Since the final whistle of last Sunday’s chaotic and compelling All-Ireland final, there’s been a consensus that Jim Gavin’s Dublin will automatically be better in the replay.
There’s a validity to that theory and it’s one this column happens to share but the other side of that which is not so commonly shared is that Stephen Rochford’s Mayo are bound to be better too.
That is probably the most telling dynamic about where this tie and pairing are now. Instead of viewing last Sunday as a glorious opportunity missed as some of their critics and more fatalistic supporters will, the Mayo set-up itself will see it as an opportunity won.
They now get another two weeks working together. They’ll feel they’re getting stronger. Time is one of the constant challenges a new management is up against; it’s why we always maintained Jim Gavin was always the deserving winner of the 2013 Philips Sports Manager of the Year for the remarkable job he did in having Dublin up and running at the speed they were at every juncture that year – league, Leinster and the All- Ireland series. So much of this season has been a squeeze for Rochford and his management – the players getting to know his systems, him getting to know these players. The Connacht championship – of what there was of it – and the qualifiers were essentially a second league campaign: a godsend, given their circumstances. But each win through the backdoor bought him more time, to the point you can now discard their formline in June and July.
Likewise the semi-final against Tipperary; in guarding against complacency on the back of their defeat to Galway, management nearly erred too much on the side of caution in their preparation for that mach which contributed to an over-tentativeness in their performance. But take that as an outlier and the improvement this side has made – especially tactically – since the week leading up to the Tyrone game and last Sunday – is the biggest jump this group of players have made since the early summer of 2013.
Contrary to another consensus out there, there wasn’t that much freakish about last Sunday. Yeah, Mayo gave up two own goals – but both were similar to goals in last year’s games between the teams. Back then it was Kevin McManaman and Bernard Brogan who happened to stick the foot out and it went into the net; last Sunday it was Kevin McLoughlin and Colm Boyle; both goals came from aggressive Dublin running and pressure. There was nothing freakish about Mayo shutting Dublin’s forwards down for large periods of the game; they also tied them down brilliantly in the first half of the 2012 and 2013 clashes between the teams. Nor was there anything surprising about their comeback and the method and identify of their scores.
The big one though was the defensive lockdown, a testament to Rochford’s tactical work and the scope he’s given Donie Buckley on the training ground. For all the belief this team have had over the last four or five seasons, it will never be higher than it is now. Over the next 12 days the players will be buoyed in the knowledge that they have total trust and faith in the now proven tactical acumen of this management and their capacity to get the right match-ups and make the right in-game switches. The management in turn will be buoyed from seeing at first-hand for themselves the spirit these players showed in the heat and the height of battle, having only watched their comebacks from similar deficits against Kerry in 2014 and Dublin last year from a further remove.
Mayo, of course, lost those replays, which is why somehow one of the gutsiest and big-game teams of recent times still have words like ‘bottle’ still bandied around them. But something else that is in their favour compared to those two other replays is that the gap between the two matches is a fortnight instead of a week. For a county with up to a third of the panel working or studying in Dublin, that again offers that most precious commodity – time. In 2014 and 2015 they would have had only one midweek meet-up when their opponents would have convened at least twice as often as that. The extra week gives them next weekend, a time Rochford is likely to use to the optimum. So will Jim Gavin, naturally, but the advantage he’d have enjoyed over his opposite numbers last year will have been narrowed.
There’s another reason though that Mayo need that extra bit of time. Once and for all if this thing is to be done they need to address the shooting of Aidan O’Shea.
Since Cian O’Sullivan was allowed to run him from sideline to sideline in 2013 without an intervention, O’Shea has played most of his football in the half forward or full forward line. For all the qualities he has brought to those sectors, his ability to kick points remains somewhat off the level required to win All Irelands.
To be an All-Ireland-winning forward, it shouldn’t be too much to score three points over the course of the last two games of the campaign. In 2014, O’Shea failed to score in either game against Kerry, as much as his sterling second-half display in the drawn game and his head injury in the replay must be noted. In 2015 he didn’t score in the drawn game – though he won multiple frees – and kicked one point in the replay. He didn’t score again last Sunday. That’s one point in five games. But were he to score two points from play the next day, they more than likely get this done.
It’s a matter of trying at the right time from the right place. From 40 yards out with two minutes to go as was the case last Sunday wasn’t the time. Alan Dillon is money from that spot he scored last Sunday. He’s made a career out of that shot. Even in the warm-up on Sunday he nailed four shots from around that spot. Donal Vaughan has made that shot time and time throughout his career. Paddy Durcan likewise since joining the most free-scoring half back line in football. Andy Moran with that shot just after halftime is one he’s nailed routinely in his career, including the 2013 final between the same two counties. Cillian O’Connor’s point at the death showed that eir ad campaign of his is no dramatisation; in January hail and sleet he was firing that shot over and over again. O’Shea needs to earn the right on the training ground over the next 10 days, because a point from him resounds around Croker like that few others can, compounding the sense their time has come.
They are up against a special team in Dublin. A lot of the pre-match billing still holds. This is probably the best Dublin team ever. It is undoubtedly the best league team ever. But in the league they’re not meeting Kerry and Mayo at full tilt. In the league Éamonn Fitzmaurice is still not on school teacher holidays, devouring videos. Mayo have a third of their panel three hours away from Castlebar while the Dublin panel all live within half an hour of their bunker in DCU. In the championship Kerry and Mayo are different animals. It’s why the summer games between the three of them are so tight.
The more time Mayo have with Rochford, the narrower it gets. If O’Shea can put a few over the bar – or better, in the net – they’ll probably not only close it but seal the deal.
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