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McGuinness x-factor can seize the day

'What is seldom is wonderful,' is not an expression we hear too often in the lead-up to an All-Ireland football or hurling final in modern times, with a relatively small selection of counties sharing the GAA's biggest day in Croke Park. But one of the big attractions of Sunday's showdown is that Donegal and Mayo have never met in a final and only once in a semi-final.

This is what most football fans want, despite the media attractions of a Kerry-Dublin or Tyrone-Kerry final. There is an air on unpredictability about this Mayo and Donegal game that appeals to a lot of neutrals and a sneaking feeling that more unusual events are likely to take place in a contest like this than with regular finalists.

Therefore, it is incredible to think that Donegal are 4/9 to win. To have one team at odds on like that and the other at 5/2 is quite unusual.

It indicates that the bookies feel Mayo have no chance -- but where is the logic in this?

After all, nearly half the Mayo players have played in All-Ireland finals before, but Donegal have not even one in that category. And, make no mistake, in an All-Ireland final is like nothing else a footballer ever encounters.

Jim McGuinness (below) has already successfully used his psychological training to tightly control every move of the Donegal players, on and off the field, for two the last years.

But he has never managed players in an All-Ireland senior final -- and raging hot favourites to boot. So, there is undoubtedly greater pressure on the Donegal players than on their opponents.

We can discuss till the cows come home about whose forwards will be best, who has the best midfielders and which of the two tactical approaches will triumph. But as so often happens in a final, it could be the single action of one player that will decide the result. Kevin McManamon's brilliant solo goal against Kerry last year is a prime example. He was not a star player in the Dublin team, more often than not used only as a sub. But he was the man to step aside from all the tactical manoeuvrings, take the initiative in the old-fashioned way and get the decisive score of the game at the right psychological moment.

That's why All-Ireland finals are special. They generally come down to a few acts of personal heroism that were never rehearsed on the blackboard or the computer screen.

Another classic example was the Seamus Darby goal that shattered Kerry's five-in-a-row in 1982. I can assure you that this was not even dreamt about, let alone rehearsed.

Donegal have a back-room team of around 15 to help McGuinness, including coaches, conditioning coaches, doctors, physiotherapists, physical therapists, logistics managers and many others. All competent people, I am sure, yet when the ball is thrown in at 3.30 tomorrow, the players on the field are on their own -- and that is when individuals have to stand up and be counted.

Qualities

James Horan has managed to maintain a low profile for his team by Mayo All-Ireland standards -- which shows that the manager has qualities that are less flamboyant than McGuinness -- but who is to say he will be any less effective when his men step across the white line. So far, Donegal seem to have the better set of players by virtue of having a uniformly strong team, whereas Mayo seem to have a few players who fall a bit behind most of their colleagues.

Normally that would prove decisive in a game, but in an All-Ireland final, it's not necessarily so.

Some very unusual singular achievements have decided All-Irelands in the past and the same could happen again tomorrow. But, even on that score, McGuinness with his undisputed x-factor looks the more likely to have the resources to produce the magic moment that could just seize the day.

Irish Independent