Posted by Christy O'Connor
Thursday 15 September 2016
From our GAA Experts to football fans all over Ireland, this week's Win, Lose or Draw predictions are starting to take shape.
On the evening after the epic Dublin-Kerry All-Ireland semi-final, Matt Cooper read out a stream of texts on his Today FM radio show ‘The Last Word’. All of them were gushing in their praise of the match. Kerry received as many plaudits as Dublin for contributing to such a classic. Yet the final text that Cooper shared with his listeners was obviously from a Mayo supporter. ‘Kerry lose a game they should have won and they’re called heroes. If that was Mayo, they’d be labelled chokers.’
It was a fair point. Kerry have the success and collateral that Mayo don’t but it’s always easy to stereotype a team’s identity in sport. A game like football, which carries so much tradition and history, makes it easier again to arrive at a preordained conclusion and stereotyping Mayo is always louder than most other counties. Take your pick; Mayo have a psychological hang-up when it comes to winning All-Irelands; it’s just their misfortune that they’re around the same time as this Dublin team, which means that this group will never win one.
That general viewpoint is the standard one but Mayo’s failure to win an All-Ireland for 65 years facilitates the perception even more because their identity continues to be framed through history. Back in 2007, former Mayo player, and Roscommon joint manager in 2016, Kevin McStay, made an observation that still holds true today.
“In all grades of football, Mayo are in the top three counties in Ireland,” he said. “But everything is coloured by the lack of an All-Ireland and you just can’t get over not having an All-Ireland for that credibility. It’s awful unfair but this big elephant in the room always gets in the way of giving Mayo credit.”
All-Irelands define everything in the context of perception. Mayo are such a process orientated team that they focus solely on performance. They don’t get hung up on perceptions or outside opinions. They just keep raging on because they always have.
“This group of players are just so driven that we are not going to give up until we get there,” said Richie Feeney, two months after Mayo lost the 2013 All-Ireland. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t win next year’s All-Ireland. It could take one or two more All-Ireland finals with Mayo before we win one. But we will get there.”
Feeney’s attitude mirrored this Mayo team’s reflex response to adversity and disappointment, even disillusionment; keep going; keep trying; stay believing until they win that elusive All-Ireland.
Mayo could have won that 2014 All-Ireland which Feeney said they were capable of doing. They might have if they had closed out the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry when leading by five points with time almost up. They lost the replay after extra-time.
When they lost last year’s All-Ireland semi-final to Dublin too after a replay, they didn’t wallow in more self-pity. They wanted to get better. They felt they needed to get better but another hard defeat forced more introspection. They wanted change. The players got rid of the management. The fall-out was inevitably difficult. Spin was everywhere but it didn’t dilute the players’ convictions.
“We might have added pressure onto ourselves but there couldn’t be much more pressure on us than there already is,” said Aidan O’Shea last October. “Some people might say we were wrong, some might say we were right but we’ve got to back ourselves now and see how we get on.”
The pressure on the players ratcheted up after they lost to Galway in June but they just shrugged their shoulders and did what they always do after a big defeat; come back stronger, come back better. They had to negotiate some tricky twists and turns on the road but the players still powered on to reach another All-Ireland final.
That stoicism is at the heart of Mayo football, and especially this group. Since 2011, they have lost two All-Ireland finals and three All-Ireland semi-finals. Alan Dillon also played on the sides which were hammered by Kerry in All-Ireland finals in 2004 and 2006. And yet they have kept coming back. What everyone else says, or thinks, is completely irrelevant. It always has been. All that has ever mattered to Mayo is what is ahead of them.
It’s a mind game against the machine now but it’s easy to forget too that Dublin weren’t always a machine. They went 16 years without winning an All-Ireland. During the last decade, Dublin were accused of not being mentally strong enough to get over the line. Between 2002 and 2010, Dublin lost four All-Ireland semi-finals, and four All-Ireland quarter-finals. Yet their rich history of success still always granted Dublin the dispensation that Mayo have never been afforded.
The current Dublin team have won three All-Irelands in five years, and now stand on the cusp of four in six, and possibly far more All-Irelands to come. This side have already equaled the feat set by their predecessors in the 1970s when winning three All-Irelands. Yet that 1970s Dublin team will always be immortal because they did more than just win All-Irelands; they transformed a sport, and spawned a new culture. The current team will never have that status, unless they can deliver more All-Irelands, but they are already carving their own unique identity. And they are clearly intent on building their own unique empire.
Their brilliance and dominance in such a competitive modern era grants this Dublin side the right to rank amongst the top ten football teams in the history of the game. Kerry 1975-86 will always be considered the greatest, not just because they won eight All-Irelands, but because they because such a cultural phenomenon, in how they became such a part of mainstream conversation.
The greatest teams do more than just win three or more All-Irelands during their time; they achieve something unprecedented, where those players become an emblem, and an enduring image, for far more than just what they achieved.
The best teams are also different. This Dublin team has that rich amalgam of skill and talent and tactical versatility which makes them so difficult to beat. They have become far more defensively minded since losing to Donegal in 2014 but they are not empowered by innovation or certain systems of play, like other teams who prospered in the modern era.
They are loaded with brilliant footballers and a huge desire to keep winning. There were times when they were troubled by blanket defences and other systems designed to stop them playing but they have still found a way. What separates them from everyone else though, is their athleticism and pace, qualities which enables them to run over teams like a Panzer Tank.
Although this is a special generation of players, with some of the most skilful forwards to ever to play the game, Dublin do not have the same quality coming after them that they had at the outset of the decade. Their strength of depth from 1-9 is not huge. They have lost some key players from last season – Jack McCaffrey, Rory O’Carroll and Alan Brogan – which does make them more vulnerable. They have shown caveats to their game this season but, similar to Brian Cody in Kilkenny, Jim Gavin has established a rich and vibrant culture where their most important legacy lies not simply in the medals won or the glory gained - it is about the attitude that has been instilled, the standards demanded.
Yet that culture also exists in Mayo. It may not be as successful but it is just as vibrant. They are the current All-Ireland U-21 champions. Castlebar Mitchels defeated Crossmaglen Rangers to reach this year’s All-Ireland club final. Yet a big defeat to Ballyboden St Enda’s once more facilitated the general perception that Mayo teams can’t get it done in All-Ireland finals in Croke Park.
The classic line is that they aren’t mentally strong enough to win an All-Ireland. Yet no other group has been more resilient, or as mentally strong as this group of Mayo players. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t keep coming back.
Not all of those players who fought the good fight for so long got the chance to come back and try and sate that longing. Feeney didn’t. Mickey Conroy and Enda Varley, who played in the 2013 final against Dublin, are no longer around either. Yet their team-mates have kept raging on because Mayo always have. Despite all the harrowing disappointments, recriminations and soul-searching, there has always been an essential optimism deep in the core of Mayo’s collective football self. No matter what has happened in the past, they’ve always kept going, and kept searching.
Mayo will be more driven than ever on Sunday. They will need a performance for the ages to take down a Dublin team unbeaten in 27 league and championship games since March 2015, the best ever winning streak for a Leinster team.
One team – the perceived machine - is chasing greatness. The other – perceived as perennial losers - is chasing the ultimate dream. Two cultures will collide. Vastly different. But still effectively the same.
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Dublin to win: 54%
Mayo to win : 41%
That's the way the mood is going for this weekend's games - now it's time to make your predictions for the chance to win two All-Ireland Final tickets.
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