HOLD YOUR BREATH ONE MORE TIME...
Champions primed to complete historic three-in-a-row
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.
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.
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