Thursday 22 February 2018

Dublin's turn to seek end to final misery against Mayo

Dublin’s Sinead Aherne and Mayo’s Sarah Tierney. Photo: Ramsey Cardy.
Dublin’s Sinead Aherne and Mayo’s Sarah Tierney. Photo: Ramsey Cardy.

Dermot Crowe

If only to see Cora Staunton parading her extensive range of gifts, you might consider attending the All-Ireland senior ladies final between Dublin and Mayo today. This afternoon's contest marks Staunton's and Mayo's first final appearance since 2007. The National League final win over Dublin in April was Mayo's only Croke Park appearance in the last nine years.

Staunton is the perfect embodiment of the ladies game in her capacity to entertain and enrapture audiences, but also in reminding us how much she has been underappreciated by the public at large.

Much of the broader public acquaintance with Staunton and the game she plays is fleeting. But recent trends show a spike in attendances. Last year's gathering for the All-Ireland finals set a new record, rising to almost 35,000, and today's could breach the 40,000 mark, with Dublin striving to end a three-year final losing streak. Increased television exposure and an expanding role for the ladies game in clubs throughout the country are growth factors starting to translate into a deeper curiosity and a widening support base.

Today's senior showpiece comes a week after an absorbing All-Ireland men's final between Dublin and Mayo. The sharp disappointment which has spread through Mayo in recent days can't have escaped the ladies flying the flag now. But they have their own ambitions and goals and they do not carry the burden of a famine as extensive as their county men. Dublin too, though buoyed by the success of a week ago, won't find it adding a point to the scoreboard once the game gets under way at 4.0.

Mayo and Dublin ladies have met at the summit only once before, when Mayo last triumphed in 2003 and rounded off a fourth win in five years. For Staunton, who will be 36 before the end of the year and is in her 23rd season, this represents a late resurrection. Since last winning the senior championship 14 years ago, Mayo have had one final appearance, in 2007. Lean pickings, but they pulled off the result of the year in the semi-final when toppling Cork.

Cork have dominated in a way only previously managed by Kerry when they won their nine in a row in the 1980s and '90s. Cork couldn't match that unbridled sequence but they still managed a remarkable 11 wins out of the last 12, the one blip coming in 2010 when they failed to make the final. That was the year that Dublin enjoyed their sole success, winning comfortably against Tyrone - who are back in Croke Park today in the intermediate final.

Dublin will not be unhappy to see the back of Cork, for a while at least, although there would obviously be no sweeter win for these girls who have suffered at their hands with defeats in the last three finals, by margins of one point, twice, and two.

Mayo went through a period of turbulence since last appearing, at its worst when the county withdrew from the championship in 2010. The withdrawal was temporary and followed the resignation of Pat Costello as manager after differences between him and the players. They re-entered the championship the same year but the county has taken time to find the kind of stability needed to revive itself as a force.

Last year Mayo reached the All-Ireland semi-finals and signed off with a highly creditable one-point loss to Dublin in Breffni Park. They stormed back from being eight points down to level the match but went under to a free from Sinéad Aherne with the last kick. The league title that followed last April appeared to consolidate that form. The heavy defeat to Galway in the Connacht final then shook confidence but they have worked their way back and defeating Cork has repaired much of the damage.

Claire Egan, the former Mayo All-Ireland medal winner and a club team-mate of Staunton's at Carnacon, laments the darker period when relations between players, management and the county board became frayed. They went through a phase of regular management upheaval. "There were a lot of changes at administration level," recalls Egan. "There was a lot of politicking. Players want to play. The group from '99 (year of their first All-Ireland senior title win) onwards that I enjoyed tremendous success with was very driven as well. There was a good set-up and standard, the training with (then manager) Finbar Egan was incredible and he had huge standards and we were accustomed to that.

"It was hugely frustrating in Mayo after what we had experienced to go back and be scrambling around for a manager a couple of months before the championship. Players asking for proper training facilities. Basic stuff. Players want to turn up and play; they want a set training venue and they want to train hard and get things done."

But today offers the chance of a new chapter unfolding with the age profile, a few veterans like Staunton and Yvonne Byrne aside, very much on the lower end of the scale. They face a Dublin team, under Mick Bohan, that is determined to atone for the bitter experience of losing the last three finals. Egan says that Mayo have to park the Cork win, which no longer has any relevance.

With Staunton there, they have every chance. At times she has three players in her space, trying to curtail her influence. "Her scoring ratios are incredible," says Egan, "and she is enjoying it. She takes a lot of hammerings in games, and that is a fact, being double-teamed and so on. I have played with her, and seen a lot of dubious tackling going on. And I hope she gets proper protection."

Staunton represents the single greatest threat of another All-Ireland final day heartbreak for Dublin. How they strive to stifle her will be fascinating.

Players to watch

Aileen Gilroy (Mayo)

Mayo had struggled in recent years to find a consistent midfield partner for the imperious Fiona McHale. That problem was solved by the return to fitness for Aileen Gilroy as she recovered from a knee injury. The former Irish soccer international moved to midfield this season and her impact was instant. The performance of Gilroy and McHale was best illustrated against the formidable Donegal pairing of Karen Guthrie and Katie Herron who were forced to play second fiddle as the energy and commitment of the Mayo duo was too much for the Ulster champions. Gilroy loves to run directly at opposition defences and can be a real goal threat.

Yvonne Byrne (Mayo)

Goalkeeper has become a key position in ladies football and, similar to the men’s game, securing possession from kick-outs is one of the most important factors in the winning and losing of matches. Mayo have one of the best in the business in Yvonne Byrne. The Ballyhaunis star has plenty of experience outfield having played in the forwards for Mayo in the past. Byrne’s intelligent and precise passing is a huge factor for Mayo and she has a long kick to call on if the short kick-out is not working. Byrne, All Star goalkeeper in 2013, is also a top shot-stopper which may be vital against this goal-hungry Dublin side.

Niamh Collins (Dublin)

An unheralded player in the Dublin ranks, yet Niamh Collins is arguably their most important defender. Playing at centre half-back she has produced some wonderful performances. She is comfortable on the ball and loves to burst forward in possession; however, she has played a more defensively disciplined game this season and is a turnover machine.

Nicole Owens (Dublin)

This is the season that Nicole Owens has lived up to the hype that surrounded her as she came through Dublin’s underage ranks. She is one of the most talented players on view today and her attacking performances — including four goals — from wing-forward have been a key feature in Dublin’s success this season. The switch from corner- to wing-forward has helped Owens, who has more space to run at opposition defences using her explosive pace to burst through tackles. Her defensive duties are as important as her attacking prowess and this year she has embraced her duty to tackle back and turn over possession.

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