The championship has raced by. Suddenly we are in mid-August and the contest has been a straightforward sideshow to establish the usual suspects. Most people could have predicted three if not all four of the All-Ireland semi-finalists. And there is an inevitable feel about the meeting of Dublin and Mayo. We have been here before.
We tend to think of ‘Dublin’ as the shape-shifting omnipotent force of the last decade. If you start to study their form, it can all get out of hand very quickly because they produce such spellbinding numbers and records.
It is probably not wise to dig too deeply. Six in a row at national level, 11 in a row at provincial level – 16 out of 17 Leinster titles, if you stretch it. The fastest goal in an All-Ireland final last December. Your preview soon becomes a sports quiz.
But that stuff is of no relevance. It seems to be an obsession in the GAA to look at a sweep of history to establish form. That doesn’t matter to the player. Maybe it is a subject of fascination to the supporters in the stands. But the player is fixating only on the game ahead.
So I think the December 2020 final is the endpoint of useful retrospective analysis in advance of this weekend’s game. That was a straightforward cruise for Dublin to their sixth consecutive All-Ireland title. The standard of the game was not sky-high. It was in the balance at half-time. But by the second water break Dublin were playing basketball; it was all over.
Mayo had an opportunity but I don’t know was the confidence really there to have a go at Dublin. The result confirmed a gap in standard between Dublin and the rest. And it was made clear to the others that those gaps must be closed by 2021 to alter the pattern of Dublin winning.
But what has happened since with Dublin? Well, they have played four Allianz League games and three championship games since. And there is no question in my mind that the following truths have emerged.
They have lost key players and it is an absolute fact that their bench is no longer formidable. Absentees, in no particular order, include Paddy Andrews. Michael Dara Macauley, Kevin McManamon, Paul Mannion and Jack McCaffrey. Thus, their bench in 2021 has contributed 0-1 v Kildare, 0-0 v Meath and 0-3 v Wexford. Them's the facts.
Nor are the champions scoring as freely as in previous seasons. They are not beating teams as comprehensively as in other summers.
Dublin’s invincibility is no longer what it was. The aura – that word – the mesmerising hold they had on the country, has been diluted. My sense is that Dublin are now regarded differently; they are seen as vulnerable and susceptible.
I think that can be linked to the departure of Jim Gavin after 2019 and the absence of Stephen Cluxton this year.
Cluxton is the more important absence because Gavin left behind a fantastic process and a way of doing things. Stephen shuffled off the stage for reasons that have never been made clear. My guess is that he left over the pre-season breach of Covid protocols. It was a stain on Dublin and he made a silent protest. He has high standards and is a straight-shooter and just decided to leave.
He has been such a gargantuan figure in this Dublin set-up that his departure was always going to be a critical moment. We will discover just how Dublin are coping with his unorthodox exit over the course of this month.
Finally, a few of their star turns have dipped in form. Brian Fenton, Dean Rock, James McCarthy and Con O'Callaghan are not operating at their best right now.
These are the negatives for Dublin. But there is a counter argument. To begin with, Evan Comerford is emerging as a fine goalkeeper; he has learned well under the master. He has been more than adequate. John Small and Eoin Murchan are back to full fitness and are huge additions. Niall Scully and Brian Howard are going well. Ciarán Kilkenny still takes a lot of stopping. Beyond that, I am searching for immediate positive signs for the champions.
Dublin have coasted to this semi-final. They have got here on automatic pilot, playing average at best. Trying to locate high-octane form late in the season can be a difficult trick. That is what Dublin are faced with now. No matter how hard you try to engineer it in training, a team can struggle to suddenly click. That must be concerning for Dublin.
Dublin knew they would win Leinster. It’s a mystery, how did they not kick into form against inferior opposition? Can you doss your way to a big game? And then locate your form when you need to? This is what Dublin must do now and it seems to run against their belief in consistency and process.
Isn't sport about building processes and routine and tempo? They haven't got to the All-Ireland winning level yet. They have failed to achieve the heights of previous summers and thus have invited all of their main rivals to Croke Park with renewed hope in August.
Look strictly at the form guide for the last seven months. I came up with Kerry, Tyrone and Dublin and Mayo joint third. They have each played seven games (four and three). They all ended up in the top end of their league groups. They all looked decent in those leagues games. Mayo impressed– but in a lower division.
Dublin and Mayo have had championship games against teams who were either heading out of or into Division Two or lower divisions. Galway gave Mayo a fright. But I would asterix that because Mayo were extremely poor in the second quarter of that Connacht final in Croke Park.
So Saturday is the first acid test for both teams. Life in the Mayo dressing room is also a lot different than it was last December. They too have lost big servants and proven warriors: Keith Higgins, David Clarke, Donal Vaughan, Chris Barrett, Tom Parsons and Séamus O'Shea all bowed out.
Brendan Harrison, Jason Doherty and Cillian O'Connor are all on the long-term injured list. In other words, they lost half the team which played in recent All-Ireland finals. So how can Mayo, with all those body blows, return to this stage so quickly? You have to put it down to the emergence of youth. Young players bring a natural bounce to a dressing room. They have speed and enthusiasm and optimism. And when you have top-class young players, it can have a transformative effect.
What Mayo 2021 lack is All-Ireland experience. There is a reality to these Connacht championship wins. They are not critical to Mayo anymore. They are the ticket to ‘get a go’ at Dublin.
So when I sit down to analyse Mayo’s chances, I return to that second quarter against Galway. Turnovers and bad wides are a constant companion of Mayo teams who have lost big games in Croke Park. They are the reasons for major championship defeats. Their wide count against Galway was eight. That immediately compromises your chances of victory. Four to five would be the acceptable range for an elite team. A few of those Mayo wides were unacceptable. You have to score the ones you are expected to score. You can’t miss straight in front of goal or miss ‘gimme’ frees.
But the critical metric is the turnover. They are the source of many opposition scores. These careless turnovers – misplaced passes, technical fouls, coughing up a ball in possession– are damaging. Mayo had 16 such turnovers against Galway – 13 of which were in the attacking third of the field, three in the middle and zero in the defensive third. Dublin are skilled operators in transition. They murder teams on the turnover.
So Mayo must have completions in the attacking third. By that I mean they either kick a score or a wide. They don't cough the ball up. Or else they are in trouble. When you lose the ball and everyone is facing the opposition goal, you are scrambling to get back and out of structure and it is a highly dangerous scenario. There is no co-ordination or joined up thinking and players like Murchan and Howard and Scully will just take off and offer themselves as an outlet. This is an issue that James Horan and Mayo will need to have sorted by Saturday evening.
I think if Mayo tidy up both those areas they have a real shot. Otherwise it will be more of the same. These errors are ruinous because the consequences become higher. It can be a cycle that it is difficult to escape from. They managed to make that escape against Galway, responding to a disastrous second quarter with a thundering second-half demolition of their Connacht rivals.
But Galway are not at the level of the other teams left in this All-Ireland. If Mayo play on Saturday night as they did in the first half against Galway, they will be seven or eight points down and it will be lights out.
I do sense Mayo’s confidence levels are higher this year than in 2020. The gap has narrowed. There is no convincing evidence that Dublin are ready to gallop. Yet Mayo are not fully convincing either. In the absence of comprehensive evidence, I have to go with the championship team. Dublin get my nod. But it is a tentative nod and it will be no surprise if Mayo carry the day.
And I was reminded this week that you never go searching for perspective in Mayo in August. We walked the Kenagh Loop with the in-laws on Sunday. It is a beautiful walk, desolate and far away from everything, under the shadow of Nephin.
Croke Park seemed like a distant concern in that country. But back in Castlebar you could see the colours on the poles. And the local chat, the idle chat, was they may have a chance of beating Dublin. But they've no chance of beating Dublin and Kerry in the one fortnight!
It’s the old fatalism. Mayo can forget about Kerry – and Tyrone – for the time being. Against Dublin, they have engaged in the theorem of losing. The more often you lose to the same opponent, the closer you get to beating them. It’s a dangerous game to play.
Yet they do edge closer. It would be appropriate if Mayo was the team to finish this span of Dublin magnificence. Will that happen? Or will they inspire and provoke the championship team we know and fear to materialise at the vital hour?