Tuesday 24 April 2018

Nothing short of perfection will do in bid to dethrone unflappable Dubs

Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

In Tourmakeady, the native Irish-speaking part of Mayo around Lough Mask, there's a tyre on which the words 'Tá sé ag teacht' have been painted. This may have been inspired by the old Guinness ad from the 1970s, where locals are waiting in the island pub for their stout to arrive by currach. Long before mobile phones could update them on progress, the customers wait anxiously in silence by the ticking clock. The tension is palpable. After what seems an interminable delay, a man opens the door and joyfully announces: 'Tá siad ag teacht!' Soon the porter is flowing and all is well once more with the world.

This All-Ireland is coming a long time for Mayo. Like those customers, their supporters have been waiting an unreasonably long time, 65 years now, a series of near misses tormenting them and worsening their drought. They have the driest mouth in the house. The currach has never made it to shore. The close call in 1989 against Cork, with Anthony Finnerty's goal miss recounted innumerable times since. The two close shaves in the following decade under John Maughan, the one of 20 years ago when they lost a replay to Meath being the most painful, the bounce of the ball literally against them when Meath forced a replay with the ball hopping over the bar.

Later still, the false dawns under the second coming of Maughan in 2004, and the more esoteric and holistic rule of John Morrison and Mickey Moran 10 years ago, who found a way past Dublin, but not Kerry. Then the 2012 final with Donegal, when Michael Murphy exposed them, and a year later, arguably their nearest crack when going down to Dublin, undone by two goals from Bernard Brogan. Over the winter there has even been a player revolt against two men who are recognised as tremendous servants of the county, Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly, who guided Mayo to an under 21 All-Ireland but, for whatever reason, lost the confidence of a team desperate to get over the line.

Here, at least, the view holds that 2013 was their optimum chance of winning an All-Ireland with the nucleus of the side of recent campaigns. Not everyone agrees. Mayo took Dublin to two matches last year, and in Dublin games there has been a thread running through where Mayo's expectations of doing well this afternoon, based on those experiences, are well founded. But that takes them only so far. Dublin are chasing a second All-Ireland in succession for the first time since 1977 and have won three All-Irelands in the time Mayo have lost two finals. They have a better forward line than Mayo and a better selection of options on the bench. In an open match there looks to be only one feasible winner.

In matches where they experienced turbulence, to some degree against Donegal, and more so against Kerry, Dublin held their nerve and kicked on, a testament to a composure gained through experience, some of it hard experience, the most edifying kind. The areas where they foundered in the past, where they were brittle psychologically, are less apparent now.

Mayo are relying on so much to go right that in the context of their form to date there is no convincing proof that they can unleash the kind of performance which has been in them in recent seasons. The advantage of this, if there is one, is that they come into a final without the usual frenzy a big championship win excites in a county as needy as theirs. They are empty of that pressure of expectation, and while it is always there understandably, it is not as pronounced or as demonstrably giddy. That leaves them in a good frame of mind and has allowed them a new route, with a run in the qualifiers, even if the draw meant they've avoided a team from Division 1 at any stage.

Not promising either is the nature of Dublin's win over Kerry, having earned it without being dazzling, thereby leaving much room for improvement. Ciaran Kilkenny and Brogan, to name but two, head in with much personal motivation to finish the season on a higher note. Diarmuid Connolly, too, has unhappy memories of Mayo from last year, coming back from a successful appeal for the semi-final replay and being a shadow of himself. The difficulties encountered in the Kerry game, which might give Mayo increased grounds for optimism, were self-inflicted, with Stephen Cluxton's errant kickout leading to the run of scores which put a hitherto comfortable Dublin in arrears at half-time. Impressive as Dublin's first comeback was immediately after half-time, their later recovery when Kerry went three up with eight minutes of normal time left to play looked even better.

They've coped well in the absence of Rory O'Carroll and Jack McCaffrey, and Mayo have to produce something special to unhinge a back line that now has a greater coherence and meanness than at any stage since they began their recent run of All-Irelands five years ago. There is some talk of Mayo using Keith Higgins in attack, where he played for the first half of the 2013 final, and bringing Chris Barrett in, with one of the forwards demoted.

They need a near-perfect performance to win this which is asking a lot. Under Jim Gavin Dublin have played 23 championship matches, and won 21. They've drawn once, with Mayo, and lost only once, to Donegal. Today, they should make that 22 wins.

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