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Kevin McStay: Mayo may be washed away by blue wave

Fully firing Dublin at Croke Park looks too tough an assignment for Horan’s side

And then there were four. Kerry-Tyrone has its own recent history and edge and I am sure it will produce a worthy finalist on Sunday. But I think it is fair to say that the eyes of the country will be on the Saturday night live match. Dublin and Mayo: one more time.

One assumes it will be a full house in Croke Park. This rivalry has been bubbling for most of the decade. In a funny way, it reminds me of the old snooker wars between Jimmy White and Steve Davis. White was erratic, lovable, sometimes brilliant and sometimes left you hiding behind the sofa. So it is with Mayo. White was the people's darling.

Against that, you had Davis – the cool exterior, amazing consistency and perfect technique. That has been the story of Dublin. They love the heightened pressure of these knockout days. They have their process and that has produced the titles.

Jimmy White was always hoping that things would go right. He played on emotion. So do Mayo and they are hoping for the bounce of the ball, the brilliant goal out of the blue, the rush of blood comeback.

I was chatting with Aidan O’Rourke, the former Armagh player, on Saturday and he was saying he had become exasperated by Mayo. Aidan is an All-Ireland champion, he has his medal. He played in two All-Irelands and Armagh won their first. That Armagh team got it done – against Kerry. And that is the hard cold quality you need. So Aidan probably began to wonder, well, how many chances does a team deserve? But now he is starting to fall for Mayo all over again.

Mayo missed about 1-8 in the first half. The game should have been over and done with at the break

In a one-off game like they played against Donegal, you sense this huge character and will and drive. And they kind of draw you in. They cast a kind of spell on the public. You end up rooting for them. The form line was all about Donegal but when it was put to me, without letting my Mayo blood get in the way, I still felt it was a huge chance for James Horan’s side. Because you can’t draw a line with Mayo; you know they will be unreasonably cussed.

On logic, they should not have been in that game. But I was down in Mayo for a few days during the week. The Castlecourt was jammed for one of Colm Parkinson’s road show gigs. Everyone was into the pre-match talk and wearing their colours and showing loads of belief.

The attitude was: we are at home in an All-Ireland quarter final, basically, and we have a good track record. I met a guy on Thursday who told me he wasn’t worried about Donegal but he was very concerned about Dublin. I found the breeziness hilarious. Fair play to him. It didn’t occur to him that his team could be beaten.

Recurring theme

And that belief was well founded. I reckon Mayo missed about 1-8 in the first half. The game should have been over and done with at the break. The difficulty for Mayo is that those were relatively easy chances. They were not pot shots. And this is a recurring theme with this side. If they don’t tidy this issue up, it will catch up with them next Saturday night. They were blessed that Donegal replicated the wastefulness.

I felt very sorry for Donegal, even before the game. The minute I heard about the Eoghan Bán Gallagher injury, I felt that the summer wouldn’t work out for them. For the second championship in a row, they have suffered a major injury. They are talented but the talent is not that deep.

They are an emerging team but so much is contingent on Michael Murphy being able to maintain his form for the next few years. They are Ulster champions for the last two years and haven't reached an All-Ireland semi-final. They had their destiny in their own hands on both occasions.

Tyrone at home and Mayo away: these are hard, hard lessons. They are a good team and I felt they had developed beyond Michael but when the chips were down on Saturday night, it fell to him to prop the others up again. They had the breeze and momentum and missed those chances in the second half when they could have regained the lead. I am not convinced they deserved to be back that close but, once again, Mayo left the door open for their opponents.

The main reason for Mayo’s victory was this. In military terms, Mayo spent a long time identifying how they would destabilise Donegal’s centre of gravity.

During the week, everyone knew that Murphy, Patrick McBrearty and Ryan McHugh were the men they had to stop. But Horan still had to devise a plan and then go and execute it. Putting Chris Barrett on McBrearty and holding him to 0-2 was as good a return as they could have asked for.

Paddy Durcan keeping Ryan McHugh under wraps worked perfectly. He welded himself to the Donegal playmaker but still managed to break forward to get his three points.

Now, I am not as convinced that Lee Keegan on Michael Murphy was the thundering success that some people believe. Murphy, I felt, was heroic on Saturday night. One thing keeps coming back to me. He was tearing along under the stand with the ball and collecting return passes at speed and he moved with a pace and intensity I didn’t even know he had. He was like a man possessed. The thing that stands out was actually a miss. He spun on his left and connected beautifully on a hugely important point attempt. It missed by millimetres – I was right behind the shot so had a perfect view.

Massive loss

It goes down as a wide but trust me, it was a sublime bit of skill. After he scored his penalty, he gave Lee Keegan a ferocious and entirely fair belt. He shook him. He took the game to Mayo in those moments. Nobody else on that Donegal team got to Murphy’s level. And that may be why they aren’t reaching the last four.

The good news for Mayo is that they have improved as the season has gone on. But by how much? They weren't brilliant on Saturday night. Rather, they were functional. They do what they do so well – hugely physical and a massive tackle count. It would seem as if Jason Doherty is badly injured and, if so, he will be a massive loss. The game has to have taken a physical toll. I know they are happy and excited now. But it was a gruelling game.

Their wastefulness and the modesty of their scoring totals do not augur well. They are still too dependent on defenders for scores. On the positive side, Matthew Ruane got a gallop and he looked comfortable. For 55 minutes, Aidan O'Shea was back to his very best. And I don't think they will fear Dublin because it's just not their nature to fear any team. They will tear into it.

What happened in Omagh on Sunday was just time that we will never get back. It was outrageous. I don’t blame either team or manager; they were trying to maximise their advantage in planning ahead. The official teams submitted were just nonsense. A lot of people paid a fiver for a programme which contained fantasy teams. It shouldn’t have been like this.

All four games should have taken place at the same time. And so it was a glorified challenge match. It was a real wallop to the integrity of the Super 8s concept. We ended up with a reserve game of football. Nothing useful could be mined from that game.

It was Dublin’s sixth game of the championship. Now they can see the summit. They are two games out from separating themselves from every football team in GAA history. Funny, that was as close as anyone got to Dublin this year. They have beaten teams by 26, 18 and 9 points. Sunday was as close as any team has come to them!

It has been a magnificent effort that has allowed them to stroll within two games of destiny. A huge amount of work and planning has gone into this. They are right now where Kerry were in 1982 against Offaly. As I see it, all other contenders have fallen back. Kerry and Tyrone have not scaled the heights. Mayo are Mayo. Donegal are out.

Meanwhile, Diarmuid Connolly is back and having the time of his life, despite the black card he was issued in Omagh. There were nine black cards this weekend, incidentally and in my view, it has become incredibly difficult to referee such fouls. I feel the word "deliberate" has to come out of the rule. We have a huge weekend ahead of us and the black card may well be a significant issue.

Evan Comerford was outstanding. Sean Bugler and Cormac Costello and Bernard Brogan did well. All of these guys want to be in the 26. Their core players were relaxing at home. Fatigue is not an issue.

What are their weaknesses? The standard reservation is that they are not great under the high ball. Well, who is? It has always been an issue for teams. Wasn’t it a high ball that unseated Kerry in 1982? I think this is grasping at straws. Mayo; Kerry; Tyrone: none of these teams are great under the high ball.

Rude health

To be frank, I do not see any obvious weakness in Dublin. All I see is magnificent athleticism, a team approach, huge confidence allied to energy and humility. The hype will come into the city now but I imagine they will enjoy that. They have no injury worries. So every aspect has been very carefully and expertly managed to bring them to the pinnacle of the season in seriously rude health.

The clock is ticking for Mayo. What is Dublin's centre of gravity? Who do you go after if you want to destabilise them? When I thought about it, I wrote down Stephen Cluxton and Brian Fenton. That's about it.

The idea of Mayo beating Dublin and then either Kerry or Tyrone is pushing the realms of possibility to a place I don't think Mayo can reach

Cluxton has been tried before. He has been rumbled slightly but not to any devastating effect. Has anyone ever targeted Fenton and tried to dislodge him from that smooth, Rolls Royce midfield playmaking game of his? I think he is more important than James McCarthy now because more scores come from him.

What about Lee Keegan on Fenton? Could that provoke some sort of chaos that might, just might, unsettle Dublin enough to allow Mayo to get their claws into them?

I am not sure.

The idea of Mayo beating Dublin and then either Kerry or Tyrone is pushing the realms of possibility to a place I don’t think Mayo can reach. It pains me to come to that conclusion and hopefully they can confound us yet again.

Pace will be a deciding factor. Mayo are an older team now than when they last met Dublin. It would appear as if this is the greatest team of all time they are playing. Dublin at full force in Croke Park is a different class and I think this is beyond Mayo.

It is fitting that they get to have one more shot in Croke Park and to at least stand in front of this blue wave. But that doesn’t mean they won’t get washed away.