Martin Breheny: 'Mayo defeat in winner-takes-all contest would spark the end of an era'
This is what All-Ireland quarter-finals, as originally promised, were supposed to look like – provincial champions and qualifiers both scrapping for survival in a straight knockout contest at a provincial venue.
It didn't happen until last year when Tyrone beat Donegal in Ballybofey in Round 3 of the Super 8s. The original promise that provincial winners would have home advantage didn't even materialise in the first year of the qualifier system in 2001.
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Instead, the four games were played at neutral venues before moving to Croke Park a year later and remaining there until the introduction of the Super 8s last season.
They have produced a mixed bag, including some dud final round fixtures in successive years. Not Mayo v Donegal though. This is as authentic as the championship gets as the Ulster champions head for Castlebar in a winner-takes-all contest.
Well, not quite, since a draw would be enough to take Donegal into the semi-finals, but they won’t have been planning for such a tight squeeze. They want to stride confidently into Croke Park as winners next weekend.
As for Mayo, they remain football’s enduring enigma, the group that continues to defy logic. Natural order would suggest that any team that reached seven successive All-Ireland semi-finals and four finals, taking one to a replay, would have met Sam Maguire more than once. Not Mayo.
Conversely, it would be assumed that any team that endured so much disappointment, culminating in a qualifier exit in the eighth year, would lose many of its older players as part of a transition process. Not Mayo.
The old guard remains, still good enough to withstand the challenge from a younger generation. No county has as many players aged 30 and over as Mayo.
Eight of the 26 who were in Croke Park for the win over Meath two weeks ago, are in that category (it would have been nine if Tom Parsons hadn't sustained such a nasty injury last year), while Aidan O’Shea, Lee Keegan, Jason Doherty and Robert Hennelly will be 30 on their next birthdays.
However resilient they all may be – physically and mentally – the age profile suggests that if they don’t win an All-Ireland this year, many of them won't be around for 2020. And even if they win, some may decide to check out after finally reaching the summit.
In reality, it's last stand time for this squad as it currently exists. Whether the end comes tomorrow evening, in the semi-final or the final (as winners or losers) holds a fascination well beyond Mayo.
As of now, they have the distinction of being the best team not to win an All-Ireland, a dubious honour they don’t want written into history.
They could legitimately claim to be All-Ireland resilience champions for several seasons, but then it's an accolade that will only mean something if the ultimate goal is eventually reached.
To even qualify for the final they have to beat Donegal and Dublin or Tyrone, a trio who are all ranked well ahead of them in the All-Ireland odds. So too are Kerry, who beat Mayo easily three weeks ago.
At face value, Mayo’s prospects of getting past tomorrow evening, let alone winning the All-Ireland, don't appear compelling, but that’s to underestimate the doggedness they have repeatedly shown over the years.
Upsetting the odds has been one of their great delights, as in 2011 and 2012 when they ended the reign of the respective All-Ireland champions, Cork and Dublin.
In 2015 and 2016, they took Dublin to replays and a year later ran them to a point in the final. Yet for all that, they haven't even reached any of the last four Connacht finals, beaten by Galway (three times) and Roscommon.
Yet, when it comes to battles with the big boys from the other provinces, they have a vastly superior record to Galway or Roscommon. It’s all part of the curious green-and-red package.
The older than usual age profile in the squad raises the question – what has happened to the supply lines? It’s easy to claim that too much faith is being shown to players who have come so close winning the All-Ireland, but no manager will opt to weaken his hand out of pure loyalty.
Obviously, the younger brigade haven’t done enough to dislodge the incumbents in this or previous seasons. Ten of the squad (it would have been ten except for Keith Higgins' injury) who played against Donegal in the 2012 All-Ireland final featured against Meath two weeks ago.
In contrast, only two – Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty – of Donegal's 2012 All-Ireland-winning team started against Kerry on the same day.
Using Kerry as a significant form line, Mayo face a troubled time on Saturday. They lost to Kerry by ten points, whereas Donegal drew with the Kingdom in one of the highest quality games of the season.
Obviously, every game is different, but as Martin Carney, who enjoyed great careers with Donegal and Mayo, pointed out in this week’s 'Connaught Telegraph', James Horan's men have to deliver their best performance of the season to have a chance of winning.
"If their standards stand still and fail to improve from what we have already seen this summer, Donegal will take the spoils. Yet, to underestimate Mayo would be foolish. Few are better equipped to spring an ambush and terminate the hopes of the favoured," he wrote.
That’s the thing about Mayo – they often deliver when least expected.
Indeed, it's what Donegal will be most apprehensive about as they head for Castlebar, with Mayo insider Stephen Rochford having fed them every detail he picked up about the players during his three years as manager.
MacHale Park will be oozing emotion in what is one of the most defining games the venue has hosted for a very long time. Careers are on the line for several players, who have given an extraordinary length of service to Mayo.
Donegal know that it will provide an extra shot of energy, turning them very dangerous opponents, especially in front of their own supporters.
It will make for a highly-charged atmosphere for two teams, who have engaged in some feisty battles since 2012.
Indeed, referee David Gough and his officials will have to be at their vigilant best to ensure that bush fires don’t escalate into something more serious.
For Donegal, this is simply about qualifying for the semi-final for the first time since 2014.
That's Mayo's objective too, but there’s another dimension too as they attempt to avoid a defeat that would spark the end of an era.