Thursday 15 November 2018

All-Ireland Final: Donegal v Mayo, Croke Park, 3.30

A final fit for the most saccharine romantic but the two teams that carry the hopes of their counties share an imperturbable focus and self-determination that makes light of the past and all those afflictions and curses and superstitions.

Jim McGuinness was part of the Donegal panel that won the county's first All-Ireland 20 years ago and has reinvented himself as a modern and innovative manager. After last year's defensive regime which saw 14 men behind the ball, this summer has unearthed a more attacking and adventurous Donegal, a team that is thrilling to watch and hard not to admire.

They have created history by becoming the first county to retain the Ulster title from the preliminary rounds; this from a county that hadn't won an Ulster title since 1992 when McGuinness, at his third attempt, took over in late 2010. The majority of the players who suffered humiliating defeats to Cork in 2009 and Armagh in 2010, who were in the pillory for squandering their talents, are now men of exemplary application and drive.

They have a system of play that makes light of traditional formations. Corner-backs score points and corner-forwards routinely break up attacks near their own goal. The careers of several players have been rejuvenated. Players we thought were limited have revealed a hidden dimension. This is the product of immense hard work and the persuasive nature of McGuinness. Big teams have fancied a shot and they've all perished: Tyrone, Kerry, Cork.

The similarities in Mayo's case are fascinating. Like McGuinness, James Horan is a young and bright manager and coach, a supreme organiser, but primarily a man with a passion for his county and a belief that they can achieve the dream of a long-awaited All-Ireland. He is not one to dwell on the hard-luck stories of the past. When he took over in 2010, Mayo had been eliminated by Longford in the qualifiers, the same afternoon that Armagh stuffed Donegal and provided the catalyst for the revolution that followed.

Like Donegal, Mayo retain many survivors from that day too, but they are transformed men. They have won back-to-back provincial titles and having reached an All-Ireland semi-final, like Donegal, last year, they now find themselves in the final. They are outsiders today but the team has a resilience, superb conditioning, and will not be intimidated by Donegal.

Donegal's form in the championship has been steadier against hardier opposition. While the wins over Kerry and Cork included nervous endings, they were better than the final margins offered. Mayo's football in the semi-final win over Dublin was breathtaking for 50 minutes but they struggled badly for the next 15. The changes forced by injury were undoubtedly unsettling and Dublin reshaped their team to good effect. Kevin McLoughlin's loss was sharply felt and it was noticeable how his presence restored calm on his return later in the game. Aidan O'Shea, a powerhouse, ran out of steam. Dublin, despite being pulverised at one stage, could have won. But Mayo dug it out and deserved to.

The form of players like Alan Dillon, Keith Higgins and Ger Cafferkey was instrumental in their win, as was Cillian O'Connor's place-kicking, including three '45s into the Hill, an impressive show of leadership from the 20-year-old. In the Connacht final, his radar was not as sure but he comes off a big performance and is a kicker in form. Mayo will need to take every chance today.

Dillon has been a key influence and Donegal may ask Karl Lacey to police him, as they did earlier in the case of Paddy Bradley. Equally interesting will be discovering who spends his All-Ireland tailing Mark McHugh, a phenomenally fit and mobile player who is central to Donegal's game plan. Cork looked to have a plan to curb McHugh in the semi-final and then appeared to abandon it.

This is a match of tactical intrigue. Donegal have a trusted system in place so that the challenge for Mayo is to find the right balance between countering the vital components that make Donegal tick, and not over-obsess to the point where they overlook their own strengths and attributes. Mayo went at Dublin with a tremendous confidence and vigour. They will expect to do well in the middle of the field and win good possession. While they exposed Dublin with direct and early kick-passing, Donegal will have a bigger blanket of defenders. Mayo will need a high level of precision and must be careful not to loiter and lose the ball on turnovers where Donegal excel.

The unique occasion where Donegal are favourites in an All-Ireland final may have a negative impact on them but it is more likely that it will not. An unblinking sense of purpose has been their hallmark, as if on a predetermined journey, one ending in Michael Murphy following the footsteps of Anthony Molloy 20 years ago and bringing Sam back to the hills. Mayo will not make willing accomplices. But Donegal have that air of destiny about them.

Verdict: Donegal

Dermot Crowe

Sunday Indo Sport

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