Wednesday 24 January 2018

Martin Breheny: Dublin firepower to inflict more misery on Mayo

Dynamic blend of youth and experience to give Blues edge and prolong westerners wait for All-Ireland deliverance

Andy Moran will be a key man for Mayo at Croke Park tomorrow
Andy Moran will be a key man for Mayo at Croke Park tomorrow
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If the theory that the longer any sequence runs, the more likely it is to end, has any basis in reality, then Mayo can turn their experiences in All-Ireland and NFL finals over the last 24 years into a generation-defining occasion tomorrow.

Mayo's only win from 11 finals in Croke Park since 1989 was in the 2001 NFL decider when they beat Galway by a point. They drew the 1996 All-Ireland final with Meath, before losing the replay and lost All-Ireland finals to Cork (1989), Kerry (1997-2004-2006), Donegal (2012) and League finals to Donegal (2007) and Cork (2010-2012).

Mayo supporters hate to be reminded of the county's poor record in finals, insisting that it's no more than a statistical classification, as opposed to any deep-rooted psychological hang-up, which infects the green-and-red mentality on the biggest days.

They are probably right, but until such time as they win the All-Ireland title, it will continue to haunt them. Just as Down's record of never having lost an All-Ireland final boosted their self-belief going into the 2010 final against Cork, Mayo's September misery continues to lurk in the background.

Cork ended Down's run three years ago (yes, every sequence ends eventually!) and now Mayo are hoping that their escape route from hell has been successful plotted by James Horan and is ready for execution by Andy Moran and Co.

ASPIRATION

On the basis of Mayo's championship form in recent seasons, it's an understandable aspiration. Mayo beat the previous year's All-Ireland champions (Donegal, Dublin, Cork) in 2013-2012-2011, proving beyond doubt, that big reputations don't bother them. However, until they break through the All-Ireland barrier, doubts will persist as to whether they have the all-round game and mental fortitude to see the journey through to the end.

Twice in the past six years, they have beaten Dublin in All-Ireland semi-finals, only to lose the final.

On both occasions they lost it in the opening quarter, being completely swamped by Kerry six years ago and giving Donegal a seven-point head start last year.

They recovered against Donegal last year, cutting the lead to three points in the second half, but just couldn't wipe out all the early losses.

Mayo will contend that the manner in which they calmly worked their way back after a difficult start against Tyrone in last month's semi-final shows how much they have learned from last year and, as with the many other theories about their relentless grind towards All-Ireland glory, it may be right.

And yet! If Dublin win as much possession in the first 25 minutes tomorrow as Tyrone did in the semi-final, there will be no way back for Mayo. The Tyrone attack isn't nearly as potent as a Dublin front line, which averaged 1-16 in the League and increased it to 2-18 in the championship. A championship average of 2-18 is unusually high, yet falls a point short of Mayo, who are on 3-16.

And therein rests one of the many fascinating aspects of tomorrow's game. Which defence will cope with the phenomenal scoring threat coming their way?

Mayo will have been pleased to see Kerry take Dublin for 3-11 on the basis that conceding so much raises questions about the solidity of the Dublin defence once they are confronted by a really enterprising attack.

It's a fair point, one to which Jim Gavin will, no doubt, have devoted considerable analytical resources over the last few weeks. The distance between his full-back and half-back lines was much too wide at times as a Colm Cooper-led Kerry created gaps which yielded handsome profits.

'Gooch' was very much the orchestrator and since Mayo don't have a forward of his subtlety aboard, their approach will be based on a pressure-game, with the main power generated from midfield by the O'Shea brothers, supported by adventurous half-backs, Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle.

The latter trio have scored 2-12 between them on their forward raids, so Dublin's counter-plan will be to make them so busy defensively that they have few opportunities to cross the half-way line.

If that happens, then the Mayo attack will have to fend more for themselves, especially if Dublin can frustrate Aidan O'Shea, in particular, around midfield.

So far, no opposition has succeeded in curbing the Mayo half-back/midfield axis, but Dublin have the pace in their attack to put much tougher questions to Vaughan and his wing-men than Galway, Roscommon, London, Donegal or Tyrone did.

Will Horan respond by adopting a more defensive formation, a facility available to him since Keith Higgins' re-location to the attack? Prior to that, Higgins was an attack-minded defender; now he is a defence-minded attacker.

It offers dual value which could be important.

Gavin will also be very conscious of the need for tighter security after Dublin were plundered for three goals by Kerry in the first 20 minutes.

Dublin had too many unmanned channels in their own half and while their attack had the firepower to save the day, the reality is that a team that concedes three goals in 20 minutes loses more often than it wins. Dublin got away with it once, but can't tempt fate again, which is why they too may be more defensively aligned than in earlier games.

That was to be expected anyway since an All-Ireland final inevitably increases the defensive mindset. High-scoring shoot-outs, where both teams register big scores, are most unusual. Based on what we've seen so far this year, tomorrow's game has the potential to buck that trend, but I suspect it won't.

Mayo will remember how their defensive lapses fatally undermined them last year so expect them to play their way carefully into the contest. Prior to the Kerry game, Dublin might have opted for a gung-ho approach from the start, but will now be far more wary of early leaks.

The combination of Mayo's experience in last year's final and Dublin's memory of the recent semi-final is likely to lead to a very cagey opening half.

Once it opens up, the advantage could rest with Dublin. Mayo beat them in last year's semi-final but Dublin have been much more driven this season, in the course of which they twice beat Mayo in the League

(2-14 to 0-16 and 2-16 to 0-16).

Most of the Dublin squad were aboard when they won the All-Ireland two years ago and have been joined by exciting accomplices in the likes of Paul Mannion, Ciaran Kilkenny, Jack McCaffrey to create an extremely formidable force.

Mayo's credentials are strong too, but can they shake history's depressing hand off their shoulder? Maybe not this time.

Verdict: Dublin

Irish Independent

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