Thursday, September 20, 2012

Donegal and Mayo in the Theatre of the Remarkable

Donegal are rightful favourites for this year’s All-Ireland. In other years when they were in the final, it seemed like Mayo were the story – would this be the year the county would finally break free from the House of Pain? This year, the final is about Donegal, and Mayo are hoping for the best.

Donegal have delivered what has been, up to this final, one of the most astonishing campaigns we’ve ever seen in the Championship. It’s not just that Donegal have beaten teams – they’ve hammered them, broken them, laid them waste and scattered their bones to the wind.

Donegal have pillaged the opposition the way the Vikings pillaged Ireland one thousand years ago. The apprehension felt by teams before facing Donegal is like that felt by the monk writing in his round tower in the ninth century, preferring the howling of the gale to the howling of the Norsemen:

“Since tonight the wind is high
The sea’s white mane a fury
I need not fear the hounds of Hell
Coursing the Irish Channel.”

Donegal mess with heads. Darragh Ó Sé tipped Mayo in his typically excellent column in yesterday’s Irish Times, but earlier in the year, Darragh had a different story. After Donegal pounded Down to win Donegal’s second straight Ulster title, Ó Sé wrote:

Donegal take you out of your comfort zone. Everybody knows what it feels like to go out and play a game of football – it’s the most natural thing in the world, the one thing that feels most familiar in an inter county player’s world.

But Donegal get you doing things you don’t want to, they get you worrying about systems and angles of running and fast-break attacks. They do everything they can to make it feel unnatural. You’re thrown off your stride immediately and you spend the rest of the game trying to get it back.

That’s how Donegal smash teams. That’s how they smashed Cork. By the second half of the first All-Ireland semi-final, Cork were reduced to stringing men across their defence and hoped to God they would be able to withstand whatever terrors Donegal would hurl at them next.

And withstand they didn’t. Cork, that fine team, those big beasts of men, were blown away, just as every other team have been blown away this year by Donegal’s unstoppable force.

And now Mayo face that fearsome Northern fury. The very fact that Mayo are back in another All-Ireland Final two years after the miserable end to John O’Mahony’s Second Coming in Pearse Park, Longford, is testimony to two factors.

The new manager, James Horan, is the number one catalyst of course, but the richness of the often-derided football tradition in the county can't be ignored. If Mayo were chokers, they would have curled up and died by now. They haven’t. They’ve come back, just like they do.

Mayo would be the story of the year if Donegal did not exist. James Horan and Jim McGuinness are similar in many ways, 21st Century managers of 21st Century teams. And while Donegal are deserving favourites, that doesn’t mean Mayo haven’t a hope.

Firstly, as Ó Sé pointed out yesterday, Mayo’s previous experience will stand to them. Because the county became a punchline to a series of middling jokes after those All-Ireland losses that’s not immediately obvious, but it’s true.

 The All-Ireland final is not like any other game. People tell you the principles of poker are the same when you play for matches as when you play for money. The principles may be the same, but the actuality of the game is completely different. You think differently, and play differently, once you’ve suddenly got something to lose.

All of a sudden, Donegal have a lot to lose. Their magnificent season isn’t worth a hill of beans if they come second on Sunday. Ask Mayo. They know. Donegal haven’t felt that white heat of All-Ireland Final day before. Mayo have, and are stronger because of it.

Secondly, it’s interesting to note how differently the two campaigns have gone. Donegal came, saw and conquered in all their games. Mayo had to sweat against Sligo, lost their captain against Down and hung on for dear life against the All-Ireland Champions.

Mayo 2012 don’t do panic. In both the Connacht Final and the All-Ireland semi-final, Mayo have successfully implemented Plan B. If Jimmy McGuinness has to reach for Plan B at half-post four on Sunday, what happens then?

Of course, something remarkable will have to happen for Donegal’s Plan A not to have worked, as it’s worked a dream so far. But this is the All-Ireland Final. This is the theatre of the remarkable.

Two weeks ago it looked like Kilkenny’s magnificent hurling imperium of the past decade was finally coming to an end. But it didn’t, because Henry Shefflin would not allow it to happen. Shefflin delivered one of his greatest performances on the greatest stage. All-Ireland Finals are like that. They can inspire men to write new histories.

Mayo have the experience of the big day and nobody knows what Donegal will be like if the system starts to go wrong and time starts to tick away. In no place on Earth does time tick away as quickly as on the last day of the Championship, as the autumnal sky darkens and winter can be tasted on the wind.

If Donegal hold their nerve and play to their pattern, they win, they will deserve to win and they will be magnificent Champions. If not, Mayo can turn a page and use Game 5 of Year 2 to deliver that long-awaited Sam 4. Mayo to win. Mayo, Mayo, Mayo. Always Mayo.