Posted by Shane Stapleton

2012 Mayo Donegal league2012 520x280

When last did a team go into its first All-Ireland final as raging-hot favourites?

Raging hot because we haven’t heard too many people back Mayo. Raging hot because Donegal have this year put down Tyrone, Down, Kerry and Cork, all of whom have been finalists in recent years; Mayo’s casualty list is less grandiose, irrespective of their win over Dublin (added to Leitrim, Sligo and Down), and certainly less emphatic.

It’s with good reason that all and sundry feel Donegal will be Sunday’s best. Favourites even if Mayo have made a league final and have, on average, scored 0-4 more per game in the championship (2-16 v 1-15).

It’s favourable to be the underdogs and plenty have won finals from this position, Dublin last year being the obvious inspiration for Mayo. More have performed well (what all teams hope for) from underdog status but gone home with silver, think Down in 2010 and, in hurling, Galway (2012) and Tipperary (2009).

This is different and more difficult for Donegal. It’s akin to Kildare being odds-on against Galway in 1998 despite not having sweated on Croke Park turf in September since 1935; this is Dublin falling to outsiders Donegal in 1992 having not contested the Sam Maguire title in seven years, and not winning it since the apostles were marching in ’83.

Perhaps Sligo know that feeling of beating the best on the way to a final and struggling with the rest. They put down the duopoly of Connacht, Galway and Mayo, in 2010 but left the Nestor Cup to a Donie Shine-inspired Roscommon.

Still, this was not Sligo’s first final so, while they tick some of the boxes, their Connacht title in 2007 precluded them from the pressure Jim McGuinness’ men are under now. Not to mention that we are talking Sam Maguire here, and not one of his silver-clad underlings.

To arrive, as Donegal do, at Croke Park as a winning docket is not ideal and we don’t know how McGuinness and Co will deal with that. That’s what these players have to cope with as not one of them has experienced this day and yet, universally, they are expected to perform.

Moreover, no one expects anything but a machine-like delivery from a collective that has not been road tested in any September. That has to be a danger.

It’s rare enough to even go into your first semi-final as favourites, though we saw Galway, in the other code, deal with that pressure quite well a few weeks ago against Cork — who themselves were out of the final four since 2008.

Now that Donegal have beaten every team that was supposed to trouble them, how will they deal with a county that are expected to fall away? Against what, in recent although irrelevant history, have been labelled chokers on the big day.

No matter what way you twist it, everything on paper suggests Donegal on grass. The power, the pace, the great lines of running, the patience on the ball, the relentlessness off it and those marquee forwards. When so much is going for you, the mind can wander past the final whistle before the first one has peeped.

The consensus is that Donegal will win this if they come out with intensity but a wandering mind may fail to bring that. And because the Connacht side are seen as absolute underdogs, you feel they won’t but come out with something to prove.

Then you expected the same from Mayo in the semi-final against Dublin when we saw little fractures in their structure. A nervous beginning to the game, where twice defenders coughed up possession in dangerous zones, could have gifted the game to a ponderous Dublin side.

Following a golden run of play, there was that long spell of retreat during the second half where Dublin turned a 10-point deficit into just two — we can’t see Donegal allowing that to happen. They’re not human enough for such an error.

Yes they almost allowed Kerry back into the quarter-final and a late Colm O’Neill goal — where he Seamus Darby-ed Eugene McGee in the back, which wasn’t picked up on camera — for Cork in the semi suggests they do leave themselves open to a cavalry attack. So there are shoots of light for the Connacht men.

Tough and all as it is, the way to pick scores off Donegal is probably down the flanks, where cover is less. Mayo attacked Dublin down the same route so nothing will change here. However, they will have to do so at pace and to shoot anywhere inside 30 metres from a favourable angle, the likes of Alan Dillon has to carry it in through enemy lines.

A prime example was a Colm O’Neill point from the semi-final in the opening third of the game: first Paul Kerrigan darted inside the 45 and offloaded to Daniel Goulding, who sprinted infield and transferred it to O’Neill, who drove back past his fellow forward and knocked it over. All three were moving at pace, all under massive pressure, all working hard to get a single score.

Mayo will have to do this multiple times because Donegal won’t give them anything for nothing. Whether they can keep this going for 70 minutes is debatable, but you suspect Donegal have enough to make it a struggle each time.

There was a big focus put on Mark McHugh’s fabulous point against Cork just before half-time when he helped dispossess Donnacha O’Connor deep inside his own half before the Donegal number 12 fisted over 20 seconds later.

Symbolic yes, though perhaps even more important was the difference in how the two teams attacked, which was summed up in that minute. Cork had turned over Donegal similarly in their own half but, unlike the Tir Chonaill men, rather than bursting out at pace and taking men on, they held onto possession.

If you wanted any reason why Cork’s handpassing so far exceeded their opposition’s in this half, it was summed up here. Left and right, forward and back — no player trying to beat a man and offload to someone on his shoulder. Paddy Kelly, Ciaran Sheehan and Co all threw the ball around and the move never gathered pace. That was the difference throughout: Cork held onto the ball and allowed Donegal set their defence; the Ulster champions did not, breaking out and breaking past men.

Getting the right men on the ball in the right areas too. At the start of both halves in the semi-final, Cork’s Graham Canty was forced onto his left boot and, under pressure, of course, he kicked away possession each time. Donegal shepherded him and quickly he looked lost.

Donegal are found and have been founded on something similar to what Dublin were, certainly post-Kerry humiliation in 2009. Pat Gilroy at times had 13 men behind the ball in 2010 onwards and people questioned how they would score enough with such a system. They answered with an All-Ireland within two years. Donegal look like they will do something similar, albeit with a superior gameplan.

Mayo have plenty of quality and qualities but it’s hard to see them limiting Donegal in the way that Donegal limit others. With Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden, they also have the biggest guns in town.

Verdict: Donegal

Follow Shane Stapleton on Twitter @shanesaint