Friday 23 August 2019

Familiar foes who won't take a backward step - What are the key battles that could shape the result?

As Dublin and Mayo prepare for tomorrow’s game, Frank Roche looks at the big match-ups

Catch-up: Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea and Dublin’s Philly McMahon look set to renew acquaintances at Croke Park tomorrow. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/SPORTSFILE
Catch-up: Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea and Dublin’s Philly McMahon look set to renew acquaintances at Croke Park tomorrow. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/SPORTSFILE

Frank Roche

Mick Fitzsimons v Cillian O’Connor

Jim Gavin has options here, given that three different Dubs have marked O’Connor in their last three All-Ireland battles: David Byrne (draw) and Fitzsimons (replay) in 2016, Philly McMahon in 2017. Fitzsimons proved the biggest success, parachuted back onto the team to be named Man of the Match.

The Cuala man hasn’t always gained starting favour, but he is Gavin’s stickiest marker - with the possible exception of John Small, who’ll be required further out the field. He isn’t a ball-player and has never claimed to be; the prosaic arts of corner-back play, the timely hand-in to disrupt or dispossess, are Mick Fitz’s forte.

That said, he didn’t go so well when tasked with tracking Andy Moran in the 2017 decider and we suspect O’Connor will be his weekend target. The game’s record championship scorer is still not back to his very best after a lengthy knee injury absence.

However, he has contributed in every comeback game, not just from frees, and Dublin will be wary of his poaching threat: O’Connor should have goaled once (or twice) in the Kerry debacle, scored on the rebound after his penalty was saved against Meath, and ghosted in for that vital fisted goal against Donegal.

Jonny Cooper v Andy Moran

Cooper’s job-spec tomorrow may depend on whether Cian O’Sullivan starts as sweeper; if he doesn’t, that role could transfer to the Na Fianna man.

Dublin's Mick Fitzsimons. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Dublin's Mick Fitzsimons. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Mayo's Cillian O'Connor. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Here’s an even bigger call: will Moran start? There is a perception that he may not, primarily because of the belief that Mayo need Andy on the pitch down the home straight… and he may not have 70 high-octane minutes left in his nearly 36-year-old legs.

Countering that, Moran’s introductions have been coming earlier – half-time against Meath, 26 minutes against Donegal. His enduring ability to win his own ball through clever movement, to create and to finish off openings, all mean that whenever he appears, Dublin need to be ready.

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And Cooper could well be the man, having tracked him in both 2016 finals until a black card ended his replay involvement prematurely.

Cooper missed the entire Leinster cakewalk campaign through injury and only returned as a late sub against Cork, but he started the next two rounds of the Super 8s, with no obvious signs of ring-rust.

Dublin's Jonny Cooper. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Dublin's Jonny Cooper. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Mayo's Andy Moran. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

In many ways he is Dublin’s answer to Keegan: a pesky shadow without the ball and a gifted front-foot operator when he wins it.

Brian Fenton v Matthew Ruane

Does Ruane even start, with barely five minutes in the tank after his return from a broken collarbone? A conundrum for James Horan, whose use of multiple players has made Mayo’s semi-final make-up difficult to second-guess.

Here’s the thing, though: Aidan O’Shea’s towering importance has rarely been more pronounced, but asking him to shadow Fenton is a move that could backfire. Not just because O’Shea may not have the legs for it, but it could also weaken Mayo’s own offensive threat.

Will Horan include Séamie in an all-Shea engine-room? Dublin’s pace advantage here makes that less likely. Re-enter Mayo’s big discovery of the league... Ruane has legs and a proven knack for ghosting into goalscoring positions. Just ask Kerry.

Dublin's Brian Fenton. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Dublin's Brian Fenton. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Matthew Ruane of Mayo. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

But has he enough big-match experience? More pointedly, has he the match-fitness? Jason Doherty’s season-ending cruciate throws another curveball, leaving a vacancy on the ‘40’: could Big Aido return there, even for a spell?

Whatever Mayo’s configuration, they face a familiar headache: how to stop Fenton, the undisputed midfield king, a modern-day Jack O’Shea, who can catch, run, kick and score for fun, with the unflappable mentality to match.

Ciarán Kilkenny v Lee Keegan

If this rematch materialises, it will be intriguing to see the tactical response of Dublin and their playmaking pivot.

In the run-up to the 2017 final, no Dublin player touched the ball more often than Kilkenny… until that afternoon spent in the claustrophobic company of Mayo’s premier man-marking pest. Not alone did Keegan nullify Kilkenny’s usual influence, two electrifying fourth-quarter forays yielded a stunning goal and then a tap-over free that put Mayo two up and within sight of Sam.

Instead, Dublin had the last laugh and Keegan’s All-Ireland was ultimately remembered for a far more controversial contribution involving his airborne GPS.

Dublin's Ciarán Kilkenny. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Dublin's Ciarán Kilkenny. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Mayo's Lee Keegan. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Two years on, Keegan has just completed another daunting man-marking brief – on Michael Murphy – that proved an overall success despite the concession of a disputed penalty.

Compared to 2018, this season has been more of a slow-burner for Kilkenny, but his form has improved as Dublin eased through the Super 8s and he’s sure to be primed now. He also has the flexibility to flourish in the inside line; likewise, Keegan is no stranger to a stint in the full-back line. Give him a target and he’ll stick to him, literally.

Jack McCaffrey v Paddy Durcan

This might appear a left-field match-up … until you factor in that Durcan played as a nominal wing-forward last Saturday. Just back from injury, the Mayo speedster was detailed to chase and frustrate Ryan McHugh, whose incursions from deep had been central to Donegal’s stellar season up to that point. 

Dublin's Jack McCaffrey. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Dublin's Jack McCaffrey. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Mayo's Paddy Durcan. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

As it happened, Durcan fulfilled his primary brief by pushing the scoreless McHugh to the game’s periphery – and delivered the added bonus of 0-3 from play himself.

The notion that you need to man-mark an opposition wing-back isn’t remotely strange when you consider the increasingly pivotal influence of McCaffrey.

Talk of his unnatural pace, with ball in hand even more so than without, has become a cliché – but his ability to punch holes in well-drilled defences, creating goal chances for others and sometimes himself, makes the Clontarf man one of Jim Gavin’s greatest weapons.

Durcan is another defender blessed with speed (one who loves to attack and frequently chips in with a score) and that’s why he looks a likely candidate for ‘Jack Watch’.

Only one problem: he hasn’t mastered bi-location and could conceivably be needed to try and match the jet-heeled Paul Mannion closer to his own goal.

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