Wednesday 18 October 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: You heard it here first - Mayo will beat odds

Bookmakers and pundits have cast Dubs as virtual certainties but does anyone remember last year?

Mayo players sit dejected in Croke Park after last year’s defeat to Dublin in the replay – they have the perfect chance for revenge on Sunday. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Mayo players sit dejected in Croke Park after last year’s defeat to Dublin in the replay – they have the perfect chance for revenge on Sunday. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Mayo will win the All-Ireland football final. When I say this to people they give me an odd look. It's the sort of look the police give to the hero in 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' when he tells them that the other human beings in his town have been replaced by aliens who grew out of strange space pods. There is disbelief, amazement and a certain amount of pity in it.

Sometimes they ask if I'm saying it for a laugh or to wind someone up, or just to be different. But I'm saying it because I believe it. I can't see Mayo losing.

Why on earth is Sunday's game viewed as such a foregone conclusion? At the moment Paddy Power offer shorter odds on both Galway and Tipperary winning the 2018 All-Ireland hurling championship than Mayo winning next Sunday. Galway and Tipp have to go all the way through an extremely tough championship to win the Liam MacCarthy Cup yet their chances are seen as better than Mayo's of beating Dublin in one 70-minute game.

What makes this especially odd is that just 12 months ago Mayo drew with Dublin in one All-Ireland final match before being edged out by a point in the other. And it's Mayo who seem to have exhibited the greater improvement in this year's championship. How can they be written off like this?

A scan of the teams reveals no major disparities. The finalists possess the two best goalkeepers in the country and if David Clarke lacks Stephen Cluxton's skill as a distributor, he is the more likely to turn the game with a wonder save.

Burned

The key Mayo trio of Barrett, Harrison and Higgins might even have a slight edge over Fitzsimons, McMahon and Cooper. We do know that Mayo's defenders are the one unit unlikely to be burned for pace by Dublin.

Jack McCaffrey has been a major addition for the Dubs this year, but is hardly any better than Lee Keegan, the outstanding wing-back of the era. The one area where Dublin seem to hold an advantage is midfield, where James McCarthy and Brian Fenton look clearly superior to any pairing Mayo have fielded so far this year. Yet Tom Parsons is a workhorse of distinction and it's possible Aidan O'Shea could be stationed at midfield and finally give a great September performance.

Last year Mayo's half-forwards looked weak compared to Dublin's. But although Ciarán Kilkenny remains the finest playmaker in the game, Kevin McLoughlin, Jason Doherty and Diarmuid O'Connor are now as good as anything Dublin have to offer in this area.

Doherty is having the year of his life, while McLoughlin, whose career looked to be sputtering to a halt when he toiled in the sweeper role last year, has looked utterly rejuvenated this term.

It was said that Mayo needed to unearth a couple of new forwards to make the big breakthrough. Well this year they've unearthed Doherty, McLoughlin and Andy Moran. They might not be new, but they've played like they are.

In the past Mayo have troubled Dublin defensively with weaker attacks. Yeah, says you, but they lost in the end. They did, but not by much. And Dublin don't win finals by much, three of this team's four victories have come by a single point. A team specialising in such narrow victories has to come unstuck eventually.

Mayo's outsider status is largely due to their knack for near misses. In the end Mayo are Mayo, the argument goes. But are they the same Mayo? The win over Kerry is the kind of victory previously lacking from their résumé. It suggests they are a different proposition now.

What about Dublin's semi-final annihilation of Tyrone, which apparently took the game of Gaelic football to a new level? The truth is that Tyrone were feeble.

They lay back, put Dublin under no pressure and were picked to pieces by players given enormous time on the ball. Not since the Germans went round the Maginot Line has a defensive system looked as outmoded as Tyrone's wet blanket.

Mayo will push up on the Dublin kick-out, confront the champions in their own half and hustle them out of their comfort zone. It will be a contest rather than an exhibition.

And even in the Tyrone game some Dublin weaknesses were detectable; the needless late penalty conceded by Philly McMahon indicated that the unease under the high ball exposed by Kildare remains. So does a tendency towards indiscipline, which saw needless yellow cards incurred in a game hardly bristling with physical edge.

Then there's Dublin's attack. Not long ago the key men were the experienced triumvirate of Brogan, Connolly and Flynn. Right now, it's Kilkenny, Rock and O'Callaghan. There is no gainsaying Kilkenny, but Rock, for all his improvement, is not quite up to Brogan's level. Con O'Callaghan may be Dublin's most important player and has been sublime all year, but can an U-21 in his first year of senior football really shoulder the burden in a final like this? Nothing he has encountered before will prepare him for the experience.

Most importantly, Dublin have not been tested in this year's championship. It is possible for a team to go through the entire competition without being troubled, as Kerry did in 1979 and 1981.

Yet this aspect of Dublin's campaign is far from ideal. Should they possess any weaknesses liable to be exposed by top-class opposition, Jim Gavin will only learn about them on Sunday.

Maybe I'm just nuts. Dublin are a great team and everyone else could be right in forecasting more Mayo misery. Yet there really were aliens in those strange space pods and I really can't see beyond the men from the West next Sunday. Honestly.

Remember the Trump election and the Brexit referendum? Once an upset happens everyone explains why we should have seen it coming all along. I'm telling you now. Consider this an exclusive.

Irish Independent

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