AFTER LAST SUNDAY’S All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park, there is a prevailing sense in the Gaelic Football world that the destination of the 2012 title has been decided and Sam Maguire will return to the Hills of Donegal.
But to suggest Dublin and Mayo are now going for second place is over-stretching it. My main impression after last Sunday’s match was how impressive Donegal were but I did my own video analysis during the week and I’ve tempered my view since.
I felt Cork were below-par. Writing here last week I commented on the necessity for Cork to get their defensive match-ups correct but instead they shifted around their team. It culminated in depriving them of areas of strength, particularly in the cases of Noel O’Leary going on Patrick McBrearty and Patrick Kelly taking up Mark McHugh.
Yet there is a lesson in how Cork played in the first-half and hurt Donegal. They moved the ball at pace, stretched the Donegal defence and kicked excellent scores. That was their brightest spell but they seemed to lose heart when they could not replicate that in the second-half.
If Donegal hit full speed in the All-Ireland final, they will triumph. But just as teams coped with the challenge of the great Armagh and Tyrone teams over the last decade, opponents can adapt to Donegal’s play and figure out a gameplan to stop it.
Next Sunday will reveal the identity of the team who must devise a plan to halt Donegal. I watched Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final when they destroyed my own county Down. The crucial difference between that team and the one that takes to field on Sunday will be the fact that Andy Moran is crocked in the stands as opposed to flying on the pitch.
Moran is more than just a player to Mayo, he is their leader. I was at the Connacht final against Sligo, working for Newstalk, and that was a game where Mayo were really struggling. Moran looked like a man who realised this game could drift out of their reach and he reacted by digging them out of a hole. He demanded possession and dragged the other players along with him.
Mayo still have plenty other merits. They have a good defensive unit with guys who are well-disciplined and work for the team. Big Ger Cafferkey at full-back has been really impressive. Barry Moran has stepped up at midfield with himself and Aidan O’Shea giving Mayo a fantastic aerial presence.
We saw last Sunday with Neil Gallagher that if you have a midfielder who’s ruling the skies, it can break the hearts of opponents. Mayo have the capacity to do that and Dublin must get their midfield right. Playing Michael Darragh MacAuley at full-forward has to stop. He’s the most effective midfielder they have, he moves forward with purpose and benefits the team in the middle.
Mayo’s Alan Dillon with Michael Darragh MacAuley of Dublin. Pic: INPHO/Morgan Treacy.
I’ve been quite critical of Dublin this season. The Dublin team that won the All-Ireland in 1995 had challenged ferociously before that year but once they lifted Sam, they faded away. Has this Dublin side also lost that edge which made them champions? The signs to date would suggest they have. Trying to replicate that intensity is very difficult and if it’s a fraction off, you’re in trouble.
But to be fair to Dublin they are still standing. Their class players are hugely important. I have heard Alan Brogan has featured in in-house games recently and they need him firing because he brings the best out of Bernard Brogan and Paul Flynn.
Mayo’s apparently bad record in Croke Park is misleading. They have beaten Dublin and Cork there in recent years, acquitting themselves very well. They are a hardened outfit now and I would have great respect for what James Horan has done. That was exemplified in how he handled the episode involving Conor Mortimer.
The farcical nature of that incident has been reinforced this week. I felt Mortimer put his own interests ahead of the team. His timing was dreadful on the week of a Connacht final. He should have hung in there and walked during the off-season if he wanted to. Plus with Andy Moran now injured, you would imagine Mortimer would have been first in.
Horan acted intelligently but mention of Moran brings me back to a defining feature of this game. Mayo are without their attacking leader and despite things not clicking so far, Dublin have remained a team that displays great honesty and work ethic. That will assist them here, they have the greater confidence and their marquee players should also get them over the line.
This was the week when…the Munster football managerial landscape shifted. It seems Eamonn Fitzmaurice had no real desire to become Kerry manager but what a job to fall on his lap. He was a hell of a fine player and at 35 is continuing the trend of young managers in the GAA like Jim McGuinness. Fitzmaurice will bring a youthful enthusiasm to the squad and I think we’ll see a more pragmatic outlook to Kerry.
It’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds and also interesting to see what happens to his Cork counterpart Conor Counihan. I don’t buy into all this talk of underachievement during his era. One All-Ireland, three Munster’s and three Division 1 league titles is a great haul of silverware. When he took them over, that team had not won a national title. I played against Conor and he’s an absolute gentleman. He owes his county nothing if he decides to go. And there’s a lot of good talent still there to build on.
Conor Deegan is a two-time All-Ireland senior football medal winner with Down in 1991 and 1994 and is an established Gaelic football analyst for Newstalk radio station. He will be giving his expert opinion of the key moments that will decide the destination of the Sam Maguire Cup this year.