MIKE QUIRKE: Dublin: The dog that got big and growled

Sport is crazy, isn’t it? Just an unpredictable storyline, with more twists, turns and meanders than an oxbow river. 

It’s the type of crazy that allows everybody to think they know with some degree of certainty what’s going to happen, when in reality, everybody is only guessing. 

And no matter how educated some of those guessers like to think they are, nobody knows how things will play out until they do.

Mayo are again this year’s embodiment of that unscripted, brilliant kind of crazy.

After being beaten repeatedly in the biggest of games in the past 10 years, how many times have you heard it said about them… ‘that was probably their last chance’. 

How often were we led to believe that the cumulative scarring of big game failures was going to be too much for them to bear and would leave a lasting and damaging mark on their collective psyche? How much heartbreak and suffering can one team and one county endure and still not bend the knee?

One would have thought, after getting the boot from the Connacht championship for the second year in a row to rising power Galway, and soon after finding themselves facing into the last couple of minutes of a qualifier (to what will next year be a Division 3 team) against Derry two points down, it was hard not to think that maybe Mayo’s race was run. Maybe they just had enough.

But after a goal and point from Conor Loftus off the bench as the clock ticked towards additional time, they somehow managed to sneak away after an extra time grind-out victory. 

They must have missed close on 30 scoreable chances the same day. But Loftus injected something new and exciting, and his late strike breathed energy and hope into their flagging outfit, a hope that spread amongst players and supporters like a gorse fire on a long summer’s evening.

Those same embattled supporters will carry that abundance of energetic optimism to Croke Park next Sunday, but they’ll need more than that if they’re team is to etch its names into history.

Can they beat Dublin next weekend? Of course they can. Will they? That’s another matter entirely.

To be honest, I’m surprised it’s taken as long as it has for the whispers to become murmurs about splitting Dublin into two separate teams. But why not just go the whole hog and smash them into four while we’re at it. That’s one way to definitely quieten them for a while. An easy way out to make it a level playing field.

It’s as if people are somehow surprised that they’ve eventually figured out how to bite. Picture having a big dog at home as a pet. He’s only a pup, nice and quiet, even docile most of the time. People could come and go into your house and he’d barely stir as they’d pat him on his head.

After a while, you figure that big friendly dog needs to become more protective of his domain. You start to train him to be more aggressive, you encourage and reward his barking and his posturing when someone calls to the door.

Sometime later, some poor unsuspecting postman comes inside the gate, and the dog gnarls and lunges at him before sinking his teeth into the man’s leg. You the owner, can’t apologise enough for your dog’s behaviour and insist to the bloodied postman that you’ll have the animal put to sleep by the end of the day.

Like Dublin, that dog didn’t do anything wrong. They’re both just doing what they’ve been empowered and conditioned to do by their environment.

People whinge and moan about the disparity of financial clout available to them versus the rest, as well as all the other advantages they boast. And don’t get me wrong, there are of course very valid arguments to be made in that regard.

I mean they even have the brass neck to charge €2,500 to get into the corporate breakfast they’re running Thursday morning with the promise of 10 match tickets (costing the guts of another grand).

 Now, two and a half grand for a breakfast is saucy even by Temple Bar prices. You’d imagine they must be serving some pretty succulent sausages and pudding for that kind of coin. 

Proof positive for those looking for it that they are as interested in balance sheets as they are in the good of the game.

Joe McQuillan refereeing? Ah mother of god lads. And it’s on their home pitch in Croker? Ah come on.

The population numbers only further highlight the huge disparity between the two competing tribes in Sunday’s showpiece, but instead of criticising the Dubs because of colossal pick of about 1.3 million and change, I’d prefer to marvel at the talent and dedication it takes for those individual players to make it onto that Dublin panel of 26 and starting team of 15.

We’re talking odds of somewhere around .0001 % of playing senior inter-county football if you’re from Dublin. It takes a special group of players to beat those kinds of numbers. Of course, the entire population of the county doesn’t represent who plays football, but Mayo’s 130,000 is dwarfed by comparison.

Ultimately, as the argument goes, they’re constantly playing with a stacked deck. They have the best hand and now everybody is getting pissed off because they’ve learned how to use it.

When you’re standing high on the pedestal they’re on, everybody wants a reason to knock you off, any reason. 

Ultimately though, none of that matters to the players on either side come 3.30pm next Sunday afternoon. None of it.

This is a rejuvenated Dublin side that is standing on the cusp of sporting immortality, not because of how much money the county board generates through expensive breakfasts or how many they have in their backroom team, they are there because they have repeatedly proven beyond any reasonable doubt that they have the best squad of players in the country who get the job done in the crunch time.

As always, how Mayo compete or not, with the Cluxton kick-out will be a fascinating aspect of the contest. If Aidan O’Shea plays at centre-forward, can he produce the kind of wrecking ball performance necessary to inspire those around him to truly believe they can win it. 

Can Andy Moran continue to destroy defenders the way he did against Kerry? Getting close is not a prize for Mayo, they’ve been there too many times, and have felt that hollow feeling. They need to something different.

To that end, I’d love to see them start with Paddy Durcan in the middle of the field to give them his huge driving surges from there to match the dynamism of the Dublin runners. 

The obvious problem with starting Durcan, is it greatly lessens the impact they would have off the bench. And therein is where I feel this game will ultimately be won and lost.

It still seems such a largely unappreciated aspect of modern GAA, but no matter what starting team Dublin go with, they have the benefit of serious firepower to unleash in the final quarter. In their clinical demolition of Tyrone, two former footballers of the year, Michael Darragh McAuley and Bernard Brogan never even saw action from the bench. 

Diarmuid Connolly got four minutes. Paul Flynn. Kevin McManamon. Eoghan O’Gara. It’s a who’s who of guys who can turn a game or kill a game, whatever angle you study it from.

And when this game is ambling toward the wire in a tight finish, that depth of well-coached talent kicking their heels in the middle of the Hogan Stand should provide Dublin with the final quarter platform to just see them home and solidify their legacy as one of the greatest teams to ever do it by securing an unimaginable three-in-a-row in the modern era.

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