Tuesday, September 17, 2013

All-Ireland Football Final Preview - Mayo v Dublin

Any sensible bettor looking at this year’s All-Ireland final has to bet the draw. Dublin are even money favourites, Mayo are 6/5 but the draw returns nine clams for every single clam invested, which isn’t too bad for a result that’s often 15/2 or thereabouts in games where draws are less likely.

Right now, a draw is the nightmare prospect because the country still rings with hunting horns as the faithful search for tickets and the prospect of having to do it again chills the blood. There is something fundamentally unsatisfying about the draw too, as Darragh Ó Sé remarked in last week’s Irish Times.

However, as last Sunday week’s hurling final showed, if a draw is the difference between getting another crack at it and losing an All-Ireland that you had in your pocket, you’ll take the draw and be glad of it.

We’ll have to wait and see how the final turns out. It’s one of the most eagerly-anticipated finals in years, and will no doubt show facets as it’s played that nobody expected, as big games so often do. What is certain is that the teams are the two best in Ireland this year, that they are the best exponents of the modern game this year, and that they are so similar as regards their football if they were people you would suspect them of being twins, separated at birth.

Both Dublin and Mayo play the high-tempo game that has evolved from the blanket Tyrone introduced ten years ago. It’s a version of the Dutch total football in soccer of the 1970s, where attackers are expected to defend and defenders are expected to attack.

The criticism that sometimes appears, about it being some sort of bad thing if a back scores more than a forward, is based on dial-up football, instead of the broadband that’s currently being played.

All outfield players’ first duty is to retain possession now – if a forward catches the ball and doesn’t shoot but recycles for another man to score, that point is just as good as one the forward might have scored himself. Go back and watch the last ten minutes of the first half of Mayo v Tyrone – that’s how the game works now at the highest level.

And this is the game both Mayo and Dublin play, and play well. It’s a kind of scorpion football – the opposition are watching those great pincers in the 13 and 15 shirts, only for tail to swish forward for the kill.

The differences between the teams are slight, and balance out overall. Mayo have an advantage in experience, having played in the final last year. Dublin won in 2011, but the team has seen a lot of changes since then – perhaps too many; we’ll wait and see. Dublin have home advantage, but that home advantage has been a double-edged sword in the past. The Hill has been known to shower its heroes with scorn as well as praise when things aren’t quite working out.

Dublin have a more mobile midfield in McAuley and O’Sullivan, whereas the O’Sheas have the advantage in terms of bone and muscle. Ger Brennan has nothing like the attacking potential of Dónal Vaughan, but Brennan has those gifts that would get him a place on the great Dublin teams of the past, with such Legends of the Hill as Seán Doherty, Gay O’Driscoll and Brian Mullins. Brennan knows what he’s there to do.

Upfront, there’s more bite in Dublin. Paul Mannion is one of the stars of the year, Bernard Brogan is coming back to form, Paul Flynn is outstanding and, if he can keep his head, Diarmuid Connolly has all the talent in the world. Mayo have injury concerns over Cillian O’Connor and Andy Moran. It’s grief James Horan doesn’t need.

That said, Mayo are a little steadier at the back. Ger Brennan is undeniably slow, and his compadres are inexperienced. The Mayo defence has been forged in the flames, and their tackling this year has been a masterclass in a misunderstood art.

What, then, of the bench? Again, it’s honours even. Dublin have experienced All-Ireland medalists sitting on the bench, among them the greatest impact sub the game has seen since Jody Devine used to wear the big numbers for Meath in the mid-nineties. Mayo aren’t thin on the bench either, and have replacements for every line – a luxury denied Mayo teams of the past.

Anyone who can say with confidence how this game will pan out is using their heart more than their head. He or she either believes in Dublin in a way he or she can’t believe in Mayo, or else he or she thinks Mayo are “due,” whatever that means. Assuming that Horan has told his players that there are no circumstances in which they can start as badly as they have in previous finals – a reasonably safe assumption – that means the game is likely to be even into the final minutes.

This is a final, above all others, that will be decided by the small things. The 27th minute shot that went barely wide. When Cillian O’Connor went off. Who got carded, when, and for why.

When it’s all over, hindsight will inform judgment – Dublin’s experience carried them through, or Mayo weren’t to be denied, or a draw was the fairest result, for both teams. But reader, remember this – that’s not how it’ll look at the time. Between half-past three and five on Sunday, it’ll all be in the bounce of the ball more than anything else.

Up Mayo.