So here we are, at the final stage of another season of football. In a championship of ups and downs, what are undoubtedly the two best teams in the country have made it to the All-Ireland final; the only difference is that one has a few medals to back up that statement. But this could all change come Sunday.
Over the last five years, both Mayo and Dublin have provided gladiator like battles which have left fans and football pundits and purists alike to fawn over. The infamous Hill-gate where Mayo warmed up in front of Hill 16 in 2006, the ten-point semi-final Mayo lead in 2012 that was sabotaged by Dublin where they very nearly stole victory, the intense battle of tactics and wits where Dublin beat Mayo both on and off the field, the epic drawn and replay showdowns of 2015.
The rivalry between these teams would stand up to any famous GAA battles and has given the sport a wonderful lease of life over the last 5-6 years. In just a few days from now, they’ll renew that rivalry once again to a packed house in Croke Park. It has all the makings of a classic and will test the heart rates of any fan lucky enough to get their hands on that golden ticket.
For years (65, if you want to be technical about it) generations of Mayo fans have not only gone up to watch their team lose but get destroyed by stronger opposition. This mental stigma and feeling of fear and failure has affected a lot of Mayo teams who in the past have failed to deliver on the biggest stage. Dublin, do not carry such emotional baggage attached to their jerseys and have enjoyed a number of great All-Ireland victories down through the years.
Dublin have racked up 24 championship titles to Mayo’s three in the time since the GAA formed. Both teams have enjoyed purple patches of form over the last decade but only one has witnessed glory within that space of time. Not since the year of 1951 has a Mayo team brought Sam Maguire past the Shannon and every year that passes that fact weighs more and more heavily on both fans and players.
For six years, Mayo have successfully mixed in with the elite of championship football, through the fruits and hard labour of previous manager James Horan. Ultimately, the class of 2011 failed to pass the big final exam after appearances in deciders in 2012 and 2013. Sometimes life has a funny way of working out, though, and that squad who failed on the last two occasions now find themselves seventy minutes away from another chance to pass that exact same exam. The one which has haunted Mayo students for decades.
Dublin in contrast, have won the three All-Irelands in the space of the first half of this decade so far. A win on Sunday would mean a third for Jim Gavin, who took over proceedings from Pat Gilroy three years ago. Gilroy was the man who successfully guided the Metropolitans to All-Ireland glory in 2011, a feat they hadn’t managed since 1995.
It is fair to say that Dublin have been the top team of the last few years, with Mayo, Kerry and Donegal not far behind. All the teams just mentioned have landed Sam inside the past five years, all except for Mayo. But within those last few years, there has only been one team in the country that has continued to come back and march against all the odds. Defeat seems to have strengthened this Mayo team and we will only know on Sunday evening if the lessons they have learned from doing so will be enough to take down this Dublin machine.
For five years, Mayo have bounced back consistently from All-Ireland defeats to be a regular contender in the football championship. The mental and physical scars the county has endured and accumulated over the last few decades would be enough to make any player want to give up the game and hang their boots. Not so for this team. If sport was based on moral value, Mayo would have 65 All-Irelands securely locked away in MacHale Park but neither sport nor indeed anything in life is based on moral support. You earn your success.
Dublin are where they are now because they earned it. This was done with years of strong work building a competitive team and regularly losing quarter and semi-finals in the early to late noughties. Fans and pundits alike underestimate this. This Dublin team are no fluke. It is through defeat that a team learns how to win and it is through defeat Dublin learned how to make Hill 16 smile again.
Let no-one be fooled, however: going for back-to-back titles has pressure itself and Dublin, like Mayo, will have to play out of their skins on Sunday to win the game.
If Mayo can learn one thing about Dublin’s success, it is how it was built on regularly competing with the top teams every year. And this is exactly what this Mayo team have done within the last few years. Time will tell if Mayo’s competitive attitude will be enough to get them over the line. It worked for Dublin in 2011. In the words of Mayo stalwart Andy Moran: “Why Not?”
Let there be no doubt. Croke Park will be a fortress of pressure next Sunday and victory will be ultimately be decided on which team handles it better.
We will know the answers to this puzzle very soon.
Now someone get me a bleedin’ ticket!