O’ROURKE

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - COLM O’ROURKE

THE Fly­ing Dutch­man is a mythical ship that sails the seas end­lessly and never makes port. Mayo play­ers and sup­port­ers know the feel­ing but there are plenty of lights out west which would guide the Dutch­man home to a safe har­bour, and the closer we come to the game, there seems in­creas­ing con­fi­dence that the beacon is be­com­ing stronger. If it took Mayo vol­un­teers to shine that light then tens of thou­sands of sup­port­ers would gladly stand for hours on end with flam­ing turf on pitch­forks.

That is the sort of raw emo­tion that Mayo bring to to­day’s game. An un­sat­is­fied hunger. No­body out­side of Mayo could ever un­der­stand how im­por­tant their foot­ball team is to how they view them­selves as a peo­ple. Dublin are a much more cold, clin­i­cal out­fit on the ter­race as well as on the field. For the Dubs there is an All-Ire­land to be won so they just for­get ev­ery­thing else and fo­cus on the game. That is why the team is so bril­liant. There are no dis­trac­tions, no his­tory, no sob sto­ries, just a game.

In the semi-fi­nal, it was ob­vi­ous that Ty­rone’s whole method of play was an­a­lysed by Dublin, bro­ken down into small parts and then smashed. Yet there is noth­ing more dis­con­cert­ing for a team than when the op­po­si­tion seem to pay them lit­tle re­gard on the field. The Dubs get on with the game, al­most obliv­i­ous to their op­po­nents, the ref­eree or the con­di­tions. It height­ens their sense of con­fi­dence but in many ways it is easy to have con­fi­dence when you have the best play­ers who thrive on hard work and hon­esty.

For some like Brian Fen­ton, who has never lost on a Dublin team in cham­pi­onship foot­ball, it must seem that he has caught a train that never stops. The Dubs are proven in play­ing foot­ball of a dif­fer­ent kind than any­one else and Mayo are the only ones to nearly match them for the last num­ber of years.

Many peo­ple think Mayo must pro­duce some­thing dif­fer­ent to win to­day. I think ex­actly the op­po­site. They should do the same as in last year’s drawn fi­nal and the re­played semi-fi­nal against Kerry. In other words, just out­play Dublin by re­ally go­ing at them with­out any fear. There is no chance of vic­tory and glory by back­ing off and try­ing to play safe all the time. For­tune favours the brave. They have the men to do it too. Is there bet­ter than Keith Hig­gins, Colm Boyle, Paddy Dur­can, Andy Mo­ran, the O’Sheas, the O’Con­nors, Tom Par­sons — and the rest are no slouches ei­ther. Put that group up against Jonny Cooper, Philly McMa­hon, Cian O’Sul­li­van, Fen­ton, Dean Rock, Jack McCaf­frey, James McCarthy, Con O’Cal­laghan and Paul Man­nion and there is no ap­pre­cia­ble ad­van­tage to Dublin.

How­ever, the cham­pi­ons have some aces. Long ago the goal­keeper did noth­ing more than get the ball for the full-back to kick out and hope­fully not al­low in any howlers. Now he is the most im­por­tant player on the team. At least in the case of Stephen Clux­ton. There are few revo­lu­tion­ar­ies in any game but Clux­ton is cer­tainly one and if Mayo are able to win half of his kick-outs they should also win the game. The con­text of this is that no team this year has won even 20 per cent of his kick-outs.

Ev­ery­one will say ‘push up’. It is eas­ier said than done with Clux­ton be­cause he is able to kick ac­cu­rately long as well as short. So Mayo have to be care­ful that by push­ing up hard they don’t leave a huge space be­hind mid­field. There will be times, maybe a lot of times, when Mayo cut their losses and al­low a short kick-out, but they must have worked on this and have the sig­nals clearly un­der­stood. A half-baked ver­sion of try­ing to force Clux­ton to kick long will back­fire. When Mayo have a close-in free it gives ev­ery­body a chance to get or­gan­ised and this should be a time when Clux­ton has to kick long.

Yet Clux­ton is not the Pope and is not there­fore in­fal­li­ble, and a sign of the ebb and flow of every game is the restart. If Mayo force the Dublin goal­keeper into mis­takes it will trans­fer around the pitch and on to the sup­port­ers. Mayo sup­port­ers will treat a Clux­ton turnover like a score. He is that im­por­tant.

At the other end, David Clarke is not as long or as ac­cu­rate and plays a bit of Rus­sian roulette with his kick-outs, but they gen­er­ally find their bil­let. Dublin will put huge pres­sure on Clarke and he might be bet­ter off just kick­ing long at the be­gin­ning, pre­sum­ing Ai­dan O’Shea will be around mid­field. With him, his brother Sea­mus and Par­sons, Mayo should have no wor­ries about win­ning high or low ball.

Ai­dan O’Shea is not go­ing to be full­back this time so it does pose a dilemma for Mayo. If they play Dur­can from the start they have a lot of at­tack­ing de­fend­ers, but it re­duces the im­pact of their bench. They are short a full-back who is good in the air and they need one more out-and-out marker. Dublin will not be afraid to throw in a few high balls to test out that full-back line as there is size about their for­wards and they are all able to win their own ball.

O’Cal­laghan seems to thrive on big days but he will have an off day at some stage and the Mayo de­fence is more ruth­less than all oth­ers. Man­nion has been very im­pres­sive this year and it will suit Mayo if Ciaran Kilkenny re­duces the pace of the game. The other thing that Mayo must not do is to give away frees, they must be fe­ro­cious in go­ing for the ball but very dis­ci­plined when Dublin for­wards are in pos­ses­sion.

Nat­u­rally, there is a lot of talk about the psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age to Mayo af­ter los­ing so many fi­nals. I played in five los­ing cham­pi­onship fi­nals with my club Skryne be­fore win­ning one. This is no dif­fer­ent. A county fi­nal is as big as an All-Ire­land and I did not lie in bed for years af­ter­wards wrestling with thoughts of fail­ure. Of course it grates but Mayo are be­yond any sort of scar­ring. De­feat has tough­ened them, crit­i­cism has formed a ring of steel around them and they have be­come im­per­vi­ous to back-handed com­pli­ments or in­sults. They are a team who are com­fort­able in their own skins.

Mayo are as good as Dublin in most re­gards but there is cer­tainly one glar­ing dif­fer­ence: Dublin can pick a team to fin­ish which can be ap­pre­cia­bly dif­fer­ent to the one which starts and just as good. Mayo have no such lux­ury. The main men on the pumps won’t be able to take a tea break to­day but if Kevin McMana­mon, Bernard Bro­gan and Diarmuid Connolly ap­pear the Mayo backs will need to be su­per­men to con­tain the fresh chal­lenge. Mayo need to be ahead at the hour mark so that the Dublin subs are not com­ing on for a lap of hon­our. They have to be un­der pres­sure to ac­tu­ally win the game and there is a mas­sive dif­fer­ence be­tween com­ing on when your team are four down in­stead of four up.

For most of the last few years I have favoured Mayo to win most of the big games in Croke Park. That was al­ways un­til they met Dublin. It was not borne out of sym­pa­thy for past losses but ad­mi­ra­tion for all the great qual­i­ties of the hu­man spirit which they seem to bring to every game: brav­ery, man­li­ness and great foot­ballers. Then along come Dublin with the same qual­i­ties and then some. Even more play­ers of qual­ity.

It is easy to like Dublin with the sort of panache, with­out ego, that they bring to the game. Speed, ath­leti­cism and sheer skill. So while the neu­tral may wish for a Mayo win there should also be grat­i­tude to­wards Dublin for sav­ing foot­ball from be­com­ing an ab­so­lute bore by play­ing with a bit of va va voom.

This will be a feisty af­fair and there will be plenty of ac­tion be­fore it starts and there will surely be a few yel­low cards and prob­a­bly some red too. You can for­get the black ones as that is in the lap of the gods.

Mayo spiked Dublin’s big guns twice last year and are quite ca­pa­ble of do­ing it again. Could they get one re­ally big day out of Ai­dan O’Shea which might be enough to tilt the bal­ance? Or an­other match with Andy Mo­ran as the star? Is it wish­ful think­ing? The cer­tain­ties are that Dublin will play their own game in their own way at their own speed. With the help of their bench it should be enough to win and keep the Fly­ing Dutch­man at sea.

Crit­i­cism has formed a ring of steel around Mayo

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