HOLD YOUR BREATH ONE MORE TIME...

Cham­pi­ons primed to com­plete his­toric three-in-a-row

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Seán Mo­ran

For all the fa­mil­iar­ity of the fi­nal­ists, Sun­day’s All-Ire­land foot­ball fi­nal breaks gen­uinely un­usual ground. There hasn’t been such a sus­tained ri­valry as Dublin and Mayo have struck up in nearly 30 years. Mayo can bridge a gap of 66 years by win­ning the ti­tle whereas Dublin haven’t won three-in-a-row since the 1923 sea­son.

As ever it comes down to a match and although the stakes are high there haven’t been too many at­ten­dant co­nun­drums, such as ag­o­nis­ing se­lec­tion de­ci­sions to be made.

Diarmuid Con­nolly looked like he wasn’t go­ing to start as soon as it be­came clear that his come­back match in the semi-fi­nal wouldn’t yield more than a few min­utes. There has been ru­mour that Paul Flynn might start in place of Niall Scully but Flynn has done well off the bench so the idea may be to keep him there.

Equally, for all the fa­mil­iar­ity, this is not an easy match to call. Of course five cham­pi­onship matches in the past four years tell us some­thing but both teams have been dif­fer­ent quan­ti­ties so far this sum­mer.

Ei­ther Mayo have timed their run per­fectly af­ter a dis­mal first half of the sea­son or Dublin have sim­ply stepped up to a higher plateau.

Ei­ther Mayo’s progress has been ex­ag­ger­ated by unim­pres­sive op­po­si­tion or Dublin have been flat­ter­ing to de­ceive in a se­quence of matches, none of which re­motely tested them.

The shadow that falls over the cham­pi­ons is that of 2014 when they were sim­i­larly ac­claimed as un­beat­able un­til they let Done­gal off the hook and ended up get­ting eaten by them.

Mayo’s dif­fi­cul­ties have tra­di­tion­ally been a fail­ure to put away Dublin when they had the op­por­tu­ni­ties. Last year chances were squan­dered to build a sig­nif­i­cant early lead – even al­low­ing for the plague of own goals break­ing out – and in the 2013 fi­nal, they could have been out of sight by half-time but in­stead had racked up seven wides.

There’s no doubt that the semi-fi­nal de­feat of Kerry was a mas­sive vin­di­ca­tion for the team and their clear-eyed man­age­ment of the fi­nal min­utes of the drawn match al­lowed them to sur­vive – even if re­ly­ing on Bryan Shee­han to miss a 55-me­tre free wouldn’t al­ways have worked out well.

Over two matches they were clearly the bet­ter team and their ac­cu­racy was far bet­ter in the re­play but in the con­text of a match where the op­po­si­tion’s de­ci­sion to go de­fen­sive didn’t re­ally im­prove se­cu­rity – it just led to more foul­ing and Cil­lian O’Con­nor, who had just one kick­able free in the first half of the drawn match, put five on the board be­fore the break on day two – and com­pletely ham­strung the at­tack.

Dublin will be a far more or­gan­ised de­fen­sive unit both sys­tem­i­cally and in­di­vid­u­ally.

Phys­i­cal pres­sure

Mayo do have the ca­pac­ity to put phys­i­cal pres­sure on the cham­pi­ons and that will be a start but it won’t be as easy to get free for the sort of scores with which Andy Mo­ran was fill­ing his boots.

There were also good dis­plays from Cil­lian O’Con­nor and Ja­son Do­herty over the two Kerry matches and the lat­ter has been hav­ing a very good year.

Ai­dan O’Shea will pre­sum­ably re­stored to cen­tre for­ward for some of the match and his power will cre­ate prob­lems but can it cre­ate the sort of open­ings that yawned wide in the semi-fi­nals?

There is a sug­ges­tion that he could do time on the edge of the square as a hope­ful punt that there are some bod­ies buried in the Dublin full-back line.

This is based on the only goal con­ceded by the cham­pi­ons so far – a drop­ping ball in the dy­ing min­utes with Michael Fitzsi­mons pos­si­bly dis­tracted by the glare of the sun and prob­a­bly obliv­i­ous to Paddy Bro­phy’s lurk­ing pres­ence – and the penalty rather gra­tu­itously given away by Philip McMa­hon in the dy­ing min­utes of the Ty­rone semi-fi­nal.

Fitzsi­mons though was Man of the Match in last year’s fi­nal against the same full-for­ward line and McMa­hon is an All Star. Are they likely to be a care­less when the fi­nal is in the bal­ance?

The Dublin de­fence is set up to cope with high ball and it’s been a while since that ap­proach paid out much. Mayo will ar­gue that had Ai­dan O’Shea been bet­ter re­sourced in the 2015 semi-fi­nals the tac­tic might have worked but it doesn’t ap­pear to be much more than a Plan B or C.

With the strength of Séamie O’Shea and Tom Par­sons up against the pace and nim­ble­ness of Brian Fen­ton and the ex­cel­lent James McCarthy, cen­tre­field is well bal­anced un­til it be­comes a bat­tery test but Dublin have had greater is­sue with more or­tho­dox play­ers, like Kil­dare’s Kevin Feely in Le­in­ster and Kerry’s David Mo­ran and Jack Barry in the league.

De­fen­sive sys­tems

Tac­ti­cally Gavin’s team can play de­fen­sive sys­tems in their sleep and Mayo’s bet­ter prospects lie in go­ing all out – press­ing the Clux­ton kick-out, as Ty­rone briefly but pro­duc­tively did in the early min­utes of the sec­ond half – gear­ing to­wards at­tack.

The cham­pi­ons’ most com­pet­i­tive mo­ments so far were early in the Le­in­ster fi­nal when Kil­dare went man on man but failed to take the chances they cre­ated and then got sloppy at the back.

The lat­ter won’t be Mayo’s prob­lem. The team’s de­fence is ac­com­plished and ver­sa­tile with four of the back seven All Stars.

They will also have their work cut out, as Dublin bring two new as­sets to the ta­ble this year: Jack McCaf­frey, scorch­ing the earth from wing back, and Con O’Cal­laghan hav­ing a dream rookie year, sym­bol­ised by danc­ing through a blan­ket de­fence and stick­ing the ball in the Ty­rone net be­fore the ap­prov­ing gaze of the Hill. There is a caveat. Four years ago, McCaf­frey, Paul Man­nion and Ciarán Kilkenny – the lat­ter two now in their pomp – were also young and gifted but none of them made an im­pact on the fi­nal. There’s some­thing how­ever about O’Cal­laghan’s work rate and ‘next ball’ men­tal­ity that says a re­peat of that is un­likely.

The cham­pi­ons also timed their run bet­ter than last year and look to be hit­ting peak form at the right time, which hasn’t al­ways been their ex­pe­ri­ence in fi­nals.

There is ev­i­dence that both teams have moved on from 12 months ago. This comes down to opin­ion but if the choice is between which team has made the more plau­si­ble strides, the an­swer is Dublin.

The cham­pi­ons look to be hit­ting peak form at the right time

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