Mayo have the ability to make this their day of days

Donegal are out of their comfort zone today and this will suit Mayo just fine, says PA?idAi?? A? SAi??

I NEVER imagined that the All-Ireland final pairing would be Mayo versus Donegal. I could see Donegal getting to the last four, even the final if things went their way, but not Mayo. Today’s pairing is a surprise but a pleasant one and it should make for an intriguing final.

For the most part games are won on the field but there is no doubt that tactics play a pivotal role. And today more so than other more typical finals — ones with Kerry or Cork in them — getting the tactics right and smart action on the line will be crucial.

Donegal and Mayo are cut from the same cloth in terms of attitude, team work and dedication. They are two sets of hard-working teams who stick to their game plan at all costs.

All summer Donegal have been the form team. They’ve impressed me not only with their conditioning and tactics but also with the skill of their players. Be it corner-back Frank McGlynn, centre-back Karl Lacey or talisman up front Colm McFadden, they can all fill any role on any given day.

The Donegal team play with an abundance of confidence and they also have an ability to kick a score on the run under severe pressure. They are all-rounders and any of them can get on the scoreboard. Mayo are a bit more traditional. They get the majority of their scores from their forwards. The most intriguing part of the game for me is which way Mayo will line out. Will they do what Dublin did against Donegal last year and leave their six backs in their positions or will they fall into the same trap Kerry and Cork did this year by pushing everyone forward and leaving the door wide open for not only the long ball into McFadden but also the threatening attacking runs of Donegal’s full- and half-backs. My gut tells me they will stay away from the latter option.

Interestingly, Donegal are now playing on the break with their forwards covering back. It’s pretty much a soccer tactic, and once the players pass midfield, more often than not no-one lays a finger on them. This season the Down, Kerry, Cork and Tyrone defenders all wanted to get on the ball and this played right into Donegal’s hands. The sacrifices made by forwards like Ryan Bradley, Leo McLoone, Mark McHugh and Paddy McBrearty to cover back must be acknowledged and commended. Not all forwards would be willing to play like they do.

Much of the talk in the build-up to this game has been about the excellent play of McHugh. He’s been sweeping in front of his full-back line but what a lot of people have failed to notice is that Mayo have Kevin McLoughlin doing the same job. The Knockmore man is one of the unsung heroes on the team. When Mayo lost him to injury with 15 minutes to go against Dublin, they struggled, and when he came back on for the final minutes he steadied the ship.

The match-ups in Mayo’s backline will be crucial to the outcome. I predict that Ger Cafferkey will pick up Colm McFadden and Kevin Keane will take Michael Murphy. This will afford the speedy Keith Higgins the free role. I feel he’d be best served staying back maybe in the centre-back position as Mayo’s number six Donal Vaughan has built his game on going forward and Mayo need to make sure this area is covered against Donegal. They slipped up with that against Dublin and Michael Darragh Macauley exploited the open space.

Donegal were underdogs against Kerry and Cork but today the tables are turned and all the pressure is on them. They are in unfamiliar territory; they will be out of their comfort zone.

This year most of the scoring burden has been laid on McFadden, and that’s worked well but the All-Ireland final is a different animal. That’s why I feel if Donegal are to win they need to place Michael Murphy in at the edge of the square. This man will cause trouble for any defender and Donegal should look to their big man, their leader and, in my opinion, their match winner.

So far Donegal have passed every test and won every battle. They’ve prospered under Jimmy McGuinness, and massive credit must go his way. He has brought them from a low ebb in Crossmaglen — when they got hammered by Armagh — to the highs of an All-Ireland final in just two years.

James Horan has to get credit too. He has changed the face of Mayo football, getting the players to buy into his style of play and also he’s made them a steelier side with a sharper edge. They know how to stop teams in the right areas of the field and I’m sure the Mayo forwards won’t allow the Donegal backs run up the field like they did against Kerry and Cork. Michael Conroy, Enda Varley and Jason Doherty caused Dublin numerous problems in the semi-final. If Alan Dillon can get on the ball in pivotal positions, he could penetrate the Donegal wall, he’s Mayo’s link man, their Alan Brogan.

The man with the biggest role to play is Maurice Deegan. The key question is will he let it flow or will he pull for technical fouls which won’t suit either team’s robust defensive style. However, if Mayo run at Donegal and the referee is whistle-happy, Mayo could find themselves with an advantage, Cillian O’Connor is clinical with frees.

Ultimately, I feel that the time has come for Mayo to win the Sam Maguire. They have better footballers, hell they scored 17 points against Dublin in just 50 minutes, and they are just as organised and united as Donegal. This year is the first time in a long time that I can recall two teams without any individual superstars contesting an All-Ireland final and I wonder is this a sign of things to come. Mayo to win.

– Paidi O Se

This article was published in The Sunday Independent on 23rd Sept 2012.

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