery as to why a succession of knockout fixtures helps to develop a team even on the basis of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Being taken to the brink in qualifiers against Derry – who if they had engineered something from a last-minute free in ordinary time might have ended the adventure at the start of July – and Cork forged the team’s challenge this summer and those watching closely have said that at times Mayo played the best attacking football they’ve ever played in recent years even if it was fitful.

Another way of viewing the Dublin masterclass on Sunday is that it was another fixture in which they can’t have learned much given the emphatic win – 12 points is by a distance the county’s biggest win in a semi-final this decade during which period their average victory in the last four has been 4.5 – against Tyrone.

Mayo have restored the reputation of the qualifiers by reaching successive All-Ireland finals – the first time this has happened in seven years. Does the tougher route and weekly exposure to sudden-death football leave a team better prepared for the final?

Evidence isn’t clear-cut. There have been eight All-Ireland finals between provincial champions and a team from the qualifiers and they divide four apiece, including last year when Dublin as Leinster title holders defeated Mayo who had emerged along the outside track.

A better filter is to look at the lessons of the semi-finals. Of the eight finals in question, victory went to the county who had come through the harder semi-final (allowing for an element of subjectivity in that assessment) on six occasions – Galway, 2001; Armagh, 2002; Tyrone, 2003; Tyrone, 2005; Kerry, 2007 and Dublin, 2016.

That category includes all four provincial champions’ victories – 2002, ’03, ’07 and ’09. In other words a testing semi-final appears to equalise any advantages conferred on a team who have made their way through the qualifiers.

This could yet be significant in a contest between a team that has had to negotiate two excursions into extra time plus two replays and opponents whose tightest match ended in a nine-point victory and whose average winning margin is pushing 15 – a total 74 over five matches.

Drawing encouragement

There is one other straw in the wind that might encourage Mayo. The county’s win over Kerry last Saturday was the latter’s first defeat in an All-Ireland replay since the 1972 final which they lost to Offaly.

You have to go back even farther to find the last time Kerry were beaten after drawing an All-Ireland semi-final. They don’t have the reputation as replay specialists for nothing.

It is all of 66 years since it happened and the county that did it, Mayo, went on to defeat the Leinster champions – in 1951, Meath, who were favourites – in the final for what we all know at this stage remains the county’s last title.

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