Mayo have been knocking on heaven’s door for a long time but will the pearly gates finally swing open, or will they spend another year, at least, as residents in the house of pain?
The season has rightly been described as the summer of the underdog, with All-Ireland successes for the Meath minor and senior ladies’ footballers as well as Offaly’s U-20s. Both teams in tomorrow’s Croke Park decider upset the odds in the semi-finals, so the SFC has concluded with something of a tale of the unexpected.
Mayo manager James Horan was possibly anticipating a clash against Kerry in the decider and it would be interesting to know if his backroom brains’ trust invested much, if any time, working on tactics to face the Kingdom in between both semi-finals?
This senior football championship has also been the campaign of the defence, with many of the heroes for both Tyrone and Mayo have been defenders. Despite the introduction of the mark, along with other tweaks to rules and regulations, the game isn’t forward’s paradise.
However, the style of refereeing changes throughout the championship has had an influence here also - what is a black card foul in the first round of the provincial championship might not necessarily be one come the All-Ireland series.
While there are many similarities between tomorrow’s finalists, there are differences also; how they defend is one of them. And whose defensive system/style performs best will go a long way to deciding the outcome.
Many argue that the county with the best forwards wins All-Irelands. As I’ve stated before, I’m in the camp that the team with the best defenders and defensive system wins All-Irelands, but it is the forwards and impact subs who decide the margin of victory.
In terms of the respective defences, Mayo have some excellent man-markers, players who like and have the bravery to play on the front foot.
They showed this when bringing Dublin’s 45-game unbeaten championship run to a grinding halt in their semi-final.
Though seven points down at one stage and six at half-time, Horan’s men were rewarded for their defensive bravery in the second half and attacked from all angles as Dublin struggled to hold back wave after wave of Mayo attack.
When Horan set about rebuilding his panel, following his return to the Mayo managerial role, it was clear some of the characteristics he prioritised included the ability and temperament to handle a direct opponent one-on-one, along with a strong, athletic running game capable of standing up to the test of Croke Park.
Before their semi-final victory, Mayo had not beaten Dublin in eight Championship matches at GAA HQ, stretching back to their victory in 2012. It is no coincidence that one of the elements of both victories was that they did not concede a goal in either 2012 or again last month.
In Pádraig O’Hora, Mayo have found a full-back in the traditional style, a bit like Donegal’s Eamon McGee in his prime or even Dublin’s Rory O’Carroll, men that were happy just keeping their man out of the game by whatever means.
I expect two out of Lee Keegan, O’Hora, Stephen Coen and Oisín Mullin, if he starts, to take up marking duties on Darren McCurry and Mattie Donnelly, which will liberate Paddy Durcan to showcase his attacking potency if he can shake off the attention of Conor Meyler.
Mayo are not afraid to take a risk at the back on the understanding that is the key to gaining reward further up the field. It paid dividends for them, when they needed it most, in the second half and especially in the last quarter of normal time against Dublin.
They pushed right up on the Dublin kick-out and Dessie Farrell’s men started to buckle. They found it hard to work the ball out of defence, especially when Eoin Murchan picked up his injury and was eventually substituted.
When Dublin did emerge from defence, they kicked straight-line balls towards their intended targets on too many occasions. It was in these moments that Mayo’s ability to defend one-on-one and take man and ball emerged most. And all those small battles contributed hugely to them winning the overall war.
It is impossible to do, though, for 70-plus minutes in Croke Park, or anywhere for that matter, so Mayo will have to be clever on how and when they deploy the full-court press on this Tyrone team.
Tyrone’s defensive approach is different. They utilise something akin to what in soccer parlance is known as the mid-block and it worked very effectively against Kerry last time out, resulting in turnovers that contributed to scoring 2-9 on the counter-attack.
One of the strengths of the Ulster championship is the number of versatile players they have who are comfortable in several positions and are also strong and creative in possession.
Against the Kingdom, they erected two banks of four players nominally condensed between their own 45 and 65-metre lines. Kerry’s running game found the traffic in there too heavy and in the resulting gridlock, Tyrone emerged in possession and used it clinically to swiftly counter to telling effect.
Tyrone will press this mid-sector, which may force Mayo down the flanks. However, Horan’s men should be forewarned so as not to make the same mistakes as Kerry and will try to spread the play, ‘widen’ the pitch and utilise their possession better.
One advantage Tyrone will be hoping to exploit is off the bench and their impact subs are capable of contributing more in terms of scores. If Tyrone hold back starting Cathal McShane and Darragh Canavan, they have two potential trump cards to play after the half-time interval. Players who both can complement the likes of McCurry and Conor McKenna but can also implement a change in game-plan if required. Again, it is this versatility that makes Tyrone tricky opponents.
While history and the psychology of sport suggests that Tyrone could have the upper hand because of Mayo’s track record in All-Ireland finals, this team doesn’t play under the pressure of the mental baggage of a 70-year wait to end their Sam Maguire famine.
This is a new Mayo team and often younger players cope with pressure better because they are not burdened by history.
It all makes for an intriguing tactical battle and a contest that is likely to be very physical. Referee Joe McQuillan and his officials could be in for a testing late afternoon.
So back to the question at the start, heaven or house of pain for Mayo? The gates certainly won’t swing open invitingly, but I think Mayo can finally break them down. Sam to head West.