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Sunday 21 September 2014

Colm O'Rourke: Both managers have followed similar blueprints for success but McGuinness' project is more advanced

A strong start is essential for Mayo but Donegal look better equipped this time, says Colm O'Rourke

Published 23/09/2012 | 17:00

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When Benjamin Disraeli became prime minister of Britain in 1868, he said that "he had climbed to the top of a greasy pole". Mayo and especially Donegal know exactly what he meant by that remark.

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Donegal have already beaten all the great powers of the last decade, Tyrone, Kerry and Cork, and apart from having to face Dublin, have climbed the greasy pole the hard way. It would be particularly galling if they fell off at this stage.

Mayo have, of course, had the easier route. Beating Sligo, Down and even Dublin does not compare with the road travelled by Donegal but if you climb Mount Everest nobody will ask you whether you went up the hard or the easy way. Indeed you could be dropped on the top by a helicopter and still claim to have got there. So all that has happened in the past counts for nothing today.

Yet for 13 months Donegal have built for this afternoon. When Dublin beat them in last year's All-Ireland semi-final Jimmy McGuinness was probably keen to start training the following morning as he would have seen that defeat as a temporary setback. He and Rory Gallagher have carried out a wonderful job in getting to this stage and like all good teams they have changed considerably along the way.

A lot of their players are better and more confident than last year. They know the system better too but are not slaves to it. They defend just as much as ever but have produced far more flair going forward. I don't think this is part of some grand plan, more a sign of the development of the team and their understanding of each other's play. Karl Lacey was always able to attack, so too Frank McGlynn; now they are sure the door is bolted in defence by others if they decide to go for a spin upfield. Last year they had to walk before they could run.

Mayo are basically a carbon copy of Donegal, if only a year behind them in development. They will be better next year but their defensive organisation so far has been outstanding.

The best individual players are probably at the back and they might not attack as much as Lacey but Keith Higgins, Donal Vaughan and Lee Keegan have pace and can score. They might need to as well as it is hard to see

the forwards banging over points like they did against Dublin. There has been a doubt over Keegan starting because of a broken finger sustained in the semi-final. When did a minor injury like that cause a player to be a doubt before a prize like this? I am quite sure that only a broken leg, not a finger, would be considered by Keegan as even a possibility of keeping him out of this match.

Mayo, who always came to Croke Park and gave it a lash with consequent highs and lows, are not going to do the same today. Against Dublin, they gave an exhibition of cynical football at times when they fouled well away from goal, stayed down for minor injuries and generally disrupted play when Dublin got on top. Most unlike Mayo but James Horan obviously has a steely presence. He may speak very softly but he carries a big stick.

The term 'driven manager' is most used about McGuinness but could just as easily apply to Horan. When he decided to leave Conor Mortimer off the team, he crossed the Rubicon. This term is associated with Julius Caesar crossing the river Rubicon with his army which was interpreted as an act of war in Rome. At the time, Caesar said 'alea iacta est' -- the die is cast. Horan knew only too well that applied to Mortimer as did McGuinness when he expelled Kevin Cassidy very publicly and quite unapologetically. A penny for those two former players' thoughts today.

In both of my semi-final previews I got a lot of things badly wrong. What is new you might say, but I could not see the Mayo forwards scoring much, I thought their midfield would not be mobile enough while I also felt that the Donegal midfield would be overrun by Cork. As it turned out, Barry Moran and Aidan O'Shea did very well in the centre for Mayo and the forwards scored 0-19 and could have had more. On the Donegal side, Neil Gallagher had the best game I ever saw him play for his county but it cannot all happen again today.

This game will start off very cagily and the entertainment will be in the intensity of clashes, the quality of defending and the physicality rather than in open football.

Mayo must start well. If they fall a few points behind by half-time, I think their chances are gone west. So the policy will be to do a Donegal on Donegal and give away a maximum of six points by tea break. It is likely that Ger Cafferkey and Keith Higgins will mark Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden and will do a good job on them too. McFadden, Mark McHugh and Lacey have been Donegal's best players this year but Murphy has been poor and very few players turn things around on the biggest day.

The big debate will be on who takes McHugh. Of course Mayo will push a man up on him for kick-outs or else Paul Durcan will find a loose man. He has been excellent this year in that regard, but it would be lunacy for Mayo to leave themselves exposed at the back because public opinion dictates a certain course of action. Public opinion is usually wrong.

Kevin McLoughlin will provide a covering role and he is very effective. He and Alan Dillon need to get on a lot of ball to make the inside forwards tick -- if they can get 19 points again today there will be the biggest party west of the Shannon since Knock was opened.

The modus operandi of Donegal will not change and most of the hype and pressure is on them. This time there are no sheep, cattle, horses or even elephants being painted red and green in Mayo. The people of Donegal are expecting nothing less than victory and McGuinness must hope that it does not seep into the consciousness of players. If it does, it can be lethal and no matter what players say they must feel deep down that this game is not going to be as difficult as Kerry or Cork.

One thing for them to keep in mind is the amount of possession Cork enjoyed the last day which they did not spend wisely. However, at times they exposed Paddy McGrath and Neil McGee and a couple of goals for Mayo would certainly make this interesting.

Both teams have fine goalkeepers -- David Clarke's save from Bernard Brogan decided the semi-final. And a save it was. This goalie did not come out with his eyes closed and hope for the best -- pictures show him with his eyes wide open making the all-important block. Durcan has kicked long and short to advantage, and as they kick the ball more often than any other player (which is not hard given the obsession with handpassing), the goalkeepers have a vital role.

So too has the referee. The Donegal tackling is hard but up to now has not given up many close-in frees. Mayo are disciplined in that regard too but if they foul as much outfield as in the semi-final they will pick up a lot of yellow cards. Whatever chance Mayo have with 15 men, it would look impossible if they were down a man, while Donegal are equipped better for that eventuality.

In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, he said "yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look, such men are dangerous". That certainly applies to Donegal since the start of this year. It looks like they will eventually smother a Mayo team who are only at the beginning of their cycle. It has been a year of upsets but this time round I expect the favourites to win. Donegal for me.

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