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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - EA­MONN SWEENEY

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

Photo: Sam Barnes

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