I have this nagging feeling that Mayo are going to be All-Ireland champions by Sunday evening.
I say “nagging” because cold logic would leave me predicting Dublin to finish another brilliant season with about three points to spare.
But one of the reasons we are fascinated by sport is that it has this habit of defying logic. And there is something about Mayo this year. Even observing from the other side of the world, the anticipation surrounding this game feels unique.
It’s easy to see why. Irrespective of the result, we are guaranteed a big outcome by virtue of where both teams are. For one team it would mark the end of an extraordinary famine while a win for the other would establish them among the best teams to ever play the game.
So it is absolutely tantalising. The two best teams of the summer have made it through. The two most consistent teams of this era are back to go toe-to-toe again. Everything is set up. This is it.
One question has become the prevailing theme of this GAA summer. Can this Dublin team be beaten?
On the face of it, it is tempting to just conclude that they can’t, that they are too good for the rest. They are moving through the gears and have swatted all comers aside with ominous ease.
Advance billing of their semi-final against Tyrone had it that the Ulster champions would challenge and stress the All-Ireland champions in new ways. When that didn't materialise, it felt as if a general resignation set in. That game reinforced everything we knew about Dublin. They are close to being the complete package, and have the strength and athleticism and power wedded to a tactical game plan that is very disciplined and controlled. They are skilful, hugely ambitious and really well coached.
Their young players are carrying responsibility and responding to whatever adversity has come their way. People gulped at the sight of players like Bernard Brogan and Michael Darragh Macauley left unused on the bench but that Diarmuid Connolly was granted just a few seconds at the end of the game was the most vivid illustration of Dublin's wealth of options.
I don’t believe there is another county in Ireland where the best player in the country, basically, is sitting there available for the first time all summer and you decline the option to give him a run before the biggest game of the year. It’s all about Jim Gavin’s thought processes.
And if he feels that he doesn’t need any game time in Diarmuid’s legs, then he knows best. But if this thing ends up a battle and Diarmuid doesn’t have the spark and if Dublin get beaten, there will be questions asked.
I think the reason he didn’t play Diarmuid was to make a statement of where Dublin are at and about the belief that is within that group. For me, that is a potential risk. This is championship football. The Mayo players have at least eight hours of championship football on Diarmuid now and if Dublin do need to call on him at a crucial stage, it may become a factor. Apart from that, there are not many weaknesses to seize upon.
So it is hopeless?
No. I still believe Mayo have a really good chance here.
It’s funny, everyone has an opinion on Mayo. But only the group knows what is going on. You can imagine the conversations within. The outside word just doesn’t get it or understand. They were uniformly written off in early summer. Now, they have a few tactical innovations that have brought them up a level and crucially, they are a team that can match Dublin in a lot of key areas.
They don’t fear anyone. They are at home in Croke Park. What they don’t have is the experience of winning an All-Ireland but it’s abundantly clear they have the requisite hunger and ambition to atone for that.
I remember asking in early summer if there was a team out there willing to try anything different or radical in order to challenge the orthodoxy. It turns out that Mayo are that team.
That’s a useful characteristic to have over these final few days of preparation.
It means that Dublin can’t be fully sure of what Mayo they will face. Mayo will feel that Dublin will not change because, well, why would they or should they?
Let’s go back to the Tyrone-Dublin semi-final. For me, nothing about that match is fully trustworthy as a reference because Tyrone were simply not the team we expected them to be. They were passive and reactive and played with no evident belief that they could win the game.
For whatever reason, they kind of acquiesced in their approach and permitted Dublin to become the dominant team, to set the tone and to do what they liked with the ball. If you take on Dublin in that sort of psychological and physical state of being, you will be beaten. No question.
So can Mayo get it right? Can they bring this game to a level of competitiveness and tactical nous that it makes it the intriguing contest everyone feels it can be? They haven’t done everything perfectly this summer. But they are here and they are getting stronger and have become a kind of enigmatic force.
For instance, there will be a lot of talk about a shoot-out and how that will suit Dublin. That’s fair enough. But what if Mayo decide it is not going to be a shoot- out? What if they set out to be very tight and controlled and miserable? So do Dublin then continue with their methodical, patient, possession-based build up? I’m fascinated by this.
In the previous finals, Dublin looked at Mayo and figured they would have a chance to go play ball against them. And Mayo believed in their offensive game and in their ability to match the Dubs in that sort of game. But that ultimately failed them in those finals. Not by much but nonetheless, it hasn’t carried them to the All-Ireland.
But there is a flip side to this issue also. Dublin don’t play in the mould of the team that beat Mayo in 2013 or even last year. They have become progressively more guarded and possession based. So what if Mayo come out with an off-the-cuff attacking strategy and just run hard at Dublin and turn it into a straight-forward football match? Can Dublin then just flick a switch and revert to their all-out attacking game?
Maybe they can. But it asks a question. And it would be a big jump for Dublin to make. Their patience and their recycling and their precision attacks have become the hallmark of their game. Abandoning that in an All-Ireland final would be a radical step and one that Jim Gavin has no obvious reason to make.
For me, if he decides Dublin are going to be controlled and measured and waiting for openings and precision strikes, it opens up an opportunity for Mayo to create a set of counter-tactics around that which could squeeze Dublin in a way no other team has. That could hand Mayo an advantage.
Funny, I feel if Dublin just go out and blitz Mayo in attack, they will have too much for Mayo. But if Dublin persist with their more deliberate style, then Mayo must challenge that in a way all other teams have failed to do.
What Dublin did to Tyrone was a brilliant exhibition of death by a thousand cuts. They basically kept the ball beyond Tyrone’s defensive blanket and dared Tyrone to come out and challenge for it. Whenever that happened, they played the ball to a runner primed to cut through the space opened up. If that gap closed, they simply turned back, recycled the ball and started again.
They are happy moving the ball from side to side and play with incredible width.
For me, it is crazy that teams have allowed them to do this with no challenge. For a start, Dublin playing so close to the sideline should give defences an advantage. But teams are so respectful of Dublin they are reluctant to overcommit to one side of the field. It’s ridiculous. Why not exert huge pressure on the Dublin ball carriers once they begin to work the ball along the sideline? Why not put a defensive rush into play when the sideline is there as an extra defender?
I think Mayo need bodies placed centrally so they give nothing away down the middle. They need big physical players – Keegan and Vaughan and Boyle and O’Shea. That middle channel must be shut off so that Dublin look to exploit the space on either wing. But once they do commit with the ball, Mayo need their half-forwards and even full-forwards coming back, closing in to deny Dublin the luxury of recycling the ball unopposed from within the 45 and back out to what has been no man’s land for Dublin all summer.
Dublin have dominated the area between the 45 and 65 and this has been the platform to relaunch attacks. So Mayo need to come and squeeze from the front while the defenders squeeze from the side. Then Dublin are hemmed in and they don’t have the free run of Croke Park and can’t see the runners as easily. Obviously, it would leave space on the other wing but so what? A Dublin player hugging the sideline when the ball is across the other side of the pitch isn’t going to hurt you.
If the defensive intensity is right, the long cross field kick pass required to put him in play won’t be on. The ball carrier shouldn’t get the time to lift his head and execute a pass across the pitch. The most time they should have is a quick hand pass.
So this sounds counterintuitive but once Dublin take the ball into Mayo’s defensive heartland, the Mayo structure should basically be shepherding the Dublin ball carrier towards the Mayo goal and denying that path out again. Mayo dictate by giving the Dubs two choices: either finish the attack with a score or a wide – or lose the ball.
And if they succeed in forcing Dublin to lose the ball, then they must go in numbers. All of Mayo’s feted ball carriers and scoring half backs must run with conviction. History suggests this won’t be a problem. We saw in the semi-final that Tyrone were isolated again and again and their transition game broke down.
I would suggest that with Mayo, however the final score finishes, you will see power and athleticism and self-belief. They have never lacked that but what they have added now is the ability to run the ball collectively.
There is no doubt the middle third will again be a massive battle ground. But for me, the last third defensively is where Mayo need to get things clear in their mind. Can Mayo hold or win that midfield battle ground and then when they are forced to defend, can they hold that final third also?
Can they bring a level of tactical intelligence, in other words, so the defence can hold the Dublin attack up a little until the midfielders stream back and cover that middle and start the process of forcing Dublin towards the wing and penning them in?
I believe this is where Mayo’s best chance of winning the All-Ireland lies. Give the Dublin attack a choice. Either go on and take your chance or we take the ball. But we are not going to allow you to recycle it.
Dublin’s young forwards have been flying. However, we have not seen their capacity to kick points under extreme pressure. We haven’t seen that yet. And if they do break on through to the other side; then, wow. Fair play.
But that’s a long 70 minutes away.
So there is more to this All-Ireland final than meets the eye.
I think there is zero chance of either team getting spooked by the occasion. Dublin just feel at home in this environment and this Mayo team are too cussed and driven to permit the mythology of their county’s September history to intrude in the preparations.
They are more likely to be spooked by one another.
I think Mayo have the capacity with their physical prowess and tactical boldness to bring this splendid Dublin team into a new area of engagement and that a really absorbing struggle will unfold.
I think we may see Dublin forced into errors and decisions and a scenario where not everything goes their way. I think it will be close and that, ultimately, it could come down to hunger. And I just don’t see Mayo being denied if that is the definitive virtue.
If Mayo can get their tactics spot on for one more 70 minutes, then this finally could be their time.