I think we could be in for something ferocious and spectacular from the throw-in this evening. And I think it is imperative that Mayo approach tonight in that mindset of controlled fury. Because the only relevant question about this semi-final is: where are these teams now? It's what both sides must discover - about themselves and their opponents. Mayo and James Horan have to remember they are playing Dublin 2021 - not Dublin 2016 or 2017.
Think back to last December: the same teams in that strange, deserted All-Ireland final. At that time, Dublin looked like marble to me: polished and impermeable. They looked stronger than ever. And my view then was that Mayo had to break the game into manageable parts. Set out a clear vision for the first 20 minutes. Then something different. Have varying kick out strategies - and hold the best of those back for the second half to give them better defensive shape. Maybe a huge push early in the second half and then, if they found themselves a few points up, to try and steer themselves to a pragmatic close out. They had to make sense of Dublin and make the task kind of manageable. Just to have a chance.
But I don't get that feeling this year. I don't have the sense that that kind of strategy is needed. Unless our eyes are deceiving us, Dublin are, in fact, vulnerable. So the most important thing for Mayo is to set in motion a series of plays to show the Dublin players the full fury of their desire to win and the hurt they've been carrying. They need to make the Dublin players look into themselves and ask: can I match this? Now, we are talking about absolute proven warriors here. You don't question the courage or resilience of players like James McCarthy or Mick Fitzsimons. But it is not about that. It is about where the collective stands at a given moment. You won't find the answer until you ask the question. Mayo should ask it early because the longer the game goes on, the more confident and comfortable Dublin become. A safe, reasonable game of football will suit them perfectly.
So Mayo need to go as hard as they can for as long as they can at the start. They need to find the bottom of Dublin. Maybe that resilience is there. Because the other side of the coin is: what of Dublin? Where are the team of the last six years? Do they disappear here? Do they go down fighting? Or do they go somewhere primal?
Either way, they also know they are not facing the Mayo of 2016 or 2017. And that may not be good news for them. The first two points Mayo scored against Galway are emblematic of the changes they have made this year. The first was the fourth minute: an aggressive run from deep by Brian Walsh who flicked it to Darren McHale. Matthew Ruane is coming off his shoulder and goes down the middle and hits it over the bar. They are doing this over and over.
The second score was the opposite. Galway were defending in numbers. So Mayo had to think and plot their way through it. And they are well schooled at this, too. They move it first time, don’t take it into contact, find Ryan O’Donoghue who drops the left shoulder to go inside and then falls back onto his right foot. It was a good team score with high-pedigree composure. Those two scores are also a microcosm of what is required to beat Dublin. You need a ferociously aggressive running game and then those phased plays where you inject pace. Mayo have those weapons now.
What have they been doing and who is responsible for this transformation? This wasn’t even a conversation prior to lockdown. Then, they turned up in Tuam last autumn and obliterated Galway and people went: woah, what was that? Was this a flash in the pan or was this the beginning of something different?
Well, now we know. Whatever they did during lockdown when there was nothing available other than the gym, boy, did they make it count.
But I think those scores also speak of the shift in philosophical belief with Mayo under Horan. To me, they were wedded to a kicking game during James’ first term in charge. It was ideological. This was how they wanted to win an All-Ireland. They absolutely bought into it. And I feel they therefore struggled to deviate from it, even after James left. I think that the 2017 All-Ireland final was the most vivid example of this, when they were two up with seven minutes to go and continued to play the game rather than perhaps try and manage it.
But I don’t think that dynamic exists anymore. I feel they are more nuanced now. Their game is more complex than that and, to me, more flexible. It asks more questions. When they have a puzzle in front of them they will work it out. They love to run hard. They still kick. But it is a three-pronged attack. So I think they can go at teams in different ways. You can’t rely on them to just play one way.
Teams cannot lie to themselves. Only one team knows where Dublin are right now. And that team will sit in the Dublin dressing room tonight. I can't think about this game without being reminded of Donegal playing Mayo in 2013. We played a host of club games that year and were injury-ravaged by the championship. We lost to Monaghan in the Ulster final and then struggled to get past Laois. We were vulnerable, going into an All-Ireland quarter final as defending champions and facing the team whom we had beaten the previous year. We tried to mask it but we knew it. And I would say the whole country sensed it. Mayo certainly did! We stayed in Johnstown House and I remember sitting beside Pat Shovelin in the front of the bus. On the motorway flyover a big massive banner in green and red letters saying: Not Today, Jimmy. And they knew. They were hurting from 2012 and knew that we were struggling. And they smelt blood.
And this is what I mean by knowing who you are playing against. When we played Mayo in 2013, we were the same players who had won the All-Ireland the previous September. Except we weren’t! Not on that day. And that team, remember, came back to contest an All-Ireland final a year later. It wasn’t that we were finished. But it didn’t matter what state we were in in 2012 or 2014. All that mattered was how we were when we played Mayo that day in 2013.
The same is true now. And I can't help but think about that moment and imagine the Mayo boys looking at Dublin against Wexford and Meath and Kildare. They have seen Dublin wobble. That has to play a big part in how they set about going at this.
Of course, if Dublin are wounded, the best way to mask that is to come out with similar rage and anger. To try and scare Mayo into thinking that nothing has changed. If that happens, Mayo have to just plough through that firestorm, absolute in their conviction that they are the stronger team.
If I could be a fly in the wall in both dressing rooms I imagine I would hear absolute defiance emanating from both places. With Dublin the narrative is: ‘youse are being questioned, written off, so you go out and ram it down people’s throats’. Then I am going to the Mayo dressing room and hearing them demand that ‘we remember the previous hurts, discover Dublin’s breaking point and if we break them, then we smash them and go again and again. No let up’.
There is, of course, a chance that such a primal encounter will reawaken something within Dublin - that it will snap them back into their best form. If that happens, then they will finish the year as champions.
But right now, it is on a knife edge. I feel that to call this game one way or another is just guess work.
So: what a treat! It is Saturday. The intrigue will build all day and by tea-time in Croke Park the atmosphere will be very, very special. Something's got to give.