Playing in your first All-Ireland can be suffocating. Your A Game cannot be as easily found as other days and you don’t know why. It’s a surreal experience.
I was an unused sub in the 1969 victory over Offaly. That helped me cope with the external trappings a year later when I was centre back against Meath. I’ll never forget the feeling of sheer relief at the final whistle. For most of the novel 80 minute game I was too nervous to do anything but glue myself to Mattie Kerrigan. A ll I cared about was surviving. I just about achieved that. Other first timers might not be so fortunate.
I just feel that fellas who have been there before tend to do the right thing at the right time. That reflects better on Mayo, after last season’s torturous opening minutes against Donegal along with the 2004 and 2006 defeats to Kerry, as opposed to Dublin survivors from 2011.
It is worth noting that Jim Gavin felt the need to haul off Ciarán Kilkenny, Kevin O’Brien and eventually Paul Mannion in the semi-final against Kerry. Three of his under-21 graduates and they all struggled to stand out.
Tomorrow requires an even greater leap. To have gone through it before is of enormous value. To have not makes a younger players performance almost a lottery.
You just don’t know how they will go . . .
This is such a difficult game to call. The pathways of both teams are so different with Dublin seriously tested while Mayo had the smoother route, on which they have glided along so impressively.
Still, it is of huge importance that Tyrone opened them up in the first half of the semi-final. That was their only test this summer but the calmness of their reaction was telling.
It has been refreshing to see both managers encouraging their players to express themselves and make their own adjustments when necessary. They have trusted six backs to mark six forwards without the safety net of a sweeper. That’s the way we like to see football played.
But I have been particularly impressed by the approach of Mayo all year under James Horan. Donie Buckley has come in as a sort of head coach. That’s a very smart move by Horan. First job of the most successful managers is to get a really good coach. That’s the old fashion way. You see the value in the heap of turnovers from their new tackle technique.
After last year’s final Mayo players seemed to realise they are well capable of winning an All-Ireland. I expect an iron-like resilience in the opening exchanges. They look like a group that have put everything on hold for 12 months to achieve one goal. It’s their collective strength that is so obvious now. Against Tyrone, Aidan O’Shea was on a yellow card and not playing well while Cillian O’Connor had gone off yet they found a way back with Chris Barrett and Lee Keegan grabbing vital scores before half-time. There always seems to be a player willing to take responsibility.
Same can be said about Dublin. They are an excellent football team with a deep well of options and no team has been able to match their intensity in 2013.
However, it’s the young players that could prove their Achilles heel. We saw it against Kerry. Take Jack McCaffrey, a revelation since his promotion, being forced to check his first raid against Kerry when Donnacha Walsh, not the fastest of player at all, caught up with him. McCaffrey was nowhere to be found when Colm Copper threaded that foot pass into Walsh for Kerry’s second goal.
It took older heads in Philly McMahon and Cian O’Sullivan to shore up the middle. Also, Kilkenny was bottled up by rookie Kerry defender Fionn Fitzgerald.
Maybe Kerry's early lesson in free-scoring football will bring Dublin on.
I don't see another open game. I think Donal Vaughan, for one, will hold the centre of the Mayo defence with one of the O'Shea brothers lending a hand. Michael Darragh Macauley must be closely man marked. This seems a job for Seamus O'Shea. Otherwise MacAuley's athleticism will cause untold damage.
Stephen Cluxton’s kickouts must also be a major and sustained focus by the Mayo forwards. Cluxton will only kick long as a last resort but Mayo must deny him quick, short or diagonal options.
Make Cluxton kick long, turn it into a fifty-fifty contest and Aidan O'Shea can rule the sky. O'Shea only needs to break the majority of these kickouts as Keith Higgins' transformation into a half forward has yielded a huge amount of loose possession for Mayo. Kerry dismantled the Dublin backline with quick, low ball. Higgins gets it and ships it on to runners off his shoulder, like Alan Dillon and Kevin McLoughlin, who will find the inside scorers.
But O'Connor and Andy Moran must be fit enough to finish it all off. O'Connor must also last the 70 minutes, I feel. O'Connor's accuracy from frees when the pressure is at its zenith will prove vital.
That’s the great imponderable; will the Mayo forwards be able to rack up a big enough score? I think they can.
What could deny them victory is the impact of Kevin McManamon and Dean Rock. These two and Eoghan O'Gara must be immediately man marked when they hit the field. Another 1-2 from the bench would tip the scales.
As we saw last year, All-Ireland finals are usually decided by the team that settles quickest. My gut feeling tells me Mayo’s lesson in 2012 will guide them home.
That and the quality of their preparation under Donie Buckley. Most importantly, their level-headedness and hunger to finally capturing Sam Maguire looks set to be the difference.