Sunday 19 November 2017

'Today's All-Ireland is basically the US presidential election in reverse - neutrals should be pleased with result, no matter who wins'

Mayo's Aidan O'Shea. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile
Mayo's Aidan O'Shea. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Today's All-Ireland football final is one of those rare games where neutrals should be pleased with the result, no matter who wins. It's basically the US presidential election in reverse.

A first Dublin two-in-a-row since 1976 would be good for the game, because ever since Jim Gavin took over as manager the Dubs have provided a series of stunning retorts to the idea that Gaelic football is set on a course of ever-increasing cynicism and negativity. By heeding the better angels of the game's nature they have proved that modern football doesn't have to resemble a slowed-up version of rugby league. For that they deserve gratitude, and perhaps another All-Ireland.

Should they win today it will be a remarkable achievement - because all the stress laid on the inexorable progress of the Dublin machine has obscured the fact that this has been a year of transition for a team which had to reinvent itself on the hoof as the season went on.

Since the beginning of the decade, three Dublin players have been Footballer of the Year. One of these, Jack McCaffrey, left the panel this year, and the other two - Michael Darragh Macauley and Bernard Brogan - have had unquestionably the poorest championship season of their careers. Add in the facts that, over the last 12 months, Stephen Cluxton has struggled with form to the extent of becoming a potential weak link - rather than the rock-solid centre of the side - and that Rory O'Carroll has also dropped out, and you can see the immense amount of slack which the other Dublin players have had to pick up.

Yet pick it up they have done. The absence of O'Carroll has been compensated for by a huge leap forward by Jonny Cooper, who's been the most consistent defender in the game this year. Macauley's struggles have been compensated for by the emergence of Brian Fenton as the finest midfielder in football. The apparent waning of Brogan, which would have been fatal to Dublin in previous seasons, has been offset by both Kevin McManamon - previously regarded as the classic example of a player who does his best work coming off the bench - and Dean Rock - previously regarded as the classic example of a player who's only there to kick the frees - producing the football of their lives. This year's Dublin is a new model army.

Meanwhile, Ciaran Kilkenny has become the leader of the attack, driving things forward in a manner not unlike that of the other Brogan, Alan, and Diarmuid Connolly seems to be bucking the pattern of previous years by growing stronger as the campaign goes on. There are those two paragons of unobtrusive excellence in the half-back line - James McCarthy, perpetually loping up and down the pitch like he's in an advertisement depicting the staying power of some new brand of batteries, and Cian O'Sullivan - marshalling, knitting things together, never doing anything wrong, a Gaelic football Baresi. The one-man wrecking crew, and scourge of Mayo, going by the name of Philly McMahon, has to be taken into account too.

As does the prospect that Dublin's sleeping giants may awaken on the most important day of all. In particular, Mayo must surely have the 'it's quiet . . . maybe too quiet' feeling about Brogan, the outstanding forward of his generation and a player who has generally done his best stuff in the last couple of matches of the year.

So there is very good reason why Mayo are the least-fancied outsiders since Donegal took on the Dubs in 1992. The men from the West have sought this prize for so long and with such heartbreaking results that, should they prevail today, we'd probably see an outburst of emotion unrivalled in the history of Croke Park. It might be a month before the next cow is milked in the Taoiseach's office.

Aidan O'Shea's admission that Mayo were a better team two years ago will probably be portrayed as a cunning ploy to lure Dublin into a false sense of security. But it also seems like the truth. They have stuttered and stumbled through the campaign and got here, to a certain extent, by virtue of a kind draw. You can say that it's a good sign of a team that they win while playing badly, but it would probably bode better for their fortunes today had they been winning while playing well.

And yet . . . they have the best goalkeeper in the game in David Clarke, the best corner-back in Keith Higgins and the best wing-back in Lee Keegan. In Aidan O'Shea they have their own version of Diarmuid Connolly, a prodigiously gifted, if enigmatic, talent who this year seems to be gaining rather than losing momentum as the championship progresses. They will not be outrun, outfought or outworked.

That will not be enough - and neither will the probable big performances from Higgins, Keegan and O'Shea. Twelve months ago everyone agreed that, whatever happened, David Moran would give Kerry a pronounced edge at midfield. Instead Brian Fenton wiped out Kerry's key man with a man-of-the-match performance. Mayo need something similarly unexpected today. At midfield, for example, Seamus O'Shea and Tom Parsons have always been solid, but today one of them needs to be inspired.

Between them the two O'Connor brothers, Cillian and Diarmuid, have three Young Player of the Year awards, and both have the equipment to make the jump to the elite level of inter-county forwards. Cillian's claims have so far been weakened by a failure to perform in All-Ireland finals. That will need to change today if Mayo are to win. Looking through the Mayo line-up you are struck by how many good footballers are in it - All-Irelands have been won with weaker teams. But good though the likes of Brendan Harrison, Colm Boyle, Kevin McLoughlin and Andy Moran have been in the past, they will need to scale new heights today.

Whatever it is, the result should please the neutral. But what about the game itself? Conventional wisdom holds that Mayo's best chance lies in making the game tight, defensive and mean. Yet the teams which have troubled Dublin most - Donegal two years ago, Kerry in this year's semi-final - have done so by attacking them. For Mayo to win they will probably need a huge performance from their forwards and a big score. There are pragmatic as well as aesthetic reasons why they should adopt a bold approach hitherto absent from their play this year. The better the game, the more chance Mayo have of winning it.

Hopefully, today's final will resemble last year's thrilling replay between the two sides rather than the mean-spirited draw which preceded it. It may lack the mystique of hurling or the glamour of soccer but, played properly, Gaelic football is still one of the world's greatest games.

Let's dance.

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