He’s been previewing matches all summer and now I’m delighted to welcome JPM back into the guest slot to preview the biggest game of all in the 2012 championship.
West or Northwest? If you were travelling those directions where would it take you? Well the answer of course depends on from where you originally set out. Both Mayo and Donegal set out at the beginning of this year from roughly the same geographical location. And both began from more or less the same championship peaks they had reached in 2011. Lo and behold now at the culmination of the GAA football year 2012, both have arrived on a collision course at the gates to the promised land. But only one team can pass through, the other must give way. It’s like Wellington versus Napoleon once more, except its now Jimmy versus James who are meeting at Waterloo.
Photo: Mayo Mick
Currently Paddy Power view Donegal as being better experienced and has installed them as hot favourites to triumph. Paddy may be correct. Mayo have been in this similar position in recent years and have imploded (sometimes spectacularly) on those occasions. But Paddy has also been wrong before. The feeling is that there’s much more at play here than just theoretical assumption of one side being better that the other. It’s like a game of poker now. Who holds the better cards and more importantly how do they play them? Tactics, passion, discipline, composure and luck. Lots of ingredients to take into account, and they will all have a part to play in this historic battle.
Tactically all year Donegal have been brilliant and the strategies they have employed have guided them safely to this point. To date in their six matches in the championship they have scored 6-87 or an average of 1-14 per game. Their renowned defence has conceded 3-63 or an average of just 12 points per game in the process. Every match they have essentially began with the same formation and the same game plan. The methods they employ are simple enough. They start by defending in numbers before rampaging forward together on any counter attacking opportunities. There is no reason now to doubt a change in tactics for this All-Ireland final. Perhaps it will be tweaked, however it will be a major shock if they don’t turn up on Sunday with the same rough line-up of one goalie, nine backs, two midfielders and two/three attacking forwards.
In terms of passion it is difficult to argue against a more passionate person that Jim McGuinness. Three times he applied for the position of Donegal manager. It culminated in the final application when he was the only realistic candidate left available. And when asked in the interview why he wanted the job, his simple (and brilliant) answer was that he wanted to make Donegal players loved once more by their supporters. That one sentence sums up McGuinness’s attitude and passion for his home county. And this team is a mirror image of everything he stands for.
Donegal all year have also been very composed. They have shown in retaining the Ulster title that they have the moral fibre to win the hard and tight games. They can stare you down, sit it out and suck the life out of the opposition before applying the crushing blows to win the battle. And they have only improved since then. In beating Kerry and Cork they have displayed the determination and self-belief necessary against top opposition. In both these games at crucial stages players held their nerves in front of the posts to get the vital scores to see them home.
Have they been lucky this year? Well perhaps not but certainly towards the latter end of this years championship little things have fallen their way. Their goal against Kerry direct from the sideline. Kerry also losing their pivotal free taker Bryan Sheehan through injury. In fact the kingdom had so many wounded that day that the Gooch had to play on through injury as all their subs had been used up. Against Cork, after beating four players, Colm O’Neill’s goal bound effort came back off the crossbar at a crucial stage in the match. You could argue of course that teams make their own luck, and there is certainly a case for this too. But when compared to Mayo, Donegal have certainly had a far less troublesome season than ourselves.
One could say we were lucky in Connacht to avoid Galway however the suspicion is that Sligo were primed this year for a right crack at the Connacht title. Ultimately Barry Moran’s MOTM display in that match won the silverware for us. In terms of luck in the quarter-final, well suffice to say that the season ending injury to team captain Andy Moran places that condition firmly in the negative category.
In the semi-final Dublin lost Alan Brogan. We lost Colm Boyle, Lee Keegan, Enda Varley, Kevin McLoughlin, and Kevin Keane in that match. Ger Cafferkey was nearly knocked out cold but he was probably whispered to get up and continue as there were no subs left on the bench. When you think about it, it’s not surprising really that Dublin nearly turned that game into our worst nightmare. It’s a testament to the team that they held their nerve to win and it wasn’t down to luck on the day that saw them through after 77 minutes.
That semi-final match was also a very passionate and intense affair. Dublin displayed serious intensity especially in the second half. Both sets of supporters had their hands on their heads with their pulses racing as the clock ticked slowly along towards the final whistle. The match itself really exposed our lads to the level that is necessary to get over the line and win these really big games. It’s expected that they will have learned much from this experience and they can use it now to their advantage against what will also be a very intense encounter on Sunday next.
It will be fascinating also to see our own tactics and what we have in store for the boys from the North. Our midfield and defence have really been fantastic all season. True, Donal Vaughan did not have one of his better games against Dublin however Donegal will be a different kettle of fish. Chances are he could have no one to mark in this match and so might have plenty of opportunity to rampage forward. Same with Lee Keegan and Keith Higgins.
Barry Moran and Aidan O’Shea should fare out okay but I don’t expect them to walk all over this Donegal midfield. This is the team who against Alan O’Connor and Cork’s much vaunted height and strength in the middle that Neil Gallagher destroyed in the semi-final. Also Rory Kavanagh has been fundamental all season to the team in getting up and down the pitch to score vital points. Suffice to say that Barry and Aidan will have their work cut out for them here. But it certainly must be an area we should be targeting to do well in. Winning the battles around the middle gives every team the platform to build upon and Mayo all year have been using this to our advantage.
In terms of composure all year our forwards have shown great poise in front of goal. In total in this year’s championship we have scored 7-66 in four games or roughly an average of 2-16 per match. No one expects this average to continue against the meanest defence in the country but Mayo this year have regularly been able to put scores on the board. The only worry for us was that there were several opportunities against Dublin in the second half when gilt-edged chances were spurned. Jason Doherty, Cillian O’Connor and Michael Conroy all missed one-on-one opportunities. In fairness no one can deny that guys do make mistakes. They are human after all. But to succeed, generally chances like those must be taken if they become available.
However it was better to miss them in that semi-final rather than the final. And remember also Mayo still won! The belief now is that these players have learned much from those experiences and have grown again. So even greater composure will now come on board and to the fore in this final battle.
And this is a crucial point. All year and in every game Mayo have been an improving side. And we still have more room to move up again to another level after the semi-final. Donegal on the other hand have been playing at a serious peak all season and especially in the All-Ireland series. The impression is that there is not as much opportunity for them to improve much more.
Overall to win this All-Ireland many things will have to go our way. But remember, it’s the same case for Donegal. Both teams have won back-to-back titles in their respective provinces and both have beaten teams from the so-called top three. Thus far no team has shown the shrewdness or discipline required for 70 minutes to beat either of us.
Whoever now can fend off the other will obtain the ultimate glory, and can set sail for home once more with the bounty of Sam Maguire on board. The hope is that our guys will be the ones who have improved the most and can prevail in this their greatest battle. Already they are ingrained in our history as a terrific Mayo team. The wish now of all Mayo supporters is that they will defy Paddy Power and all the naysayers on Sunday next. And together around 6pm we will all finally retire down Jones Road humming Waterloo Sunset in contentment.