Mayo are hardly Dublin’s bogey team but in the eyes of many of the capital’s supporters they are bogeymen. They are the team they warn their children about. Condemned to death only to rise and haunt opponents again and again.
Mayo prompt fear in the Dublin ranks, a lot of it irrational. For their team’s five-in-a-row odyssey to be ended would be distressing anyway but for Mayo to become those dream-stealers would be unconscionable.
To Mayo’s fans, Dublin are the nightmare realised. They are the grotesque gargoyles that have stood between their greatest ever group of players and the prize they believe they so richly deserve. Defeats to them become injustices. And silly banners like the ‘Mayo Are Shite’ sign unfurled in Healy Park last Sunday are interpreted as gravely offensive.
But what exactly has fuelled the mutual loathing between the counties’ fans?
Saturday will their eighth championship meeting this decade, four of the previous seven coming in All-Ireland finals and three in semi-finals. Not since the Tyrone-Kerry feud has there been a rivalry like this and because of the volume of games it is arguably superior to that relationship in the 2000s. On top of their championship face-offs, Dublin and Mayo have met at at least once in every league campaign during this spell.
Add up the two teams’ scores against each other since the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final and Dublin are up by just seven points, an average of one point a game. In fact, the winning margin has been one point on three occasions. The 2015 All-Ireland semi-final replay saw Dublin win by seven points in the end but the game was level with less than 20 minutes of normal time to go, Dublin having scored just one point, a free, in the opening 20 minutes of the second half.
Dublin are the truest of champions but Mayo, up to now, have been the story and the infatuation with their inability to get over the line has detracted from what Jim Gavin’s men have done almost as much as the funding and venue arguments. Mayo’s long and winding road to this All-Ireland semi-final only adds to their narrative of stubborness and the esteem in which the Mayo following hold their players does irritate those of a blue hue. Beating Mayo would be nothing new to Dublin but demolishing them and effectively ending them as a team would be sweet.
It was felt in the Mayo camp that there was a concerted effort by former Dublin players to put pressure on referee Maurice Deegan to keep close attention on Lee Keegan prior to the 2016 All-Ireland final replay. Keegan ended up picking up a black card for an admittedly cynical foul but technically not a black card offence as set out in the rulebook. James Horan has himself indulged in mind games in the lead-up to games, raising Dublin’s acquaintance with Joe McQuillan prior to the 2013 final.
Horan shares the same sideline in championship with Gavin for the first time since the 2013 final when they didn’t exactly share pleasantries afterwards. Gavin spoke of how Joe McQuillan was Mayo’s 16th man and denied that Dublin were cynical in closing the game out. Horan expressed astonishment at his remarks. After the drawn 2015 All-Ireland semi-final, Aidan O’Shea had no qualms in claiming he was headbutted by Philly McMahon.
When Gavin didn’t present the Footballer of the Year award to Lee Keegan in 2016 it raised a few eyebrows. Traditionally, the All-Ireland-winning manager would do the honours regardless of what county the player hailed from but it was perceived in Mayo and among top GAA officials as bitterness. Several of the players studied together in Dublin universities but these are two groups that don’t mix, as evidenced by the All-Stars trips where they have given each other a wide berth going back to Boston in 2014.
The litany of tactical fouls with which they saw out the 2013 final was one thing but the cynicism of Dublin’s forward line following what turned out to be the winning free by Dean Rock in the final two years ago was an appalling or admirable sight, depending on your persuasion. What couldn’t be denied, though, was its remarkable synchronicity, its stunning professionalism.
Lee Keegan throwing his GPS unit in the direction of Dean Rock was one thing but Dublin also feel aggrieved about other aspects of Mayo’s behaviour, such as Cillian O’Connor’s contribution to James McCarthy being black-carded in the drawn 2016 All-Ireland final. Keegan was no innocent in his running battles with Diarmuid Connolly in 2015 and ’16 but it was Connolly who suffered the most.
Since the introduction of the black card in 2014, no game between the sides has been without an automatic substitution for a listed cynical foul. The rap sheet reads: 2017: John Small (red, two yellows), Donie Vaughan (straight red); Ciarán Kilkenny (black); 2016 final replay: Jonny Cooper (black), Keegan (black), Rob Hennelly (black); 2016 drawn final: McCarthy (black); 2015 semi-final replay: Seamus O’Shea (black); 2015 semi-final draw: Michael Darragh Macauley (black), Denis Bastick (black) and Connolly (straight red).
Fourteen league and championship games and he has yet to lose to Mayo. If this is a rivalry in the truest since then why has he and his team enjoyed such domination against the team that have been the closest opponents? Why don’t Mayo just accept their fate? Why don’t they just die? It’s the one answer Dublin don’t have.