Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more . . .
Mayo step into battle on All-Ireland final day looking to bring an end to years of devastation
THERE are five kinds of great All-Ireland final. There’s the Pivotal Final when the course of GAA history changes. Kerry’s 1978 victory over a three-in-a-row seeking Dublin, which set the stage for almost a decade of Kingdom dominance, is one example. The 2006 hurling final when a Cork-coloured future turned into a Kilkenny-shaped one is another.
There’s the Coronation Final when a side confirms itself as one of the finest of all-time, like Kerry did when making it four in a row against Offaly in 1981 and Kilkenny did when attaining the same milestone against Tipperary in 2009.
Most satisfying of all is the Emotional Final when a county either bridges an enormous gap like Clare hurlers ending an 81-year famine in 1995 or breaks through for the first time, like Derry in 1993 or Armagh in 2002.
You have the Upset Final when teams like Donegal in 1992 or Offaly in 1982 make nonsense of the pre-match predictions.
And the Thriller Final where the most significant thing about the match is how exciting it is, like last year’s hurling final and the 2005 football duel between Tyrone and Kerry.
Perhaps the greatest finals of all come when the categories overlap. Kilkenny’s 2009 win was a Coronation and a Thriller, Armagh’s breakthrough was an Upset and Emotional, Donegal’s win against Dublin was Emotional, an Upset and a Thriller. What makes today’s football final one of the most intriguing in history is that it also has the potential to embrace different kinds of greatness.
For starters it’s guaranteed to be Pivotal. A Dublin win today will almost certainly herald a period of Mick O’Dwyer era Kerry-style dominance. That’s because they seem to have managed the difficult feat of engineering a transition without any drop in performance. The team which began the All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone had just nine survivors from the team which started the drawn All-Ireland final against Mayo last year. That’s some turnover in just 12 months.
Dublin have also changed their style of play, eschewing the direct style of the early Gavin era for a more deliberate, short-passing approach. The team’s key players are different too. In just a couple of years the side of Rory O’Carroll, Michael Darragh Macauley, Paul Flynn, Bernard Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly has become the team of Philly McMahon, Brian Fenton, Ciaran Kilkenny, Dean Rock and Con O’Callaghan. If they can do all this and still win the All-Ireland, there seems little chance of their rivals competing when the new team has fully taken shape.
A Mayo win on the other hand would dynamite the notion of Dublin invincibility, inexorability and inevitability, perhaps for good.
A Dublin victory will make this a Coronation Final. The aura attached to three-in-a-rows stems from their extreme rareness. In the last 50 years only Kerry (1978-1981 and 1984-1986) have managed a hat-trick. The Kingdom fell short in the 2008 final against Tyrone and 30 years earlier stopped Dublin completing one. Great Meath and Cork teams were ambushed in their provincial championship. Dublin might make it look easy at times but they’re trying to do something very difficult today.
A Mayo victory will make this the Emotional Final to beat all Emotional Finals. The 66-year gap may not be as great as that bridged by Clare in 1995 and Mayo wouldn’t be making history in the same way that Donegal, Derry and Armagh did. Yet their win would surpass all others in terms of overcoming past disappointment. Mayo have lost eight All-Ireland finals since winning their last. This year’s elongated campaign has almost seemed like a microcosm of the emotionally wrenching journey the Mayo fans have been through in recent times. Should it end with a win, it might be the most remarkable championship story of them all.
It would also make today one of the biggest Upset Finals of them all. Considering that Mayo brought Dublin to a replay and ran them to a point in that last year, they’ve been written off to a remarkable degree this time around. Dublin are considerably shorter odds (13/8) to win today’s and next year’s finals than Mayo (3/1) are to win this year’s. There is almost general agreement that the Dubs have taken things to the fabled ‘next level’ this year.
Will it be a Thriller Final? Under Jim Gavin, Dublin’s attack-first policy gives the opposition a chance: Kildare’s score against them in this year’s Leinster decider was the biggest by a losing team in the 70-minute era. And it’s been shown that focusing on defence against the champions, as Tyrone and Monaghan did, is a suicidal strategy. Add in the fact that ever since their quarter-final draw against Roscommon, Mayo’s performances have displayed a brave determination to put the opposition on the back foot from the word go and the omens are very good.
We could do with a good final; there have been close ones in recent years but you probably have to go back to 2005 and the Kerry-Tyrone classic for the last time two-top class teams both hit the heights on the big day.
If that’s encouraging, so is the fact that a victory for either team should gladden the neutral heart. Most of those neutrals will be rooting for Mayo simply because the Connacht side have endured more than their fair share of final heartbreak and the Irish always have a grá for the underdog. There would be no more popular champions.
Yet Dublin would also deserve victory. Just three years ago a surpassingly dreary final between Kerry and Donegal seemed to confirm that Gaelic football was, as the pundits had predicted, heading towards ever greater negativity. Gavin has turned that idea on its head. Instead of a system where every player is a defender, he’s created one where every player is an attacker. Dublin’s destruction of Tyrone was also a destruction of the blanket defence concept, a kind of football version of the apocryphal meeting of German tanks with Polish cavalry in 1939.
Today’s outcome hinges on the answers to the big questions of this year’s championship.
How much has the excitement of Mayo’s campaign been due to their own shortcomings?
Can a team beaten by Galway and run so close by Derry, Cork and Roscommon really be good enough to win an All-Ireland?
Does Mayo’s ability to get out of so many tight corners show that this time they can edge a close finish against the Dubs?
Are Dublin really as good as they looked against Tyrone?
Or does the feebleness of their previous opposition leave them utterly unprepared for a big challenge on the biggest day of all?
Will it be the oldest player on the field, Andy Moran, or the youngest, Con O’Callaghan, who ends up as attacking player of the year?
Will it be Pivotal, Coronation, Emotional, Upset or Thriller?
Will it be great?
I think it will. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy afternoon.
Mayo have been written off to a remarkable degree