GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final - Preview

posted 20 Sep 2013, 02:22 by Skerries Harps

Dublin v Mayo, Croke Park, 3.30pm

It doesn't get any bigger than this. After 60 matches over the course of a hot, hectic summer, just two teams are left in the race to lift the Sam Maguire Cup and be crowned the best team in the land.

Dublin and Mayo have been, by a considerable distance, the best two teams in the country this year. They have been two of the best four teams in the country over the last three seasons, having both at least reached the All-Ireland semi-finals in 2011 and 2012, and it was inevitable that sooner or later these two modern forces would meet on the biggest day of all.

Both teams are unbeaten in this year's championship, and they have been scintillating this summer. Dublin's brilliant form has carried over from the Allianz Football League, which they won for the first time in 20 years at the end of April. Mayo had a steady league campaign, reaching the semi-finals, but it has been in the championship where they have really come alive.

Over the last two seasons, these two sides have met four times, with both taking two wins each. Dublin won both of their 2013 games, which were both absorbing, highly competitive affairs. Jim Gavin's side edged a terrific early Division I encounter in March, taking a 2-14 to 0-16 win, while goals proved crucial for them again in the semi-final, when they defeated Mayo on a 2-16 to 0-16 scoreline.

Although those spring-time games come with the inevitable early season 'health warning', there is much from the tussles than can inform any assessment of Sunday's game. Both games were played at a remarkably high tempo; fast, furious, energetic, with goals the key commodity.

All-Ireland Football Championship

Recent Finals

2012: Donegal 2-11 Mayo 0-13

2011: Dublin 1-12 Kerry 1-11

2010: Cork 0-16 Down 0-15

2009: Kerry 0-16 Cork 1-9

2008: Tyrone 1-15 Kerry 0-14

2007: Kerry 3-13 Cork 1-9

2006: Kerry 4-15 Mayo 3-5

While Dublin will take confidence from those two wins, Mayo have plenty of positive Dublin experience in their own bank of memory. The last time the sides met in the championship was in the All-Ireland semi-final last September when Mayo produced a brilliant performance to knock Dublin out and progress to the final (0-19 to 0-16).

That was their second win over Dublin in 2012, having recorded a remarkable 0-20 to 0-8 win over them in the league in Castlebar earlier that season. Those games were at the early stages of this current Mayo side's arc, but even in those games there were signs that they would be seriously challenging for Sam Maguire in the years ahead.

Where that recent past leaves us for Sunday isn't clear - what is clear is that everything about the 2013 Gaelic football season has pointed to a Dublin v Mayo All-Ireland final, and all that is left now is for the game to be as fitting a testament to their respective excellence as possible.

They have both cruised to provincial glory already this year. Dublin had a difficult path in Leinster, but they made short work of Westmeath (1-22 to 0-9) and Kildare (4-16 to 1-9) before overcoming a decent challenge from Meath in the Leinster final (2-15 to 0-14). Mayo surged through Connacht, racking up big wins against Galway (4-16 to 0-11) and Roscommon (0-21 to 0-9) before a very comfortable final victory over London (5-11 to 0-10).

Although there have been a few tricky moments for both counties in the All-Ireland series, they have both been excellent since coming to Croke Park on the August Bank Holiday weekend. Dublin moved past Cork in the last eight before that famous semi-final against Kerry, when late goals from Kevin McManamon and Eoghan O'Gara helped them to a thrilling 3-18 to 3-11 win.

Mayo delivered the performance of the year so far in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal, when inspired by an astonishing performance from Aidan O'Shea in the middle, they blew the All-Ireland champions away with a display of remarkable pace, power and skill. In the end, they won by 4-17 to 1-10 and the final scoreline did not flatter them in any way.

Their semi-final win over Tyrone was an altogether different affair, but in many ways it will have been a more beneficial experience for James Horan's side. Having struggled to cope with Tyrone for long stages in the first half, Mayo held on, dug deep and eventually took control of the game in the second half before easing to a 1-16 to 0-13 win.

The final accounting at the end of all that leaves us with Dublin, Mayo, Croke Park and 82,300 people. As final settings go, this is as fitting a conclusion to the season as one could hope for, because these two teams are truly at the very elite level of modern Gaelic football.

"Dublin have played 13 or 14 games this year and lost one. They've been very consistent, hit the ground running early in the league and were very fit and strong and fit and they have maintained that until now," said Mayo manager James Horan of his team's opponents recently.

"We've been on a bit of a different trajectory. We started off slower and did a lot of physical work in the beginning of the league and we're getting stronger and stronger as the year progresses and hopefully we'll be able to show some of that."

There has been plenty of discussion in the build-up to the game as to the way both sides play the game. Both play a very attacking brand of football, with a high tempo and a high expectation on players to get forward, and back, in great numbers.

Dublin's man-on-man style has been very good for them in terms of the amount of goalscoring chances they create, but it has occasionally left them vulnerable to attacks at the other end of the field. Their manager Jim Gavin emphasised recently that while their system is based on an attacking game, they never neglect the defensive side of things.

"The system itself is going to stay the way that we have always set ourselves up as," he said. "We're playing the game the way we believe it should be played. Defensively? Defence is an art and tackling is a technical skill that we've worked really hard on.

"We're consistently working on our defensive structure and naturally enough, if we play the way we played against Kerry, it won't be good enough against Mayo."

The tactics will be obsessed on over the next 48 hours or so, as will the various on-field possibilities of who will mark who, who will start, who will come on. The biggest question over the last few weeks has surrounded the fitness of Mayo forward Cillian O'Connor - the Ballintubber man suffered a recurrence of a dislocated shoulder injury in the Tyrone game.

O'Connor, who has 6-14 in this year's championship, has been named in an unchanged Mayo side for Sunday. Although he may well be unable to play the full game, Horan has decided it is worth playing him from the start and giving him every chance to prove his fitness.

The Dublin team is expected to be named on Friday. The one area where there might be changes is in defence, where Philly McMahon is pushing for selection. There is also speculation as to who will start at centre-half-back, with Cian O'Sullivan having impressed when he moved into the No. 6 slot against Kerry. Up front, there would appear to be one place up for grabs, with Dean Rock, Paddy Andrews and Bryan Cullen all in contention.

All of that aside, it will probably still come down to the old adage of 'on the day'. With so much at stake, it is likely to be small things that tilt the balance between such evenly matched sides. As Horan said recently, it's the smallest things that decide the biggest games.

As for history, Mayo people probably need no reminding of the numbers. It's 62 years since they won their last All-Ireland in 1951, and victory would give them their fourth overall. They have lost six All-Ireland finals since 1989 - they won't want to countenance making it seven.

For Dublin, their hunger was quenched much more recently, in 2011. Nonetheless, the team has evolved since then, and there are plenty of players aiming to win their first All-Ireland senior medal on Sunday. If they win, it will be their 24th All-Ireland senior title, and their second in three years. The last time Dublin won two in such a short period of time was in the Kevin Heffernan era. Victory on Sunday would herald the return of such glory days to the city. The Jacks will well and truly be back.

Predictions at this stage aren't worth too much. All to do now is sit back and enjoy.

Dublin: TBC

Mayo: R Hennelly; T Cunniffe, G Cafferkey, C Barrett; L Keegan, D Vaughan, C Boyle; A O'Shea, S O’Shea; K McLoughlin, K Higgins, A Dillon; C O'Connor, A Freeman, A Moran.