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Dark days driving Dillon in bid to end Mayo's Croker drought

A DUBLIN man tells the story of watching the Dubs' 2006 All-Ireland semi-final clash with Mayo in Australia. The time difference meant the game was on live TV in the middle of the night and, with Dublin 2-11 to 0-10 up with 46 minutes on the clock, he retired to bed, exhausted but happy and with a plan to book a flight home for the All-Ireland final.

It never materialised that way. A Mayo housemate stumbled in the door when he should have been going out it to start a day's work. Their comeback, capped by a superb Ciaran McDonald point from an almost impossible angle, had sparked an all-night party. Once again, Mayo dared to dream, even if they faced Kerry in the final.

Five years on from that semi-final -- one of the grittiest Mayo showings of modern times -- they are still waiting on another win at Croke Park.

Across league and championship, they've been there five times since but Donegal, Tyrone, Meath, Cork and Dublin have bettered them. In their most recent appearance there, against the Dubs as part of the Spring Series, they went 14 points in arrears before a comeback saw them eventually go down by five.

The Mayo camp know that Croke Park performances are an issue for them and in the wake of their Connacht final success, captain Alan Dillon targeted a win at HQ as the next goal for his side.

In the days after a near miss against London in the opening round of the championship, a return to Croke Park must have seemed miles off, but Dillon is just happy to have another chance to play at the venue against Cork on Sunday.

"We tried something against London and it didn't work for us," said Dillon. "So we tweaked it a little and we have improved game by game. Personally, I was very disappointed with (Croke Park losses) against Meath and Tyrone.

"Those games were there for the taking. They were in the melting pot with 10 minutes to go and we didn't see them out for some reason. We'll hopefully get a win at Croke Park. That is our next target."

Having made his championship debut in 2003, Dillon has been around for many of those dark days at Croker. Since the start of the qualifiers, Mayo have lost nine of their 16 appearances at the venue, drawing two and winning five -- against Galway, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Laois and most recently Dublin.

The draw might have been kinder. The current Cork team looked to be finding their stride against Down last week and are gathering a head of steam going into the final stage of the season.

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By giving them a best price of 5/1, the bookmakers have effectively written off Mayo. Admittedly, this is a relatively inexperienced Mayo side, seven of whom started their first provincial decider against Roscommon a fortnight ago. Senior football at Croke Park will be a new experience for them.

However, there are a few survivors from the U-21 side that collected an All-Ireland title at the expense of Cork in 2006.

Until that game in Pearse Park, Longford, Mayo had lost 12 national finals on the bounce stretching all the way back to the successful minor side of 1985. That Cork U-21 side boasted many of the side who will feature for the Rebels this weekend including Ray Carey, Eoin Cadogan, Michael Shields, Fintan Goold, Alan O'Connor and Paul Kerrigan. The injured Daniel Goulding was also part of it.

This weekend, Mayo will try to beat Cork in the championship for the first time in 95 years. It's been a long wait since the 1916 All-Ireland semi-final when they beat the Rebels twice -- they consented to replay the match after Cork lodged an objection.

Mayo will feel they have waited long enough.

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