Sure why wouldn’t we? Aren’t we (a) the defending All-Ireland U21 champions and (b) the league specialists (eleven titles and counting)? Paddy Power tends to agree, making us narrow favourites for tomorrow (we’re evens, Donegal are available at 11/10) but strongly odds-on (8/15) to prevail against Laois in the All-Ireland U21 semi-final today.
Elsewhere, the Indo think we’ll win both today and tomorrow, RTE favour us to win tomorrow while the Irish Times back us to win today but opt for Donegal tomorrow. Also in the Times, the usually excellent Keith Duggan (a Donegal native, if I’m not mistaken) offers a totally one-eyed account of why Donegal “have to win”. Martin McHugh (no friend of Mayo he, in his various scribblings over the years) was up to the same craic on Setanta’s GAA show last night, pointing out all of Mayo’s failings and rounding up with a “we have to win this one”. It all smacks a bit of wishful thinking.
I do think we will win both games. The U21s cantered through Connacht – really letting rip against Roscommon in the final, in a manner reminiscent of their great 1983 predecessors – and while Laois have reached this stage by successfully defending their own provincial crown, they’ll find the going a whole lot tougher against our lads. That said, I wouldn’t rule out an upset, not least because senior panellists Aidan Campbell, Mark Ronaldson and Barry Moran will be thinking ahead to tomorrow’s match.
Campbell could feature in both Hyde Park and Croker but it’s unlikely that the other two will. Barry Moran broke his nose in training a week or so ago and that could hinder him a bit in his likely tussle with Laois midfielder Brendan Quigley, whom we all should remember from the two quarter-final clashes we had with them last year.
If Pearse Hanley cuts loose like he did in the Connacht final, we should be well on our way to a second successive U21 All-Ireland final. He just might, you know.
The league final tomorrow will be an interesting tussle. Much is being made of the fact that it’s yet another final in Croker, yet another chance for our lads to choke on the big occasion, blah, blah, blah. However, in this respect, we’ve got the ideal final opponents, a county that has blown even more finals in recent years than we have. Donegal’s last – and, indeed, only – big success was their breakthrough All-Ireland win in 1992 but they’ve failed to win Ulster (or anything else) since, losing a succession of finals in the meantime (Keith Duggan has the count at a prophetic 13). This means that their need for success on Sunday is great but, of itself, it’s not a valid reason to expect that they will win: if that were the case, we would surely have bagged our fourth Sam by now.
What does worry me is the sluggish way we’ve been starting games right through the campaign. We don’t tend to get going till fifteen minutes or so in, by which time the other lot have usually wreaked a fair bit of damage and then we really have to work hard to get back into it. In actual fact, apart from our opening match with Kerry (for which we had every incentive to perform well), we’ve played quite poorly in all of our other games and so it’s a bit surprising that we find ourselves here competing for the title itself. Sure, we’ve shown bags of guts to chisel out results in a number of tight matches but it’s also the case that the difficulties we’ve had in these games have been largely of our own making, most spectacularly so in the Cork and Dublin games.
Midfield remains a huge area of concern. Harte and Heaney are both honest and industrious players but neither will win much clean ball around the middle and they’re likely to struggle with Gallagher and Cassidy. If this pair can win ball and pump it in early, Donegal could do us considerable damage in the opening quarter. This was what they did against Kildare – a match they should have won far easier than they did – and if we’re still in the Land of Nod in that crucial opening phase, we could get caned.
In this respect, Devenney (their Brendan, as opposed to our Enda) is a huge loss to them. McFadden, who replaces him at full-forward, has a sweet left foot but that’s all he’s got – he can’t kick snow off a rope with his right. That makes Kilcullen’s task a bit easier but, after the tough examination Padraig Joyce gave the big Ballagh man last Sunday, he can expect another hard day’s work tomorrow.
Providing we don’t take an early battering, I think the game is likely to swing in our favour. If we manage to negate any midfield disadvantage in the way we did against Galway and the forwards are on song again, we should get to the point where we start to ask them some serious questions, at which point we’ll see just what kind of team they really are. After their opening flurry the last day, Donegal were quite poor against Kildare and, strangely for a team with such talented footballers, they seemed more interested in putting in hits on the man rather than doing stuff with the ball. Roper, in particular, was like one of those annoying little dogs that only stand a few inches off the ground, yelping and yowling and generally behaving like a pain in the hole (such a mutt would, I reckon, be slightly taller than Roper) and he was lucky it wasn’t him rather than Cassidy that got the early shower.
I have to say I was surprised with Donegal’s aggressive stance the last day but I think it’s true that, despite all their talent, they can often be an ill-disciplined bunch (the Holland of the GAA world, if you like). If they try to repeat the rough stuff tomorrow (which they could), our lads (a more peace-loving unit, one would have to say) won’t let it pass and so we could be in for a serious bout of handbags at some point. The stakes will be high enough for both teams, neither of them – given their poor records in finals – will want to lose and you could imagine an incident flaring up into something bigger. John Bannon is a sensible ref (even if I still can’t quite forgive him for doing everything but donning the Fermanagh jersey in the semi-final replay back in 2004) but he’ll need to be well on top of things tomorrow if we’re to avoid a breach of the peace at some point in the afternoon.
On the sideline, I’d be confident that Johnno will outsmart McIver who, for all the plaudits he’s being getting this year, looks like he’s a man prone to panicking under pressure. The myriad changes he made in the second half against Kildare were almost Pillar-like in their bewildering intensity and they very nearly produced a Pillar-like result. Let’s see how he copes with the pressure tomorrow. More to the point, let’s make sure he comes under pressure tomorrow.
Tomorrow is, I think, likely to be a bit of a bare knuckle ride at times. With the weather breaking, the players may have to cope with a pitch that’s even more slippy than Croke Park normally is, which would could result in the match descending into a dour, error-ridden tussle (normal league fare, in other words). I hope to jaysus we don’t take an early pasting, I hope midfield holds up reasonably well and I hope Ger Brady gives a passing impersonation of Four Goal McGee. I think we’ll win by two or three to clinch our twelfth NFL title. Yes, of course we’ll do it – we have all those years of tradition behind us and that’s got to be in our favour when it comes to a Croke Park final day, doesn’t it?