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Malachy Clerkin: Regrets, the rest will have a few - but this is Mayo and Tyrone’s week

All-Ireland finalists have flaws and it could mean an enthralling, Dublin-free showpiece

This All-Ireland football will conjure up strange new sensations beyond the walls of Croke Park. Imagine the pinging and dinging of all those inter-county panel WhatsApp groups on Saturday evening. Imagine what they’ll be saying and thinking. Could have been us, lads. Should have been us.

How many teams will be watching Mayo and Tyrone walk around in the parade and shaking their heads, full sure that they'd fancy themselves against either one of them. There's at least two, probably three in Ulster alone. You could spend a day trying to convince them that Tyrone are better than them and not make them believe it.

Scattered around the country, anything up to 150 footballers will be watching the All-Ireland final with the nagging feeling that they shouldn't be watching the All-Ireland final

Galway have to be looking at Mayo and thinking they’re not that far away, even after two miserable seasons in a row. Dublin and Kerry’s thoughts on the matter would be obvious and unprintable. Scattered around the country, anything up to 150 footballers will be watching the All-Ireland final with the nagging feeling that they shouldn’t be watching the All-Ireland final.

It has been a long, long time since that was the case. At no stage during the Dubs’ run to six-in-a-row were they ever considered anything but the heaviest favourites for the All-Ireland. Nobody on the outside ever watched a Jim Gavin-era Dublin final and imagined they were taking up their spot. More to the point, you couldn’t always be sure the team that was actually lining up down the red carpet from them really believed they were worth their place.


In 2014, Mayo and Dublin watched the final kicking themselves for allowing Kerry and Donegal to best them in those epic semi-finals but nobody beyond the final four thought they had left a big chance behind them. Even in 2012, the novel pairing of Donegal and Mayo didn’t brook a lot of argument. The Dubs looked Coppersed from early on that year and both Kerry and Cork threw everything at Donegal and still came up short.

Envious glances

So you probably have to go back to 2010 for the last time an All-Ireland final threw in to so many envious glances from afar, so many regrets and what could-have-beens. Cork and Down made the final that year after semi-finals against Dublin and Kildare that went right to the wire. Kerry and Tyrone went into the quarter-finals as first and second favourites and were swept away on a weekend of high drama.

It gives this final an undeniable extra frisson. The football championship has been such a gulag sentence for most counties for so long now that it had become difficult to imagine something like this coming around again. And definitely not this quickly.

Dublin won last year’s All-Ireland with such comfort and ease that we were taking bets through the final as to whether their subs’ bench would actually cheer at the final whistle, given that they were the only panel in the country that hadn’t made a noise throughout the winter. You didn’t need Croke Park to be empty to feel like they had turned the whole championship into a wasteland.

But now, not only are they kicking their heels for the first final since 2014, so too are their presumed successors. After the 2019 final and replay, it felt like Dublin and Kerry were set fair to play out their own Super League over the coming decade, swapping Sam Maguire between them as the mood took them.

By far the worst aspect of Dublin’s dominance was the fact that it made the rest of us root for Kerry - Kerry! - to come along and dethrone them. Decades of cowering under the green and gold iron fist and now suddenly they were our only hope. Who are ye up for, lads - will it be Richard Branson or Elon Musk?

And that may well still be the case, of course. It is more likely than unlikely that Dublin and Kerry will go away and work out their kinks and come back next year in better fettle. They both have changes to make but they both operate in a realm where those changes are not just possible but will be deemed to be non-negotiable.

Real flaws

Here and now though, it is Mayo’s week and it is Tyrone’s week. Two teams who have made it to the All-Ireland despite carrying some real flaws in their knapsacks with them. For years you would sit in Croke Park an hour before the All-Ireland final and fine-tooth comb the Dublin page in the match programme looking for weaknesses before throwing your hands in the air and giving up. That’s not going to be the case on Saturday.

Both teams have obvious deficiencies. Mayo haven’t turned up in either of the first halves of their last two games in Croke Park. They were able to paper over the crack of missing Cillian O’Connor all the way through Connacht but for all of Ryan O’Donoghue’s moxie, his free-taking began to creak at just the wrong time against Dublin. Aidan O’Shea had the worst game of his life in the semi-final and now, at the age of 31, they have to work out what to do with him all over again.

Tyrone are no dead cert either. Much like Mayo, they put in a half of truly hapless football in the Ulster final against a Monaghan team who didn’t do anything more sophisticated than push up on them and wire into them. Their starting forwards attempted just one shot from play in the first half against Kerry - a Darren McCurry effort that was blocked down. Their kick-out is mercurial, to say the least.

After years of wondering would anyone ever find a hole in the Death Star, we’re heading into a final where neither team is close to being the finished product. There will be lots of mistakes, plenty of turnovers, handling errors to beat the band. There will, you’d imagine, be a distinct lack of polish to it all. An understandable absence of the studious do-the-right-thing excellence of the Dublin years.

To which the only sane response is: Hallelujah. Can’t wait.