The question hanging over Mayo is yet to be answered
Horan's men closing gap on Dublin but doubts remain
You know what would make this a very special football championship? Mayo winning the final. Can you imagine the jubilation? All previous All-Ireland winning celebrations would look half-hearted by comparison as the previous final defeats over the past 63 years, all seven of them, suddenly paled into insignificance. I'm excited by the idea and I'm not even from Mayo.
You know what would make this a very depressing football championship? Mayo losing another final. It wouldn't just be that three losses in a row equalled Galway's record from 1940 to 1942, it would be that this made seven defeats in just 25 years, an unparalleled run of misery. Mayo would be like a country which had managed to reach every World Cup final since 1990 and lost all of them. Think of the aftermath. I find the idea unbearable and I'm still not from Mayo.
The weight of Mayo final disappointment has become so crushing that when they struggled against Roscommon and looked a much diminished team, I thought, "well, at least they'll be put out of their misery early this year". Because while I, like many neutrals, would love to see Mayo win the final, I'm not sure if I want them to win the quarter and the semi only to fall at the last hurdle again. Yet right now that seems like an eminently possible outcome. Mayo don't look as good as Dublin but Kerry seem like their only challengers for the title of second best team in the country.
What's been frustrating, though I suppose also encouraging, for Mayo is that their experience in the last two years been similar to the 1990s when they missed out by narrow margins rather than the noughties when their appearances in the decider resembled some kind of unusually cruel ritual sacrifice. For all the talk of Dublin's invincibility, there was a spell in the first half of last year's final when the title seemed to be Mayo's for the taking. Twenty-five minutes in, they were three points up and playing with confidence against an apparently struggling Dublin side. Another couple of scores, you felt, and they wouldn't be pegged back. Instead, they missed a couple of chances and allowed the Dubs back into the game, a single-point half-time lead a small reward for their efforts.
Or maybe the damage had been done in the 16th minute when, with Mayo three points up, defensive hesitation gifted Bernard Brogan a goal which allowed Dublin to keep a foothold in the game. Better co-ordination between Rob Hennelly and Ger Cafferkey and chances are Dublin would have been too far behind at the break to mount a meaningful comeback.
After all, it was at this stage last year that Mayo gave a performance against Donegal which wrung superlatives from even the most hardened sceptics. It was as complete a display as any team has given in the last five years and it made them favourites for the title before doubts began to creep in, partly because of their unimpressive first half against Tyrone, partly because Dublin were so devastating in their second half against Kerry and partly because, well they're Mayo, aren't they?
That day against Donegal, Aidan O'Shea looked nailed on as Footballer of the Year. Athletic, aerially commanding and thoroughly dominant, he looked the kind of classic midfielder no other team possessed as he pulverised Donegal. We waited for him to write his name across the remainder of the championship. But he never did. For some mysterious reason O'Shea was anonymous in both the semi-final and the final, his form deserting him to such an extent he even failed to make an impact for Breaffy against Castlebar Mitchels in the Mayo senior final.
By this year's Connacht final O'Shea was starting at centre half-forward, even if he spent most of his time at midfield. He's been good this term and looks a lot better than anything Cork will be able to put up against him today. But that inspired form he showed against Donegal hasn't quite returned. If he'd given the same performance in the final last year as he had in the quarter-final, Mayo would be champions now.
It's those questions which must haunt James Horan. Where did O'Shea's form go last year? Why has an otherwise consistently outstanding player like Alan Dillon barely figured in the last two All-Ireland finals? And why does an excellent defence develop self-destructive tendencies in the game which matters most?
For all the focus on Mayo's lack of quality forwards, for the last two years they've essentially been undone by the concession of avoidable goals in the final. The kamikaze start against Donegal and the Brogan giveaway ended up costing Mayo everything. It's a telling statistic that of the last 20 All-Ireland winners, only three have conceded more than one goal in the final. And that, for all the talk of their toothless attack, the 1-14 Mayo put up last year would have won the 2009, 2010 and 2011 finals and drawn the 2012 one.
There's not really much wrong with Mayo. And there's a lot right as they showed when cruising past a Galway side who, as they did last year, have made that line of form look pretty good in subsequent matches. They are superbly strong and fit, the one team in the country who won't be physically overpowered or have the legs run off them by Dublin. They are well organised, disciplined and extremely resilient. All the qualities which can be instilled in a team by a good manager are present in spades.
Mayo are a serious football team, which is why they have beaten the reigning All-Ireland champions three years in a row, the first of those wins coming at this stage against today's opposition in 2011. They have a tremendous half-back line where Lee Keegan is a wonder, reminiscent at times of Tomás ó Sé at his best, Colm Boyle is remorseless and Donal Vaughan plays a kind of Total Football, though he's been a bit subdued so far this term. Keith Higgins remains indomitable in the full-back line though Cafferkey was perhaps in better form a couple of years back and Cork will fancy their chances of getting some joy in the other corner.
The return of Barry Moran makes them stronger at midfield and Mayo will win the majority of possession here against almost any opponent. Cillian O'Connor's injury-hampered final showing last year shouldn't mask the fact that he's become one of the most dangerous forwards in the game and should relish going up against Cork's questionable defence. And is there a better wing-forward in the game than Kevin McLoughlin, a Paul Galvin with added scoring power?
But here's where it starts to get tricky. Horan badly need someone else to step up given that Dillon and Andy Moran remain more likely to contribute cameos than win matches off their own bat on this type of day. Jason Doherty seems to be knocking at the door, tearing Cork apart in the National League for one thing, and Mayo will hope he can kick on rather than dropping into the pack as the likes of Enda Varley and Alan Freeman have done in the past.
Horan will be unperturbed by Brian Cuthbert's tactical innovation of dropping two wing-forwards back to cover his full-back line. Anything which results in Keegan and Vaughan spending more time in the opposition half will be grist to Mayo's mill. They're not Kerry, they don't devastate teams with quick ball into the full-forwards. Instead they wear them down by a process of attrition, the athletes in the half-back line and midfield carrying the ball at pace right at the heart of the opposition defence time and again.
Still, Cork have the forwards to trouble any team. Paul Kerrigan and Colm O'Neill were tremendous against Sligo, while I suspect there are big games to come from Brian Hurley and Mark Collins. Horan will know that Cork today are in the same position Mayo were in 2011, a hungry up-and-coming team eager to topple favourites who might be a little worn down by a prolonged spell near the top. It could all end today.
But chances are Mayo will abide and that the question of whether they're like the Galway team which lost the 1971, 1973 and 1974 All-Ireland finals or the Dublin team which lost the 1992 final, the 1993 semi-final and 1994 final by a combined total of seven points but came back to grind it out in 1995 won't be answered just yet.
The struggle continues. The road goes ever on and on.
Sunday Indo Sport