By Graham Gillespie
It’s been two and a half weeks since Dublin had the euphoric high of beating arch-rivals Kerry in the semi-finals and nearly a month since Mayo’s competent but underwhelming victory over Tipperary. With such a long wait, both teams will no doubt be desperate for this week to end so they can do battle once more for Gaelic football’s biggest trophy on Sunday.
There has been a striking contrast between the two team’s paths to the final. Dublin have displayed some of their best football, not least when responding to Kerry’s late first half blitz to exert complete control in the second half of that game to win 0-22 to 2-14. Dublin’s have exhibited a clear ability to dominate possession and capitalise upon this dominance with Diarmuid Connolly’s all round dynamism, Dean Rock’s free taking and the revival of Kevin McManamon’s form over the last two games, and this is without even mentioning the other three Dublin forwards who have nine all-stars between them. Further back the field potential player of the year candidate Brian Fenton has been consistently brilliant regardless of his midfield partner and the half back line also offers significant offensive threat with sweeper Cian O’Sullivan dictating defensive duties.
Mayo on the other hand have not put together a convincing attacking spell in a match for longer than twenty minutes. Despite this they did put in a solid defensive display against Tyrone in the quarter finals and there has been small signs of improvement under new manager Stephen Rochford throughout the season. There is also the school of thought that Mayo’s one big performance could come at the right time this year with them having perhaps peaked too early in the past. Kevin McLoughlin’s role as sweeper has been one of the most divisive Mayo discussion points and while this has had some positives going forward, he has shown defensive frailties. Rochford played Barry Moran in the sweeper role instead against Tipperary but it is unlikely he will stay on against Dublin due to Jim Gavin’s men pace and energy. A lot for Mayo will come down to whether their key players perform on the day namely McLoughlin, Cillian O’Connor, Aidan O’Shea, Lee Keegan, and Keith Higgins, who has returned to playing in the backs after an ill-fated spell at wing forward. 32 year old Andy Moran could also prove crucial with him rolling back the years with his ceaseless movement in the full-forward line. Also Mayo, being a much younger team than Kerry, should in theory be able to stay with Dublin for longer fitness-wise.
Match-ups will be vital in this game none more so than the reunion of Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly, who comes out on top in this clash could be pivotal in the outcome of the game. Connolly may need to be also mindful of his defensive duties against Keegan who may be given license to attack. Similarly Dublin’s half backs John Small and James McCarthy will be looking to pin back to Diarmuid O’Connor and co. It might well be the case that the two half-back lines will dictate who wins this game.
Whilst ultimately losing by two points Kerry did prove that this Dublin team is vulnerable and has flaws that Mayo could also be in a decent position to exploit. The defending champions’ full back line at times looked shaky particularly under high balls into Donaghy and O’Sullivan. All of Paul Geaney’s points came from claimed high balls by his team mates who laid the ball back to Geaney who shot extremely quickly and accurately on site. Indeed Geaney’s goal also came from a high ball into the square. Mayo could easily replicate this by using Aidan O’Shea in the forwards to win high ball with both Cillian O’Connor and Evan Regan (despite not starting the last two games) being excellent candidates for the Geaney role.
Dublin can also become complacent and throw away big leads at times like the 10 point swing against Kerry before half-time or when they lost a seven point advantage against Mayo in the last ten minutes to draw in the first semi-final last year. On both these occasions Dublin’s frailties were exposed by targeting Stephen Cluxton, but it may be harder for Mayo this time around with the surprise element of targeting the Dublin goalkeeper gone and it seems unlikely that a goalkeeper of his standard will make three or four mistakes in a row again like he did in the semi-final. Furthermore, if he performs well Cluxton’s kicking could cause severe damage to Mayo if they push up and Cluxton finds space further down the field.
As Mayo once again try to force their way over the line for the first time in 65 years and this Dublin side look to defend their crown, this game will have a huge effect on both teams’ reputation. Whoever comes out on top on Sunday in Croke Park will certainly have cemented their legacy in their county’s history.