Alan Brogan - Mayo need a lot to go right for them if they're to beat Kerry
If Kerry have moved to plug the holes in their defence, form tells us that they should win
The first serious heavyweight contest of the year will unfold today and for both teams the stakes are high. For instance, losing could spell the end of the road for Mayo's Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan, Andy Moran and Alan Dillon.
Dillon, an old classmate of mine in Maynooth, has been a bit-part player this year. I thought we would see more of him but maybe the injuries and a long career are starting to take their toll. Saying that, I would love to see him enter the fray at some stage this afternoon - in his pomp his balance and tidy dummy solo were beautiful to watch and I've yet to see many do damage to James McCarthy the way Dillon did in some of the Dublin-Mayo games a few years back.
The other three mentioned are critical to this side because I struggle to see how Mayo could launch a serious attack on Sam Maguire without them. It's not that they couldn't play on, but I think there comes a stage in a guy's career when they just can't give any more.
The ability to keep doing the little things that get you back to the top becomes difficult. These three have shown remarkable mental strength and fortitude to still be forming part of the backbone of this Mayo team. A loss today could be difficult to return from.
A loss for Kerry will almost certainly spell the end for Kieran Donaghy. It is probably a loss Kerry will cope with and whether 'Star' is around next year or not, Kerry will still compete at this stage of the summer. But what a loss he will be to Gaelic football. He's the type of player I loved to play against, I'd love to have played with and now I love to watch.
Donaghy brings it all: passion, aggression and most importantly a huge amount of skill. In 2014, it looked like his time was up. An unused sub against Galway in the quarter-final, the feeling was that the big man was done. I know Kieran and I know that character is something he has in abundance. I'm sure his chat with Éamonn Fitzmaurice the week after was maybe a little fraught, but I imagine 'Star' pleading to let him in there for a few minutes the next day. There was no way he was going quietly.
He has been such an integral part of this Kerry team for so long. Some criticise him for his antics on the field with referees and getting involved with opponents, but this is what managers want from their big players - always having a presence, always influencing in some way.
If the game today is going away from Kerry at any stage, watch how involved Donaghy is, whether it's with the ball, the opposition or the referee. He will be trying every trick he knows to stem the flow and turn the game back Kerry's way. He's a guy you want when the chips are down. Kerry will be able to replace the football of Donaghy, but they will struggle to replace the influence his presence brings on the field.
In the closing stages of the 2011 All-Ireland final, Donaghy kicked a wonder score to level the game with 69 minutes gone. From the resultant kick-out Ger Brennan won the breaking ball and was fouled by Donaghy. If you watch it back, you can see Kieran ever so subtly trying to slow the game down. Ger pushes him in the face and Donaghy went down like he was shot. Gamesmanship of the highest order, but pure genius from Donaghy as well. The referee chose to hop the ball and when the camera panned to Pat Gilroy, he looked cool, but you can see the fury in his eyes at what Ger had done.
This is what I mean by Donaghy always having an influence. He had turned the last attack for Dublin and a chance to win the All-Ireland into a hop ball, a 50/50 contest. As it turned out, Eamonn Fennell beat Donaghy in the throw-up, tapped it down to me and I launched an attack which would result in Clucko kicking that famous free.
Today there are big-game players all over the pitch who will have a huge bearing on the outcome. Mayo have a well-publicised issue at full-back: Ger Cafferkey didn't start the last day and I'd be shocked if he is detailed to mark Donaghy. I think Vaughan is the right call for that job. He is a steely, teak-tough defender when he has to be and if he puts his mind solely to this job he can curb the influence of Donaghy.
Higgins will pick up James O'Donoghue, who will always pick off a couple a scores, but Higgins is more than a match for him. Paul Geaney may well be the Kerry inside forward to do the real damage. He has been in wonderful form and will take a lot of watching today. Don't be surprised if he finishes with something like 1-3 to his name.
With Donnchadh Walsh injured, it will be interesting to see who is given the job of tracking Lee Keegan. I've seen Lee close up and he has a great ability in positions where he can strike at a second's notice and a lot will rest on whoever is detailed to pick him up as they may have to sacrifice their own game somewhat.
Stephen O'Brien has started recently on the bench for Kerry, but after kicking two points against Galway he has earned his way into the starting 15.
The attacking threat from the Mayo back line is what most of their scores are built on and I expect lots of intent from Keegan, Boyle and company today. If Kerry's middle eight can keep this threat at bay, I think Mayo will struggle to get enough scores to win the game. If Mayo's half-back line are given opportunities to attack at pace, like we saw against Roscommon, there are gaps to exploit in the heart of the Kerry defence. Poor as Galway were, they still managed to create goal chances.
My feeling is Mayo need a lot to go right for them to win. It's by no means an impossibility. Can a couple of their forwards chip in with three or four from play? In the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final, Kevin O'Neill, a guy we hadn't expected to do damage, came on against Dublin. He was coming towards the end of his career but he kicked two remarkable scores. A performance like that from leftfield is maybe what Mayo need. A big day from Jason Doherty or maybe Diarmuid O'Connor. There is no doubting the work rate of O'Connor but I think there is more in him than we have seen so far this year.
I expect Kerry to win. Fitzmaurice will have learned from the game against Galway that Kerry were a little porous through the middle and I'm sure he has taken the necessary action to rectify that. I'm also sure they will have devised a plan to nullify the threat coming from Keegan, Boyle, Patrick Durcan and Vaughan. Do these two things and Kerry should win.
But, and it's a big but, one guy I haven't mentioned is Aidan O'Shea. He has been wonderful since Mayo were beaten in the Connacht championship. He took a fair share of flak over selfies, TV programmes, allegedly organising coups etc. and looks like he is playing with a chip on his shoulder. Maybe he's ready to give those critics the two fingers now and lead Mayo back to an All-Ireland final.
He will have an influence on the outcome, the hope for Mayo's loyal following is that it's a big one. I hope so too.
Sunday Indo Sport