So yeah, we know. We’ve been here before. 10 times in fact, in the last 30 years. We know what’s going to happen. The curses, the priests, the songs… Mayo in All-Ireland finals. Leave it out mate, that joke isn’t funny anymore.
So it’s arrived again and just like last year, the same two teams are in it. To be honest, I’m glad. In contrast to the Hurling final, which needed a bit of a shakeup, this is probably one of only a couple of footballing finals that would really stir the blood. Certainly, you wouldn’t want a repeat viewing of what Dublin and Tyrone produced a few weeks ago. And you definitely would want, considering the number of thrillers they’ve been involved in in recent years, Mayo competing in the All-Ireland final. They are one of, if not the only county, capable of giving Dublin a game, and they do it in the most entertaining way possible. God bless Mayo. I mean, without them, is it really a football championship at all?
Whatever about the quality of the drawn game, if nothing else, last year’s two clashes were exceptionally good fun. Inevitably, as is the case with the green and red, there was drama. Those 2 own goals the first day. That crazy goalkeeper switch and mistake the second. Cillian O’Connor’s late missed free. With Mayo, drama is inevitable, almost as inevitable in fact, as the other side emerging victorious. And considering the Dubs are 1/3 on with the bookies for this weekend, a defeat appears just as predictable this time.
But is it really as clear-cut as that? Sean Cavanagh made a point this week that Dublin were capable of beating Mayo at 80%. http://www.hoganstand.com/ArticleForm.aspx?ID=275587&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter Which suggests they are a good 20% better than their adversaries. Well, I don’t know how good Sean’s maths are, but if he’s watched the last 4 championship games between the sides, I can’t understand how he’s formed that judgement.
In the last 2 championships that Dublin have won, their hardest fixture, without question, was against Mayo. They drew against them in 2015 and 2016. They beat them by one point in the replay last year, thanks to a number of goalkeeping errors and a late missed free. They were victorious by 7 points in 2015, but that was partly due to that “sliding doors” moment in the second half when Lee Keegan should have pointed but didn’t and Dublin got 2 quickfire goals in succession shortly afterwards. Four years ago, Dublin beat Mayo by a point in the final. Five years ago, Mayo beat Dublin in the semi-final. So, the only way that Sean Cavanagh can deduce that Dublin are 20% better than Mayo, is to deem that they have improved by that much this year.
But are Dublin that much better than last year? Well statistically, yes. Looking at their scoring and concession rates compared to 12 months ago, their average winning margin is 14.8 points this season compared to a “mere” 8.6 last year. Even leaving out the Westmeath obliteration, they have racked up a highly respectable average of 23 points per game. They’re conceding less than last year (12 points compared to 14). But then again none of those teams they faced, even Tyrone, have caused Dublin the same problems that this Mayo side have. So, if we are to really know if Dublin are better than last year, they have to prove it on Sunday.
There’s no point really asking if Mayo are better than last year, because in a sense you never quite know. Coming into the 2016 final, they were probably even bigger outsiders than they are now. They had arrived at the final through the back door, and had beaten Tipperary unconvincingly in the semi-final. Yet they were only beaten, barely, after 140 frenzied minutes. This year, they’ve performed the same trick except they overcame Kerry, for the first time in 21 years, in the last 4. Now you can dismiss that Kerry side as much as you want, but it was still a significant milestone for this side. So there’s no question that Mayo are among the top 2 sides in the country and will be confident, and dare we say it, due an upset.
But the question is “How do you beat the Dubs?” Well, the blanket defence has been the de facto method of trying to contain them over the last few years. But if the Tyrone game proved anything it’s that that method of combat against this side is worthless. Their forwards are too potent, and too intelligent to be restricted by such a game-plan.
The only way, therefore to really challenge Dublin is to attack them. And this is where Mayo come in. Because if there’s one thing they have been willing to do over the past 5 years in the championship it’s take them on up front. Now the accusation has always been levelled, and probably will be if they don’t win on Sunday, that they don’t have the “Marquee forwards” to win it. But is that still a theory that holds weight?
Andy Moran scored a goal against Dublin in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final, but he’s probably playing the best football of his career this season. He’s got goals in his last 3 games, and has been averaging 3 points a game this year. Cillian O’Connor has been averaging 5 points from frees meanwhile and 3 points from play. Jason Doherty has been having his best season ever. Kevin McLoughlin has been revitalized by a return to the forwards. Not only that but you’ve got guys like Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle who are adept at coming from deep to finish chances. So, for sure, Mayo can score enough to win this game.
And then there’s the X factor of Aidan O’Shea. We thought we knew him before the All-Ireland semi-final, but we didn’t ever think he was going to turn into a modern-day Mick Lyons. But he did so, and quite competently too. Now, there’s absolutely no knowing where he will turn up on Sunday and what he will do. Maybe Mayo will throw him in full forward and bombard the Dublin full back line with high balls. It might not be a bad idea to do so. But if we don’t know where Aidan will be stationed this Sunday, what we do know is that last year he didn’t win an All-Star and this year, bar a catastrophic final, he seems certain to do so. And an improved Aidan O’Shea may be just the difference that takes Mayo over the line.
Now of course, there’s plenty to be wary of. If this All-Ireland turns into a battle of subs, then there’s no question that Dublin will win it. Imagine having Diarmuid Connolly (if he doesn’t start) to come on? Or Paul Flynn? Or Bernard Brogan? In a way, the idea of them being introduced in the last 20 minutes against tiring bodies is more terrifying than the prospect of them starting. But if Mayo keep all of their main men on the pitch for the whole game there’s enough in their first 15 to overcome the obstacle.
So, yes, if we are going to go by cruel hard logic then this is Dublin’s coronation as one of the greatest football teams of all time. But, just for argument sake, what would happen on Sunday if Mayo’s keeper didn’t make a blunder? What if Cillian O’Connor points his frees and they convert their goal chances? What if there isn’t a mass brawl and their best player doesn’t get sent off? Or they don’t score two own goals? What if those two guys from the 1951 team died of natural causes over the next couple of days? Not that we want them too…obviously…but….if they did? What if, for once in September, the gods shined on Mayo?
Now perhaps, as they’ve proved in the last 4 championships, Dublin are just a better side. They are without doubt one of the greatest teams ever and they will be determined to prove that again come Sunday. But maybe, just maybe…Sam McGuire’s coming home to Mayo? Call me an old romantic if you will. Or maybe just an idiot. But I still have faith.
PREDICTION: Mayo by 1