Dick Clerkin: Moran earns marquee status in Mayo revival
Veteran bidding to lead underdogs to promised land in fairytale finale
When doing my preview for this year's championship, I felt that the absence of a marquee forward would again be Mayo's undoing in their quest for All-Ireland glory.
Scanning over the Mayo forwards auditioning for the part, nobody made the cut based on previous form or ability.
Cillian O'Connor isn't prolific enough from play on the big days; Aidan O'Shea simply didn't score enough when it mattered; Andy Moran's best days were behind him.
Of all the predictions to be proved wrong, few would have honestly believed Moran would be the one to throw egg on my face.
As an admirer of Andy's persistence and pride in his jersey over the years, I can't enthuse enough about the form of the evergreen attacker from Ballaghaderreen. He, above any other Mayo player, is the reason they are heading in to Sunday's final with more than a fighting chance, against what many consider an unbeatable Dublin side.
It is a far cry from that fateful day, just over five years ago, that for many spelled the beginning of the end for Andy being recognised as one of the top footballers in the country.
Halfway through the second-half of their 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final against Down, Mayo were cruising with a nine-point lead and Croke Park had taken on a silent air of inevitability.
As Down attempted an attack down the Cusack Stand side, Andy, well out from his full-forward position, put in a tackle that typified his commitment and work-rate.
Twisting awkwardly, a nearby microphone picked up the sickening crunch of Andy's knee. As he grasped himself in agony, excruciating screams of pain were clearly audible over the sedated play that continued around him.
The dreaded cruciate knee injury was soon confirmed, and while Mayo would go on to overcome a hungover Dublin in the semi-final, Andy's loss would be severely felt in the final as a forward line lacking any cohesion failed to fire and they went down to Donegal.
The previous year Andy picked up an All Star, in large part owing to a chasing he gave Marc Ó Sé in Mayo's semi-final loss to Kerry. By all accounts, this was a man cut down in his prime.
As the years passed, it was generally acknowledged that while Andy retained his footballing acumen, his turn of pace never recovered following that 2012 injury. Mayo's strive for All-Ireland glory would be mirrored by Andy's futile efforts to recapture his previous form: ultimately falling short, despite every effort that could conceivably be given.
And yet here we are, scrambling to make sense of what is one victory away from being one of the great stories in GAA history. As Andy closes in on his 34th birthday, only Stephen Cluxton leads him in the betting odds for Footballer of the Year. It is unlikely that he would have even been listed in the top 30 for the same accolade at the start of the year.
With 3-21 to his name, he is the leading scorer from play in this year's championship. On top of that, he often creates or directly assists just as much as he scores.
In the drawn Kerry match, his 1-5 from play was supplemented by four assists. On any other day Keith Higgins would have taken the Man of Match accolade for his mercurial display. At the final whistle, however, Andy stood out in terms of his overall contribution.
His awareness and positional sense has never waned, but Andy has found a spring in the winter of his career to add a timely potency to the Mayo attack. By doing so he has turned their season on its head and given the fanatical supporters a genuine case for looking forward to a historic victory this weekend.
A recent conversation with a Mayo insider shed some light on how Andy has seemingly reversed the ageing process. As the owner of The Movement gym adjacent to MacHale Park in Castlebar, Andy is proprietor of what is fast becoming one of the most marketable gym franchises in the country.
Adopting a holistic approach to his physical conditioning, a daily hour-long stretching routine is the foundation of a lifestyle regime that has transformed his performances.
I shook hands with him out on the pitch after they defeated Kerry and I immediately noticed his impressive level of conditioning. The next time I meet him I might suggest we take a partnership in opening one of his gyms in Monaghan. 'Money for Jam' as they say.
This Sunday will be my fourth time to watch Mayo live this year - four-and-a-half if you count getting stuck in their traffic en route to Clare in July. Their supporters are infectious, and each and every one of them adores Andy Moran to the core. Rightly so, as there has never a been a player to represent them with such painstaking dedication and commitment.
The nostalgic romance surrounding Galway's hurling success last weekend momentarily turned us all into a Galway hurling admirer. An Andy Moran-inspired Mayo victory this weekend would surely switch our immediate affections to their Western neighbours.
Should he finally lead them to All-Ireland glory this year, Enda Kenny should use whatever political clout he has left to grant him the freedom of Castlebar.
Mayo will likely need to score at least one goal on Sunday to beat Dublin.
Can you imagine the scenes should Moran bury the winner past Cluxton in the closing stages? In doing so he would scoop the Footballer of the Year award along with Sam Maguire.
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