Dubs Sublime As Mayo Come Of Age The Big Picture

Dubs Sublime As Mayo Come Of Age

We’re set for a fascinating All-Ireland football final on September 17th when the two best teams in the land – Dublin and Mayo – do battle for Sam Maguire. Can the Dubs win three in a row for the first time in over 90 years or will Mayo claim their first title since 1951? In the meantime, there is the hurling final between Galway and Waterford this Sunday to consider, with all the signs suggesting we could be in for a classic.

It’s that time of year again. The last days of summer are upon us. The kids are back in school and the traffic is hell once more. For the GAA that means it’s the business end of the inter-county season and it’s time to start handing out the prizes. There are just four candidates left standing. In Dublin and Mayo, Galway and Waterford, we have four counties who are more than deserving, but there can be only two winners. So who will be smiling when the final whistle sounds?

It’s been a long road to the final for Mayo following their Connacht SFC semi-final defeat to Galway back in June. They’ve needed two replays, they been taken to extra-time twice, but somehow they’ve made it through. Usually, when pundits talk of a team reaching the latter stages of the championship via the scenic route that is the qualifiers, the implication is that they’re about to run out of steam, that they won’t have the legs and will be easy prey for their fresher opponents.


But you cannot say that of Mayo this year. Write them off at your peril. The fact is that they have been getting better and better with every game. They look battle-hardened, older and wiser. There is a maturity about them that wasn’t there last season. They have quality all over the pitch and have truly come of age this year. It looks like they have learned every lesson on offer to them since the agony of their defeat in the replay last season. They’re good, but are they good enough to beat Dublin this time? Only time will tell.

Unseating the All-Ireland champions is a tall order for any side, particularly when you are dealing with a team like Dublin that hasn’t lost a championship match in over three years, but Mayo will be quietly confident. There was a lot of talk ahead of last year’s final, a little too much perhaps, and they will have learned from that. Many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, as they say.

But there is no doubting that Mayo are a much better team than they were last year. Most pundits felt they had missed their chance by not putting Kerry away in the first game. The Kingdom would be ready for them in the replay and the old order of the football world would be restored, they said. But it wasn’t. Kerry simply couldn’t handle Mayo’s physicality, pace and accuracy as Stephen Rochford’s side upped the ante significantly from the first encounter and deservedly ran out 2-16 to 0-17 winners. Having established a buffer courtesy of Diarmuid O’Connor and Andy Moran’s goals either side of half-time, they impressively killed off the game by retaining possession for long spells and denying the Kerry forward and half-forward lines any space on the rare occasions that they did manage to get their hands on the ball.


The fact that the game ended in violence was indicative of Kerry’s frustration as Kieran Donaghy marked what could be his final appearance in the Kingdom jersey with a straight red card for punching Aidan O’Shea. If it is to be his swansong, it is a sad way to go out for a player who has given his county so much. It was a shambolic end for a Kerry team that has, in truth, flattered to deceive for long periods over past few years.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice has said he will consider his position. He has been in the job for five years and his haul of silverware, one All-Ireland and one Allianz League title, is probably not enough to keep the critics at bay in a county that has been weaned on a regular diet of championship and league titles. But it was the manner of the defeat that will hurt the most and could ultimately cost Fitzmaurice his job. Kerry were outclassed – and you don’t get to see that very often. It also leaves a nagging question ahead of the final. Are Mayo that good or are they getting too much praise for beating an ordinary team?


Whatever the answer to that question, one thing is certain – Mayo will have to beat a very good side if they are to end their 66-year wait for Sam. Dublin showed their class by completely destroying Tyrone 2-17 to 0-11 in the other semi-final on Sunday. It was their best performance of the championship by a mile and lays down a serious marker ahead of the final as they attempt to emulate the achievements of their fellow countymen back in the early 1920s by winning three All-Ireland titles in succession.

Dublin haven’t lost a championship match since being beaten by Donegal in the semi-final three years ago. They have looked invincible for much of the time since with only two defeats in the interim, both to Kerry. Their most recent loss, in the Allianz League final in April, was seen as something of a wake-up call for a side that was in danger of going stale. Given their record over the past few years, it’s no surprise that they are considered to be up there with the Kerry team of the late 1970s and early ‘80s, possibly the greatest team of all time. High praise indeed!


There has been a growing chorus of calls for Dublin GAA to be split into two in order to level the playing field with the other counties. The ease with which they carved their way through Tyrone’s blanket defence has only strengthened that argument. There is no doubt that Dublin have massive strength in depth. Bernard Brogan and Michael Darragh McAuley failed to get a run off the substitute’s bench on Sunday and they have basically made it to the decider without the services of Diarmuid Connolly who, after getting a couple of minutes late on against Tyrone, will surely be pushing for a start in the final.

It is an embarrassment of riches upon which other counties can only gaze with envy, but to split the county in two is surely not the answer. Was that suggested when Kerry won four-in-a-row back in 1978-81? It would have been unthinkable. Would a Mayo win on September 17th quieten these voices and what value would be placed on future titles if they were won against a Dublin county divided in two? Not much, I would suggest – on both counts.


Hurling

But before the football decider, there is the pressing matter of the hurling final between Galway and Waterford this Sunday. The appetite for success in both counties is enormous – they have been starved for too long. Galway are waiting for their first title since 1988, while Waterford haven’t lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup since 1959. Whatever happens on Sunday, one of these two great hurling counties is set to end a long barren spell.

Galway are favourites after an unblemished campaign that saw them win the Leinster title and see off reigning All-Ireland champions Tipperary in the semi-final. They are big and very physical, but have more than their share of skilful players too. In Joe Canning they have one of the greatest players of the modern era and someone that not even the most diehard Deise fan would deny deserves an All-Ireland winner’s medal.


For their part, Waterford seem to be finding form at the right time and their demolition of Cork in the semi-final was something to behold. In Austin Gleeson and Pauric Mahony they have two of the best young hurlers in the country right now. Gleeson is lucky to be playing after escaping a ban for interfering with Luke Meade’s helmet in the semi-final and his inclusion is sure to provide a massive boost to manager Derek McGrath and the Deise faithful. His goal in that game is sure to go down as one of the great championship majors of all time.

There are a couple of key battles that will go a long way to deciding who wins on Sunday. The first is that of the free-takers – Mahony v Canning. Both are deadly accurate which means that discipline is paramount for both teams. If the free count hits double figures for either side, they could be in trouble. Canning punished Tipperary in the semi-final with some great dead ball scores, including a side-line puck as good as any you will ever see. Who will hold their nerve on the big occasion on Sunday to slot what could be a match-winning score?


Another consideration is the midfield battle between Galway’s David Burke and Johnny Coen as they go head-to-head with Deise pairing Jaimie Barron and Kevin Moran. After watching their performance against Cork, it’s a clash that Burke believes could decide the outcome. “They have been the engine room for them all year,” he said in an interview with the Irish Times earlier this week. “Myself and Johnny have been chatting since the game and looking to see how we can nullify their threat. They will be doing the same. That battle is key and I think whoever wins it will probably win the game.

“They will have to match that performance of the last day – they got was it 2-4 from the middle of the field. 'Brick' Walsh is having a massive year too and Austin (Gleeson). But we are playing well too so it might start out as a bit of a chess game. But after that it might open up to be a thriller.”

Let’s hope so!

Images: INPHO

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