Friday 27 April 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Mayo's ship of hope cannot survive the storm force of the blue wave

Brian Fenton and Bernard Brogan
Brian Fenton and Bernard Brogan
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The Flying Dutchman is a mythical ship that sails the seas endlessly and never makes port. Mayo players and supporters know the feeling but there are plenty of lights out west which would guide the Dutchman home to a safe harbour, and the closer we come to the game, there seems increasing confidence that the beacon is becoming stronger.

If it took Mayo volunteers to shine that light then tens of thousands of supporters would gladly stand for hours on end with flaming turf on pitchforks.

That is the sort of raw emotion that Mayo bring to today's game. An unsatisfied hunger. Nobody outside of Mayo could ever understand how important their football team is to how they view themselves as a people. Dublin are a much more cold, clinical outfit on the terrace as well as on the field. For the Dubs there is an All-Ireland to be won so they just forget everything else and focus on the game. That is why the team is so brilliant. There are no distractions, no history, no sob stories, just a game.

In the semi-final, it was obvious that Tyrone's whole method of play was analysed by Dublin, broken down into small parts and then smashed. Yet there is nothing more disconcerting for a team than when the opposition seem to pay them little regard on the field. The Dubs get on with the game, almost oblivious to their opponents, the referee or the conditions. It heightens their sense of confidence but in many ways it is easy to have confidence when you have the best players who thrive on hard work and honesty.

For some like Brian Fenton, who has never lost on a Dublin team in championship football, it must seem that he has caught a train that never stops. The Dubs are proven in playing football of a different kind than anyone else and Mayo are the only ones to nearly match them for the last number of years.

Many people think Mayo must produce something different to win today. I think exactly the opposite. They should do the same as in last year's drawn final and the replayed semi-final against Kerry. In other words, just outplay Dublin by really going at them without any fear. There is no chance of victory and glory by backing off and trying to play safe all the time.

Fortune favours the brave. They have the men to do it too. Is there better than Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle, Paddy Durcan, Andy Moran, the O'Sheas, the O'Connors, Tom Parsons - and the rest are no slouches either. Put that group up against Jonny Cooper, Philly McMahon, Cian O'Sullivan, Fenton, Dean Rock, Jack McCaffrey, James McCarthy, Con O'Callaghan and Paul Mannion and there is no appreciable advantage to Dublin.

However, the champions have some aces. Long ago the goalkeeper did nothing more than get the ball for the full-back to kick out and hopefully not allow in any howlers. Now he is the most important player on the team. At least in the case of Stephen Cluxton. There are few revolutionaries in any game but Cluxton is certainly one and if Mayo are able to win half of his kick-outs they should also win the game. The context of this is that no team this year has won even 20 per cent of his kick-outs.

Everyone will say 'push up'. It is easier said than done with Cluxton because he is able to kick accurately long as well as short. So Mayo have to be careful that by pushing up hard they don't leave a huge space behind midfield. There will be times, maybe a lot of times, when Mayo cut their losses and allow a short kick-out, but they must have worked on this and have the signals clearly understood. A half-baked version of trying to force Cluxton to kick long will backfire. When Mayo have a close-in free it gives everybody a chance to get organised and this should be a time when Cluxton has to kick long.

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Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Yet Cluxton is not the Pope and is not therefore infallible, and a sign of the ebb and flow of every game is the restart. If Mayo force the Dublin goalkeeper into mistakes it will transfer around the pitch and on to the supporters. Mayo supporters will treat a Cluxton turnover like a score. He is that important.

At the other end, David Clarke is not as long or as accurate and plays a bit of Russian roulette with his kick-outs, but they generally find their billet. Dublin will put huge pressure on Clarke and he might be better off just kicking long at the beginning, presuming Aidan O'Shea will be around midfield. With him, his brother Seamus and Parsons, Mayo should have no worries about winning high or low ball.

Aidan O'Shea is not going to be full-back this time so it does pose a dilemma for Mayo. If they play Durcan from the start they have a lot of attacking defenders, but it reduces the impact of their bench. They are short a full-back who is good in the air and they need one more out-and-out marker. Dublin will not be afraid to throw in a few high balls to test out that full-back line as there is size about their forwards and they are all able to win their own ball.

O'Callaghan seems to thrive on big days but he will have an off day at some stage and the Mayo defence is more ruthless than all others. Mannion has been very impressive this year and it will suit Mayo if Ciaran Kilkenny reduces the pace of the game. The other thing that Mayo must not do is to give away frees, they must be ferocious in going for the ball but very disciplined when Dublin forwards are in possession.

Naturally, there is a lot of talk about the psychological damage to Mayo after losing so many finals. I played in five losing championship finals with my club Skryne before winning one. This is no different. A county final is as big as an All-Ireland and I did not lie in bed for years afterwards wrestling with thoughts of failure. Of course it grates but Mayo are beyond any sort of scarring. Defeat has toughened them, criticism has formed a ring of steel around them and they have become impervious to back-handed compliments or insults. They are a team who are comfortable in their own skins.

Mayo are as good as Dublin in most regards but there is certainly one glaring difference: Dublin can pick a team to finish which can be appreciably different to the one which starts and just as good. Mayo have no such luxury. The main men on the pumps won't be able to take a tea break today but if Kevin McManamon, Bernard Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly appear the Mayo backs will need to be supermen to contain the fresh challenge. Mayo need to be ahead at the hour mark so that the Dublin subs are not coming on for a lap of honour. They have to be under pressure to actually win the game and there is a massive difference between coming on when your team are four down instead of four up.

For most of the last few years I have favoured Mayo to win most of the big games in Croke Park. That was always until they met Dublin. It was not borne out of sympathy for past losses but admiration for all the great qualities of the human spirit which they seem to bring to every game: bravery, manliness and great footballers. Then along come Dublin with the same qualities and then some. Even more players of quality.

It is easy to like Dublin with the sort of panache, without ego, that they bring to the game. Speed, athleticism and sheer skill. So while the neutral may wish for a Mayo win there should also be gratitude towards Dublin for saving football from becoming an absolute bore by playing with a bit of va va voom.

This will be a feisty affair and there will be plenty of action before it starts and there will surely be a few yellow cards and probably some red too. You can forget the black ones as that is in the lap of the gods.

Mayo spiked Dublin's big guns twice last year and are quite capable of doing it again. Could they get one really big day out of Aidan O'Shea which might be enough to tilt the balance? Or another match with Andy Moran as the star? Is it wishful thinking? The certainties are that Dublin will play their own game in their own way at their own speed. With the help of their bench it should be enough to win and keep the Flying Dutchman at sea.

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