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exclusive Mayo are not scared of Dublin and they’re not scared of losing...they'll never have a better chance

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Dublin's James McCarthy thrives on the big-game atmosphere

Dublin's James McCarthy thrives on the big-game atmosphere

Dublin's James McCarthy thrives on the big-game atmosphere

THEY say if you live long enough you’ll see everything.

On Saturday, we’ve an All-Ireland final in an empty Croke Park the week before Christmas.

So that checks that one off the list.

We may not see how this actually manifests itself but these surreal conditions have to have some effect on at least some of the players involved.

It’s inevitable.

Any time we prepared for an All-Ireland final when I played, we’d make sure every session we did beforehand prepared us for every element of the day itself.

Not just the opposition, but the occasion. The unique things you experience on the day of an All-Ireland final.

The music coming out of the tunnel. The parade around the pitch. Meeting the ‘President’, an acting role played expertly by one of the members of our management team.

Those mini ceremonies can seem like they last forever when you’re mad for road and they have the potential to drain some of your energy if you’re not properly tuned in, so some fellas would use that time to go through some mental preparations or triggers.

And the crowd too.

More or less, you don’t hear the fans when you’re playing. Or at least, the noise doesn’t really register with you.

But you can definitely feel the energy.

If Dublin get a press on an opposition kick-out, the clamour of the fans can suffocate a goalkeeper into another mistake.

If things are going badly for Dublin, Hill 16 can emit this hum of nervous tension. It doesn’t matter what zone you think you’re in, you can feel that on the pitch.

Take a fella like James McCarthy. He thrives off that sort of stuff.

Most players are so focused on the microscopic elements of performance that you could have a stadium full of farm animals and they wouldn’t notice.

But James is the sort of fella who actually rises with the atmosphere of those games.

So yes, it’s going to be weird.

I saw James Horan speak about taking “calculated risks” on Saturday and if there was ever a good summation of the best way to go after Dublin now, that’s it.

Most teams these days play in such a way that makes it virtually impossible to beat Dublin. They’re overly cautious. Too adverse to taking risks.

Going all out, blazing guns, blitzing everything and hoping to overwhelm Dublin isn’t going to work either.

One will inevitably lead to a slow and painful death. The latter, a quick but brutal execution.

Finding the balance is the key.

And the reason I’d give Mayo a strong chance on Saturday is because basically, that sliver of middle ground is where they naturally play.

People have huge admiration for this Mayo team because of their character, how resilient they are, how they have responded to so many horrible defeats.

But what stands out for me is the consistency in the way they play.

The first thing to say about Mayo is they’re a very brave football team. That might sound patronising, but it’s not at all.

They play without fear of losing. They stick to the Mayo way and instead of trying to reinvent themselves every time they get knocked back, they regroup and just try and improve.

They’re welded to their principles.

Since James Horan was first around, they’ve had three changes of management.

Yet they’ve always stayed true to their style, tweaking and adjusting and trusting themselves rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water.

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Mayo's Diarmuid O'Connor scores his side's fourth goal against Tipperary

Mayo's Diarmuid O'Connor scores his side's fourth goal against Tipperary

SPORTSFILE

Mayo's Diarmuid O'Connor scores his side's fourth goal against Tipperary

That’s reflected in the number of All-Ireland finals and semi-finals they’ve been in over the last decade.

And bar last year, in the number of times they’ve taken Dublin to the wire.

No, they haven’t managed to close out any of those games but they’ve always forced Dublin to uncomfortable places, making Dublin’s big players do something exceptional to earn their victory.

Every game Dublin have played this year, they’ve been in stealth mode. Always in control. Never ruffled.

At no stage has anyone so much as made life in any way awkward for them.

Mayo do that better than anyone. And maybe they’ll tell themselves that this week: ‘nobody has put it up to the Dubs this year. They won’t be prepared for what we hit them with on Saturday.’

They’re not scared of Dublin. And they’re not scared of losing.

They may never get a better chance than this.

Dublin will talk at length about that this week themselves. A good start and they could make life relatively easy for themselves and force Mayo into desperation mode.

A bad start and the dynamic of the game is totally different. All of a sudden then, Dublin have to start taking risks, they have to be more direct, taking lower-percentage options in the hope of a high yield play, like a goal.

They’re obviously capable of that. But it’s not a situation they’ve been in for a long time, not since the closing stages of the drawn All-Ireland final last year, when they had to press Kerry all over the pitch with one fewer player.

Given the choice, that’s not the kind of game you want to be playing in an All-Ireland final.

Because Mayo have the speed and they have the physique to live with Dublin for every minutes of Saturday’s games.

There’s obviously a lot riding on Mayo’s new men.

It’s a big occasion. There’s no definite way of knowing how they’ll all respond.

But that’s where the lack of pomp and ceremony and crowd may be of benefit to Mayo.

Because you can sure of how Dublin’s big players will perform.

Brian Fenton and Ciarán Kilkenny are running this team now. And in Con O’Callaghan, I just feel, there’s a man waiting to cut loose.

He was excellent the last day against Cavan but there’s definitely more in him. He thrives on these days and for me, he’s the potential match-winner.

That’s what these games have come down to in recent years - an exceptional player pulling off a big play with the game and Sam Maguire on the line.

I’d expect nothing less on Saturday.

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