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all-ireland final Mayo have reason to hope - but they must go for man-for-man with champs Dublin



Mayo's Chris Barrett in action against Steven O'Brien of Tipperary during the GAA Football All-Ireland semi-final

Mayo's Chris Barrett in action against Steven O'Brien of Tipperary during the GAA Football All-Ireland semi-final


Mayo's Chris Barrett in action against Steven O'Brien of Tipperary during the GAA Football All-Ireland semi-final

Maybe I am missing something, but here we are at the height of the football championship with just a week to go before the All-Ireland final and - all I'm hearing about is the dominance of the Dubs, the crisis in the GAA and the death of the Leinster championship.

Sorry, I'm not going to give my tuppence on this topic today. I'm not joining the baying mob.

There is a time and place in the months ahead when we can gather our thoughts and reflect calmly on the issues.

To be perfectly honest, I feel sorry for this special bunch of Dublin players. The minute they give another brilliant display of football, the focus shifts.

Instead of talking about what makes them so special, the narrative - now being driven by all parts of the media - is to immediately focus on the supposed damage this Dublin team is doing to Gaelic football and how they might be stopped.


Stephen Cluxton will have a vital role to play against Mayo

Stephen Cluxton will have a vital role to play against Mayo


Stephen Cluxton will have a vital role to play against Mayo

Come off it - this Dublin team is not the problem. There are a lot of issues at play, and I will address them over the coming months.

Today, I am going to focus exclusively on whether Mayo have any chance of ending the most talked about 69-year famine in sport.

So, I'll begin with the previous meetings in the final between the two counties. This makes happy reading for Dublin fans.

Their team is on a 40-match unbeaten run in the championship and heading for an unprecedented sixth consecutive title. If they hadn't been caught on the hop in the 2014 semi-final by Donegal, they would be heading for an eight-in-a-row next Saturday.

Sadly, from a Mayo perspective, reflecting about their All-Ireland final record does not make pretty reading. Though they have been in nine finals since their last win in 1951, and four in this decade alone, they still have no silverware to show for their efforts.

But there is a chink of light. Though they have won five titles on the bounce, Dublin have looked vulnerable in all those deciders, bar the 2018 final against Tyrone.

Two finals went to replays against Mayo (2016) and Kerry 2019; they had two one-point wins, one by three points, and the biggest margin was six points against Tyrone. So, no landslides.

In the four finals between Dublin and Mayo this decade, one finished level - the Dubs won the replay by a point - and they had a similar margin of victory in the 2013 and 2017 deciders. So Mayo have reason to hope.

To be honest, we didn't learn anything new from the semi-finals. Cavan were game and spirited. But such is the power of the Dubs, and with the gulf in standards, it was a bit like Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes facing a Volkswagen Golf in an F1 race.

Dublin did what they had to do. They never moved out of third gear, yet they had 48 attacks and scored 1-22 from play. They missed four goalscoring chances if you want to clutch at straws. But we didn't learn anything new about the Dublin machine.

Mayo's victory over Tipperary falls into the same category. The game was over as a contest long before half-time.


Dublin's Con O'Callaghan battles it out with Mayo's Lee Keegan

Dublin's Con O'Callaghan battles it out with Mayo's Lee Keegan


Dublin's Con O'Callaghan battles it out with Mayo's Lee Keegan

Again, Mayo were far superior - their physicality, athleticism and strong running were to the fore, just like the Dubs.

Forget about the second half, Mayo took the foot off the pedal. But it begs the question, would Dublin have done it? The answer, of course, is no.

There were two notable features about the win. Cillian O'Connor's 4-9 is the highest individual score in a championship game, and they scored 3-12 as a direct result of winning turnovers in the middle third.

The bad news is they conceded three goals and coughed up another seven goal chances. Dublin punish every mistake, so heaven help Mayo if they cough up even half as many goal chances next Saturday.

The absence of a crowd will have an impact - positively on Mayo and negatively on the Dubs. But I'm disappointed that no fans are being allowed in.

On television last Sunday, I pleaded with the authorities to allow 3,000 fans - comprising of the players' families, front-line workers from the competing counties, and people who have lost ones during the pandemic - to be allowed into Croke Park.

If soccer grounds in London, with half the capacity of Croke Park and a Covid-19 rate that is double that of the Irish average can have crowds, I cannot see why the Irish government cannot allow it.

It would be a symbol that we are winning the battle against Covid-19 - and that there is light at the end of this dark tunnel.

I think it will be good for Mayo that there is nobody there. The anxiety of their fans, who are desperate for a win, could spill on to the pitch and impact on the players.

On the other hand, Dublin could miss the energy, colour and euphoria which comes from a packed Hill 16.

We know what the Dubs will bring to the table - athleticism, leadership, composure, football intelligence, team work, fitness, shooting efficiency, relentlessness, adaptability, 100 per cent effort, and excellence all round.

It is better to focus on Mayo.


Tommy Conroy has been hugely impressive for Mayo

Tommy Conroy has been hugely impressive for Mayo


Tommy Conroy has been hugely impressive for Mayo

They will field a very different team compared to the side that lost to Dublin by a point in their last final appearance in 2017. There might be as many as eight changes compared to three years ago.

The newcomers are different. James Horan (inset, left) has taken his cue from the Dublin template.

Secondly, he has introduced players who can match the Dubs in terms of pace, physicality, athleticism and hard running.

Their attack has certainly improved - there is more composure, variety and intelligence to their play. The big difference now is the composition of their full-forward line.

Aidan O'Shea's role as a target man is vital, and his positioning at full-forward has benefited Cillian O'Connor, because he is playing off him. O'Shea can, and will, drift out the field as well, so they are not predictable.

But the big plus is the arrival of Tommy Conroy. Mayo didn't have this kind of player before - he is fast, runs directly at defences and has an eye for goal.

What's really eye-catching about the trio is that they average six turnovers each in games.

So, to sum up, I give the underdogs a chance.

And here's what they need to do. They've got to be brave - go man for man and match Dublin in the physicality and athleticism stakes.

It is vital they get their match-ups in defence spot on. Last Sunday, when the game was in the melting pot, they had a few ropey moments - but, by and large, Lee Keegan, Chris Barrett and Stephen Coen did decent jobs on Michael Quinlivan, Conor Sweeney and Colin O'Riordan.

I expect Keegan to take Ciarán Kilkenny, Barrett to police Con O'Callaghan, Oisín Mullin to mark Dean Rock, Paddy Durcan to be on Sean Bugler and Matthew Ruane on Brian Fenton.

They have got to play the game on their terms and not allow Dublin dictate how the game is to be played.

Mayo have to utilise their hard-running game from defence, take the Dublin forwards out of their comfort zone, and make them retreat onto the back foot. I expect to see them repeat the tactics they used so successfully against Tipperary - block the middle third and force turnovers.

They cannot allow Stephen Cluxton (inset, bottom) to take short kicks. They have got to press up on them, because, once you allow Dublin easy possession, they will punish you.

They will have to get under Dublin's skin, be physical and play on the edge.

As Mark Twain said, it not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of the fight in the dog.

They must bring that fight to the Dubs, regardless of the consequences, and not die wondering 'what if'.

For the sake of the football championship and as a neutral, I would love to see Mayo win.

But nearly everything has to go right for Mayo, and it is expecting a bit too much for that to happen in an All-Ireland final. So the wise money is on Dublin to march on and complete the six-in-row.

Verdict: Dublin.

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