It’s a running joke ever since I can remember amongst friends that the McLoughlin family rocks up to every Mayo game three hours before throw-in. Beating the traffic, finding a good parking spot to make a quick exit post-game and having a few pints beforehand is a ritual of my father’s. Work colleagues, GAA-affiliated or otherwise, from all corners of Ireland and beyond think that it’s crazy stuff altogether. I shrug in retort and rely on the useful old adage that I have often trotted out over the years – it must be a Mayo thing!
Last Saturday was no exception. At 3.30pm (bit late for us granted for a 6pm throw-in), my mother, the little fella and I found a few invaluable seats together in the stand. Dad naturally enjoyed the match day hospitality of An Sportlann while we conveniently saved his seat for him . His loss – the musical entertainment on the field – stoked the atmosphere nicely pre-game and it would be no harm to make this a regular occurrence in MacHale Park. After all, who doesn’t like to hear “The Green and Red of Mayo” sang twice by a Galway man on our home turf?!
Anyway, it was a delightfully dirty evening in Castlebar so we were thankful for our shelter. It wasn’t the conditions though that won the game for Mayo. Mayo were far hungrier, more physical and more willing to kill for their jersey than their Donegal counterparts. Donegal weren’t let play and stars such as Murphy, McBrearty and McHugh were for the most part meticulously marshalled by their Mayo markers.
The atmosphere within the stadium was electric, a cauldron of passion and pride, with the rain doing damn all to dampen the spirits of the Mayo crowd. I have never experienced an atmosphere in MacHale Park quite like last Saturday night. The enormity of this Super 8s ‘winner takes all’ fixture was not lost on the Mayo crowd and, buoyed on by the raucous support, the boys delivered a performance worthy of an All-Ireland semi-final date with Dublin this Saturday evening.
I could go on a negative rant about the unfairness of the seven day turnaround for Mayo, or the financial resources available to the ‘Boys in Blue’ or the farce that was the ‘Coma in Omagh’ enabling both Dublin and Tyrone to field their reserve sides. However, there is little point at this stage. The only thing I care about is what happens in Croke Park at 6pm on Saturday evening. We have the mammoth but magnificently mouth-watering prospect of toppling the five-in-a row chasing Dubs on what is, essentially, their home patch.
Will we do it? I honestly don’t know. Can we do it? Absolutely. One thing I am sure of is that this team won’t die wondering.
The game on Saturday is going to be epic. For me it is the fixture I love and hate most in equal measures. I have lived in Dublin for eleven years now, just a couple of convenient train stops from Drumcondra at all times. I absolutely love the build-up to these games; the colour, the city v country rivalry, the Mayo flag outside the house, the newspaper previews, the podcasts, this blog of course, the constant talk about the game. I love the game itself. I love the hope of victory.
But my God, I hate losing to them. Worse again, I hate having to live here amongst them in the weeks after surrounded by blue (to match my mood!) everywhere I go. Many a Monday in September has been spent with a close Mayo ally in a quiet dark pub in Dublin far away from any of the “Come on you Boys in Blue” celebrations. As the aforementioned Galway man once sang “to win just once would be enough”. It is this hope that keeps me going.
The little fella was born in Dublin too and has lived here for all of his almost nine years. Needless to say, the Mayo jersey is mandatory for him when the Dubs bring Sam Maguire to the school. They get no homework too when Dublin win the All-Ireland so I assign him some myself just to avoid any conflict of interest. Perennial conversations with Dublin friends regarding my son’s county loyalties around this time each year have tested both mine and their patience:
Dub: Was he born in Dublin?
Dub: And does he live in Dublin?
Dub: And he goes to school in Dublin?
Dub: So he’s a Dub?
Me: Absolutely not! What gives you that idea!!
Yes I know the above isn’t logical, but where does logic come into it? Logic goes out the window when it comes to Mayo, doesn’t it? Being a Mayo supporter, going to MacHale Park and Croke Park every year, be it freezing in February or sun shining in September, is part of my identity. I see it as both a duty and an honour to pass this on to my son regardless of where we are living.
Being a Mayo supporter isn’t restricted to county or indeed country boundaries. This forum you are reading is global. What’s more, through supporting our boys in Green and Red on evenings like last Saturday in Castlebar, the little lad’s bond with Mayo is now stronger than ever. Another chapter in the Mayo odyssey awaits us this weekend.
Now that the sentimentality is out of the way, let’s deal with the game itself and look at Dublin from a playing perspective. This Dublin team is exceptional. They play an attacking brand of football and are blessed with supremely an athletic and talented squad of players. Players such as Cluxton, McCaffrey, McCarthy, O’Sullivan, Fenton, Kilkenny, Mannion and O’Callaghan are all phenomenal athletes as well gifted footballers. We cannot dispute this. We must concede this point. We have enough fantastic footballers of our own too.
Allied with a high calibre of player is a driven manager who seems to have read every “management speak” handbook that has ever been published. He probably regards it as a “privilege as Dublin manager” just to butter his toast in the morning! He may carry an air, scratch that, a waft of smugness but much of Dublin’s success is down to Jim Gavin. His ability to keep his players driven and motivated to win five out of six All-Irelands under his reign is a remarkable achievement.
Gavin’s dealings with the media are laughable, filled with empty platitudes but he doesn’t care one iota about that. Unlike many Dublin managers and teams that went before him, Gavin has no interest in him or his players hogging the limelight. His sole aim is to deliver success for Dublin football.
Dublin’s 2019 championship statistics make for impressive reading. In their six championship games to date, Dublin have scored an average of 28 points with a concession rate of just 12 points per game. Contrast this with Mayo who in their eight championship games to date, have scored an average of 19 points with a concession rate of 15 points.
What Dublin have not been this championship campaign is severely tested. The Leinster championship was even more uncompetitive than usual with Dublin winning their three games by an average winning margin of 19 points. Their first Super 8s game brought some form of a challenge with Cork impressing for large periods before succumbing to a five-goal blitz and ultimately a thirteen-point defeat. The Rossies provided no test whatsoever as they were swept aside by 18 points. The win last weekend by Dublin B versus Tyrone B does not merit analysis.
So the question must be asked are Dublin battle hardened enough for what lies ahead on Saturday evening? Will Dublin be ready for the maddening chaos that Mayo will bring to try to upset them from their usual game? We will only know the answers to these questions come 7pm on Saturday but Mayo will inevitably bring a challenge that Dublin have not yet faced this year.
As for Mayo, this will be our seventh game in eight weeks. Dublin have played three fewer games in this period. However, maybe the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place at just the right time for James Horan’s charges. The seven day gap between games is not ideal but there are encouraging signs of Mayo progress in recent weeks.
Jason Doherty’s cruciate ligament injury is a blow, no doubt, both for the team and him personally. Jason is a fine player, who works like a dog every time he puts on the Mayo jersey, winning crucial turnovers and breaking ball. He has always been good for a long-range point or two as well.
Notwithstanding that cruel blow, there is positive news. Tom Parsons and Matthew Ruane returned to the squad last weekend with Ruane galloping like a new-born lamb in spring when released off the bench in the latter stages. Paddy Durcan was back and in imperious form in a “rampaging, points scoring, Ryan McHugh shackling” Man-of-the-Match performance.
Keith Higgins returned too, and as a result of his early black card, will be fresh for this weekend. Robbie Hennelly returned in goals for the injured David Clarke and his kick-outs were impressive. In my book, he has done enough to retain the number one jersey for the crucial game ahead. Kick-outs will be pivotal, as always, and Hennelly just has the edge over Clarke in this facet of the game.
Our captain Diarmuid O’Connor could return from his broken wrist injury as well as Donal Vaughan from injury and suddenly even with Doherty’s absence, our strength in depth looks much more formidable than when we faced Dublin in 2016 and 2017. Players such as Colm Boyle, Paddy Durcan, Lee Keegan, Aidan O’Shea and Andy Moran are all finding some form too at the right time which gives further foundation for optimism.
In terms of personnel changes, I expect Kevin McLoughlin to come in for the unfortunate Doherty. I would also start Ruane alongside Aidan O’Shea in midfield. Dublin are a mobile team and Croke Park is a big pitch. Whilst Seamie O’Shea has been impressive in both of his return games, Ruane’s mobility and engine will be paramount. This selection leaves the bench looking strong with players such as Eoin O’Donoghue, Seamie O’Shea, Tom Parsons, Donal Vaughan, Andy Moran and potentially Conor Loftus, Fergal Boland or Ciarán Treacy to come in and make a contribution.
Whether to start or finish with Andy Moran is always a conundrum that I wrestle with. Darren Coen is clearly struggling for form and just seems off the pace of the high intensity games that the Super 8s provided. That said, I think it’s preferable and more uplifting for the team to bring Andy off the bench. If Coen can find the form of his Roscommon and Armagh showings, then this would provide a much needed attacking threat up front. If things don’t go well in the first half as against Donegal, then at least there is the option to call on Andy when needed.
For Mayo to beat Dublin, a lot of things will need to go right on the day. Once again, a deluge of rain would help! Wet conditions would provide a helter-skelter nature to the game and I think this would play into our hands. After all, we love a bit of chaos. It would also aid defences and, given that Dublin rack up an average score of 28 points per game (including 2 to 3 goals), any bit of assistance in disrupting their attack would be beneficial.
Weather aside, we also have tenacious, teak-tough defenders who have proven they are capable of quietening the very best forwards in the game. Mayo possess defenders that can match up and curb the influence of the best Dublin attackers. Possible match-ups include Keegan on Kilkenny; Harrison on Mannion; Barrett on O’Callaghan; Durcan on McCaffrey. These individual battles could be where the game is won or lost.
Also, from looking at our own scoring totals against Dublin since 2012, our highest tally has been 19 points. If we expect our defence to hold their own against the Dublin attack, then we will likely need improved showings from our attack. Our average scoring margin this year is 19 points and we may need to reach this or even exceed it on Saturday. Big games are required from whichever six forwards start and I am expecting a big game from Cillian O’Connor. He has not yet hit his usual heights after his return from injury but Saturday could well be the day.
One other factor in our favour where other teams fall down is that Mayo have the physicality and athleticism required to go toe-to-toe with Dublin. There is a misconception that this current Mayo team is an old team against the young pups of Dublin. The average age of the Mayo fifteen which started and defeated Donegal last Saturday was 28 years of age. The average age of the Dublin team which started against Roscommon in their last meaningful game was also 28 years of age. Our lads are by no means over the hill yet and I firmly expect Mayo to go down the final stretch with victory there for the taking.
Mayo versus Dublin has unquestionably been the rivalry of the decade. Yes, in terms of results, it has been one of dominance for the Dubs. However, results alone do not make a rivalry. What makes this rivalry so compelling is our conviction that we are equals. Mayo put it up to them where other teams bow down before them. It is our capacity to keep coming back at them no matter what challenge is thrown down; to show them no fear and to never say die.
This Mayo team have undoubtedly the qualities to test Dublin, to pose questions that no other county poses to them. Dublin are chasing five-in-a-row. They are striving to be acclaimed as the greatest GAA team of all time. The pressure is all on them. Let’s give them their fill of it on Saturday evening; let’s bring them to the brink once more and maybe, just maybe, this time the rivalry will swing in our favour for once.