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For the third time in five years, the All-Ireland Football Final will be decided with Dublin vs Mayo. In addition to this, the sides met in the 2015 and 2019 semi-finals.
As is well-documented, Dublin have prevailed on each of these occasions as they racked up an unprecedented five-in-a-row. Yet, Mayo are undoubtedly the team who have come closest to stopping the sky blue juggernaut. Now, in a year where nothing has gone to script, can the spirited westerners finally find a way to end their 69-year drought?
Old Dogs, New Kicks
Many of the Mayo players became well-known in the last decade as they were ever-present at the business end of the Championship. Furthermore, the likes of Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Keith Higgins, Cillian O’Connor, David Clarke and Aidan O’Shea have multiple All-Stars. All six of those are still key players for James Horan but one accolade that has remained elusive is the Sam Maguire.
Those veterans, along with Chris Barrett, Tom Parsons, Kevin McLoughlin, have found a new lease of life in 2020. The injection of youth provided by Oisin Mullin, Eoghan McLoughlin, Ryan O’Donoghue, Tommy Conroy, Mark Moran, and Bryan Walsh has meant that competition is as tough as ever just to make the Mayo team. To illustrate, Tom Parsons made his first appearance off the bench against Tipperary in the semi-final. Likewise, Keith Higgins has made only one appearance off the bench thus far while Colm Boyle has remained in reserve throughout.
While much of the focus has been on the polar ends of Mayo’s squad dynamic, it is the men who are coming of age in the middle-third who have gone greatly unheralded. Stephen Coen, Paddy Durcan, Matthew Ruane, Conor Loftus, and Diarmuid O’Connor have been Horan’s reliable go-to men and have formed a formidable unit to bolster the defence and springboard the attack.
Durcan aside, those players were key members of the 2017 U-21 team who famously won an All-Ireland. As a result, their familiarity with each other has allowed them to play to each other’s strengths. This core have chosen the right time to reach their peak as much of the game on Saturday will be decided in midfield.
Mayo have lost to Dublin in the Championship in 2015 (semi-final-replay), ’16 (final-replay), ’17 (final), ’19 (semi-final). The two finals between these teams remain the some of the most exciting games in recent memory. In 2016, Mayo kept Dublin at bay for half an hour. However, two bizarre own goals meant they were still left needing a comeback. On that day, Cillian O’Connor held his nerve to kick an equaliser from 45 yards out in the 76th minute. The same man could come back to haunt Dublin on Saturday. O’Connor broke a Championship record by scoring 4-09 last time out against Tipperary. The Ballintubber man is no stranger to the Dublin defenders and will know that Mayo likely need to find the net at least once if they are put past demons to rest.
In 2017, Dublin vs Mayo was decided by just a point again. Many Mayo people felt that was another one that got away from them. In the 47th minute of that game, John Small saw red for a second bookable offence and Mayo had a free in a scoreable position to level the game. Then, Donal Vaughan levelled the playing field by getting himself sent off for reacting. Equally as important, Mayo lost their free which would have been a vital score they could have kicked on from.
Most recently, Mayo fell to Dublin in last year’s semi-final thanks to a Con O’Callaghan clinic in goal-scoring. One two occasions, he stepped inside Lee Keegan and slid the ball past David Clarke. As a result, Mayo went from being two points up at half-time to eight down by the 47th minute.
There will still be positives for Horan to take from that game though as Mayo put Dublin under serious pressure in the first-half. Once again, a fast start will be crucial.
🟢🔴 If you want to support the team this week you can do so by donating to the team training fund. All donations no matter how big or small will go towards preparing the team ahead of Dec 19th.
— Mayo GAA (@MayoGAA) December 15, 2020
The Greatest Team of All Time?
In their four outings this year Dublin have outscored their opponents by a combined 69 points. So, they are winning each game by an average of 17.25 points. However, what is just as impressive is their solidity at the back. Stephen Cluxton is yet to concede in this year’s Championship.
Put these attributes together and it’s a formidable formula that no team has found a way to break down since Donegal in the 2014 semi-final. In fact, the Dublin outfit has only gone from strength to strength since the first of their five-in-a-row. Only 10 of the players who featured against Mayo in 2015 will be in the Dublin squad on Saturday, a testament to the embarrassment of riches available to Jim Gavin and now Dessie Farrell.
Back in the 2017 final, a young Con O’Callaghan burst onto the scene by scoring Dublin’s only goal after just 90 seconds. Since then he has been one of the most prolific full-forwards in the country but Farrell has decided to capitalise on his versatility this year. O’Callaghan has been deployed further out the field this year, linking the midfield to the forward line. Meanwhile, Ciarán Kilkenny has adopted a position closer to goal which has been of great success thus far. Whether Farrell sticks with this tactic on Saturday or flips it again to keep Horan guessing remains to be seen. Either way, how Mayo decide to match up against O’Callaghan and Kilkenny could be pivotal in the game’s outcome.
Michael Fitzsimons vs Aidan O’Shea
Davy Byrne vs Cillian O’Connor
Eoin Murchan vs Tommy Conroy
Diarmuid O’Connor vs Brian Fenton
Matthew Ruane vs James McCarthy
Paddy Durcan vs Con O’Callaghan
Lee Keegan vs Ciarán Kilkenny
Chris Barrett vs Dean Rock
Oisin Mullin vs Paddy Small
Paths to the Final
Dublin: 0-22 vs 0-11 Westmeath, 2-23 vs 0-7 Laois, 3-21 vs 0-9 Meath, 0-12 vs 1-24 Cavan.
Mayo: 2-15 vs 0-10 Leitrim, 1-16 vs 0-13 Roscommon, 0-14 vs 0-13 Galway, 5-20 vs 3-13 Tipperary.
The game is on RTÉ and Sky Sports Mix on Saturday.
Paddy Power have Dublin at a short 2/9 to complete six-in-a-row. Otherwise, Mayo are 9/2 and a draw is 11/1.
Prediction: Dublin. Mayo possesses the tools to threaten Dublin and there is no doubt that they will have some success. However, they will need to find the net and keep Clarke protected at the other end. Despite their demolition of Tipperary, there were gaps in the Mayo defense highlighted which Dublin will have been sure to make note of. If this is to be another Dublin vs Mayo classic then all of Mayo’s big guns have to bring their A-game. But, even if it goes down to the wire, Dublin’s bench has that extra bit of experience and X-factor that Mayo is shy of.
All-Ireland SFC Final: Dublin vs Mayo, Saturday, 19th December, 17:00 (Croke Park).
The countdown is on 🙌
— Dublin GAA (@DubGAAOfficial) December 14, 2020