Battle for middle third will be decisive and Mayo haveenough men of substance to hold off Gavin's cavalry
As a general rule since I started writing for this paper, I have more or less dismissed Mayo each time they reached the All-Ireland final.
On quite a few occasions they were just not good enough and the other times they always managed to undermine themselves by allowing the egos of a few to distract from the job in hand. At times it appeared that Mayo had a monopoly on self-destruction, the 'look at me' syndrome where individuals had their fleeting moments of fame before the big game. In successful counties, it is exactly the opposite.
Things are different now, however. Mayo are taking on a Dublin team that has been the form team all year, yet they do so with confidence. It is a confidence which is real and based on their continued improvement from last year. One year ago, they lost a final in the first quarter, but the way Mayo battled on from that position said a lot more about the character of the team than some of their big wins in other games.
Dublin tend to win in the last quarter of big matches. They go at it hammer and tongs for as long as they can and then send in the stormtroopers from the bench for the mopping-up operation. It has worked so far so Jim Gavin is hardly likely to depart from a tried-and-trusted model.
The big test for Mayo, assuming they are still on their feet, is how to cope with Kevin McManamon, Dean Rock, Eoghan O'Gara and whoever else takes off his tracksuit. On the other side, Mayo's subs are better than people think: Cathal Carolan, Barry Moran and Richie Feeney are very good, even if I was not impressed with Michael Conroy and Enda Varley in the semi-final. Trying shots from silly positions is not the way to win big games.
Presumably, Mayo have discussed all of this and have plans for who is going to mark each of the Dublin subs when they come on. It is all part of the planning, but at least some of this goes out the window in the heat of battle and players must make it up as they go along. It is then that the men who are leaders emerge.
Of course there will come a day too when the Dublin subs don't make the usual impact. When the seventh cavalry sounded the bugle at the Little Bighorn, they thought it was another victory charge and did not expect that the Indians were ready and waiting. The result was a complete wipe-out of the cavalry and General George Custer with them. The Dubs' cavalry off the bench will face stiffer competition today than they did against Kerry. By the end of the semi-final, the Dublin attack faced a poor enough defence. The Mayo backs are much better. Unfortunately for Mayo, they cannot match the firepower of the Kerry forwards.
If the Mayo strength lies from goalkeeper to the half-forward line, the Dublin power is spread more evenly and when problems emerge a player is slotted in quickly. The substitutions of Ger Brennan and Kevin O'Brien against Kerry means that a player having an off-day quickly makes way. It keeps everyone on their toes.
Dublin are easy to like in the way they play football. At times it almost looks like a throwback to juvenile football with everyone wanting to play ball and defence being an optional extra. It is attractive to watch as players spill forward at speed and goal chances are created at an amazing rate. No other team that I can recall creates so many goal chances; no other team that I can recall misses so many either.
The Dubs usually create about 35 scoring opportunities per game to the opposition's 25. Yet there are matches where they are not safe until a late scoring blitz. If they were able to be a little more ruthless today and turned more chances into scores, they could win easily. I don't expect that to happen as Mayo have the best backs they have met so far this year.
The match may be largely decided on kick-outs. If Mayo sit back as they did in the first half against Tyrone and allow Stephen Cluxton to take short kick-outs, then they are in big trouble. If they do, they can expect James McCarthy, Cian O'Sullivan and Jack McCaffrey to push forward at speed, and the dam would eventually burst.
Mayo must force Dublin to kick the ball long into the area where they are strongest, around midfield. The O'Shea brothers won't be beaten in the air and Cluxton favours kicks to Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly when the Dublin midfield is struggling, so that puts pressure on Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle to be close on them.
Keegan is also very good going forward, but should save the fist pumps until Mayo have the cup. In a general sense, I often wonder at these players giving these fist pumps. Is it for the crowd, themselves, the opposition or their own players?
I prefer players who are totally cold until the final whistle. In the Roman Colosseum, the slaves were great at getting the crowd going – this was a few minutes before a couple of hungry lions were let in.
The Dublin motto this year could be Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat, fortune favours the brave. Whenever they were in trouble this year they just tried harder, worked with greater conviction and poured forward from all angles. Eventually they broke the will of all opposition, even if Kerry nearly trimmed their sails. Mayo must have similar conviction and the key to this may be Keith Higgins, one of the very best players we have seen for a while.
The conservative policy would be for Higgins to stay back early and ensure Dublin don't get an early goal. If that allows short kick-outs to Dublin, it is a failure straight away. No point in giving a team possession and then hoping to get it back, so Higgins has to push up in these circumstances, but it doesn't mean he can't play sweeper when Dublin have the ball.
Dublin need more from their rookies Jack McCaffrey, Ciarán Kilkenny and Paul Mannion than they got in the semi-final but it is usually more experienced players who decide big games. I think Tom Cunniffe will hold Bernard Brogan fairly well and the rest of the Mayo backs are unlikely to be roasted.
Mayo have a better midfield, but then their problems start. The Mayo forwards won't score enough on their own so Donal Vaughan will have to sneak forward for a goal – which he is very good at – and the rest of the backs and midfielders will have to score seven or eight points.
Kevin McLoughlin has not been at his best but he can defend and attack, while there are not many more chances coming for Alan Dillon and Andy Moran. That should focus the mind.
Dublin have similar pace to Mayo and maybe more. Michael Darragh Macauley is a powerful force at midfield and Connolly, Andrews, Mannion and Brogan are potential matchwinners if Mayo don't turn off the supply.
But at the other end, the Dublin full-back line has just about hung on. If Cillian O'Connor is able to play, as distinct from being picked, it would be a big boost for Mayo. If he does tog out then every Dublin player will want to shake hands with him and give his arm a good tug at the
same time. All is fair in love and war. O'Connor should take his chance – he could lose an arm but what is that against an All-Ireland medal? At least Mayo have Alan Freeman growing into the role, and he can cause plenty of trouble.
In a way the Dublin players, even with the attendant publicity, can hide in the big city easier than their Mayo counterparts. Yet they seem to have coped in a very mature way with the usual fanatical outpouring of support.
It is not just a matter of whistling past the graveyard when a team say they are close to favourites because they deserve to be so. Dublin have the weight of money as always, which distorts their position somewhat.
This should be a great contest between two teams who, on all known form, are very well matched. Dublin have many advantages: they have more flair, have shown real character and are playing on their home patch. Mayo could stifle that a little if they win the toss and play into The Hill for the second half. The Dubs like to finish into The Hill. There are more scores there too, five of the six goals in the semi-final were into that end and Mayo need every advantage.
In normal circumstances, I just opt for whoever Mayo are playing at this stage. Yet since Mayo beat Galway in the first round of the Connacht championship, I have had the feeling that these Mayo players are different. It is the best team from Mayo for a long time and they are men of substance. I think they can control the middle third of the pitch and prevent Dublin scoring goals. Mayo to win.