Mayo emerge from the fog to set up old dance with Dublin

James Horan’s remarkable re-calibration in the space of a year has lead to another final

It is no surprise, after this unreal championship that Dublin will show up in the Christmas All-Ireland final. No county has laid a glove on them. And it should probably be no surprise either that Mayo emerge from the fog of history and empty stadiums to stand in their way. The old dance.

They’ll be the outsiders, of course and even though they hit a scorching 5-20, questions and curiosities will hang over them. Trust Mayo, much maligned for missing the Croke Park targets down the years, to pick a winter’s day of Hammer Horror fog in which to give a scoring exhibition: they literally couldn’t hit a wide until the hour mark. Trust Mayo to bang home five goals in an All-Ireland semi-final but offer up as many chances at the other end. Tipp took three; they could have had twice that. But trust Mayo too, to keep on showing up. In a world of unbelievers, they keep the faith.

“Lots of stuff we were very strong on, lots of stuff we will take a look at. But overall winning an All-Ireland semi-final comprehensively is not to be sniffed at,” was the magnificently downbeat assessment of James Horan as he stood in the gloom of the Hogan Stand on one of the strangest penultimate weekends in GAA football history.

Mayo had posted 4-12 in the fog by half time. Cillian O’Connor had gobbled up 3-6 of that total for himself in a performance that was startling in its rapaciousness. It was a shocking score in an All-Ireland semi-final and it was impossible not to feel sympathy for Tipperary as they gradually became lost in the sense of purpose and aggression and certainty that the Westerners brought to the afternoon.

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Character

After the fabulousness of their Munster final adventure, this was a cold splash of reality. It was a continuation of the experience that All-Ireland champions Dublin had visited on Cavan on Saturday night but worse. They faced a stark choice during that break and their response spoke as strongly of their character as their last day out.

“The players were hurting and we didn’t want that type of performance to define our season,” said David Power.

“We set a target: let’s win the second half and that is what we did. This is just the start of the journey. We weren’t expecting to get to an All-Ireland semi-final this year. But we have to build from this.”

There was a sense, for those few of us scattered around the Arctic charms of the Upper Hogan stand, that Mayo were playing Tipperary here with Dublin in mind. It’s a rarely observed truth that by virtue of having played the tragic hero is so many All-Ireland finals, Mayo also revel in the role of ruthless killer in this version of the show. They excel in semi-finals.

They made all the right moves here with the ball in the first half. What glowed through the poor December light was their decision making: there was a new unselfishness and cleverness about their approach play. The old gun and glory stuff was nowhere in sight. Here, their voices echoed around the GAA’s Grand Canyon appealing to teammates for passes which invariably came.

And then there was that hunger. For instance: in the 30th minute, Aidan O’Shea showed and received a long ball, pivoted and pointed. But the outfield 14 were on their toes, pressing high and denying Tipperary goalkeeper Evan Comerford any easy outlet. O’Shea, at full forward, was directing traffic, harrying like the biggest terrier in the dog pound as the options closed, forcing a risky cross field pass back to Comerford from Liam Casey. O’Connor materialised out of the gloom to bat the ball home from distance. It was 3-11 to 1-4. The contest died there and then.

Menacing glint

What Horan has done to re-calibrate Mayo in little over a year is phenomenal. This is not the wild bunch of the last decade. Now, it is the savage forward-thrust of Eoghan McLoughlin and the rapier attacking touch of Tommy Conroy and Ryan O’Donoghue that carries the menacing glint.

Still, the number of chances that Tipp’ concocted – and the beautiful sheen of Conor Sweeney’s third goal – means that Dublin will be heavily fancied to retain the Sam Maguire for a sixth year running.

“We scored 3-13. I’d say we could have left another five or six goals behind us” said Power.

Afterwards, the defeated Tipp squad laid a commemorative wreath at the Hill End in remembrance of the Bloody Sunday victims of a hundred years ago. It was a beautiful and simple conclusion to the day.

So the old championship enters its final weekend in a peculiar place. Dublin’s opulence and excellence has created a sense of national unease: a realisation that the old competition, with its grandeur and tradition, may be broken.

And Mayo’s quest to win just one of these years has been one of its great themes since the mid-1950s. No one will believe in them but them. Here they come now, screaming through fog and time and reasonable doubt once more.