Thursday 18 December 2014

Eugene McGee: Uncertainties on both sides of divide whet final appetite

Published 16/09/2013 | 05:00

Mayo's Cillian O'Connor leaves the field with the shoulder injury that makes him a major doubt for the All-Ireland final. His absence would leave major questions marks over Mayo's scoring ability
Mayo's Cillian O'Connor leaves the field with the shoulder injury that makes him a major doubt for the All-Ireland final. His absence would leave major questions marks over Mayo's scoring ability

Anyone who strongly believes that either Dublin or Mayo are brilliant teams, one of whom will easily win next Sunday's All-Ireland final, must have very poor powers of recollection.

Based simply on this year's championship, both finalists have provided many examples of rank bad play, which, if repeated next weekend, would scuttle their chances.

In short, while Dublin and Mayo are worthy finalists and very good teams, they are certainly no world-beaters, so a win for either will be no surprise.

GAA people put a lot of store in tradition when talking about big matches, but in the case of Dublin and Mayo, I wonder how important it really is nowadays.

Mayo have not won the Sam Maguire Cup since 1951, when they beat Meath 2-8 to 0-9, and even Dublin have only won the trophy three times in the past 30 years. So, what has tradition done for either of them?

Mayo have, in fact, been working overtime in recent years to airbrush out their tradition because of their modern-day record of failing to win All-Ireland finals in 1989, 1996 (twice), 1997, 2004, 2005 and 2012. Try as they might in recent years, Mayo supporters cannot avoid inner fears that when they head for finals in Croke Park only disappointment can follow.

Different

We are told that things are different this year, right? Indeed, people I have spoken to in places through which Mayo followers travelled after winning the All-Ireland semi-final this year – such as Longford, Clondra, Strokestown – have commented that the normal exuberance of those fans has been very much toned down, with no boasting about what they will do in the final. A very good idea, I would suggest!

But let's get back to cold facts and reflect on a few of the problems that beset each team along the road to this final. Strangely, it is Dublin who have provided more flaws in their game, but then Mayo's path has been a much easier one.

Yet, in the semi-final against Tyrone, no Mayo forward managed a score from play in the opening 32 minutes of the game, which is an incredible statistic for a side that had run up gigantic tallies all season.

And to highlight further the dismal performance of the Mayo attack, the three points they finally got from play before half-time came from two defenders, Chris Barrett and Lee Keegan. I wonder how manager James Horan dealt with that situation during the half-time break and, more importantly, following the video analysis later in the week?

If anything like this was to happen next week, then another Mayo collapse could be on the cards. Of course, Mayo demolished Tyrone completely in the second half and won at a canter, but that forward ineptitude is, nonetheless, a worry.

In the other semi-final, the most significant development was that Kerry scored 3-5 in the opening 25 minutes, of which only one score, a penalty, didn't come from play. Now for a team to concede that large a tally, especially three goals in such a short space of time, has to leave nagging doubts in the minds of many Dublin supporters, whatever about players and mentors.

Of course, in terms of winning the game, that score tally was not actually significant as Dublin had also scored 1-9 in the opening period. But to concede three goals in the seventh, 11th and 19th minutes of a game, at the very least raises doubts and if anything similar happened next week, Mayo people would be very happy.

But there were other fairly basic errors from Dublin in the semi-final, such as Stephen Cluxton's inability to make his previously brilliant use of kick-outs work. Some of those short kick-outs were very poor indeed.

One of the most serious warnings that emanated from Mayo's first-half play was that they reverted to type in the second quarter by going back to their more recent lateral short-passing game. This was in response to Tyrone's usual swarm-tackling tactic and it could be seen as a sign that the demons of the past, which James Horan and his staff had believed they had eradicated, could reappear when extreme pressure comes on.

There is no doubt that Dublin will pressurise individual Mayo players intensely because they have the speed, stamina and ruthlessness to do so. So, will the Mayo players withstand that, as they did so successfully when blowing Donegal out of the water, or will some of them start having doubts and go back to old ways?

The Dublin defence this year has not been as good as would normally be needed to win an All-Ireland title. Based on their manager's oft-repeated football philosophy, there will be none of the dreaded sweepers used on Sunday to boost that backline.

Whether Mayo have the scoring power of, say, Kerry is another matter, of course, and certainly going into an All-Ireland final without your leading scorer, Cillian O'Connor, has to be a major setback.

How often have teams managed to do that and win?

Mayo's greatest asset is their unity of purpose on the field, which is at a level I have never seen from a Mayo team before – it even showed last year after that disastrous start against Donegal. Keeping the game very tight will be to Mayo's advantage and they have the systems to do that.

Dublin's spontaneity and 'give it a lash' philosophy has served them well all season, but the reality that 'young lads' rarely win All-Irelands is a sobering thought too, with the Dubs having two very youthful forwards.

Thankfully, there is a bagful of uncertainties about each team to whet the appetite, both in terms of the quality of the football and the possibility of plenty of drama based on unexpected events happening.

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