GAA: Can Mayo finally end 65-year wait for Sam?

GAA Mayo 65 year Sam wait
30 August 2015; Cillian O’Connor, Mayo, in action against John Small, Dublin. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Dublin v Mayo, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

Just how many times has that same question been posed since the Connacht men last lifted in 1951?

This weekend will see the biggest Gaelic football final in decades as mighty Dublin takes on underdogs Mayo for the Sam Maguire Cup. Mayo struggled to put in a full 70 minute performance in the championship so far this year, and will definitely have to improve if they have any chance of beating the reigning Dubs who have cruised through the competition up until an excellent performance against old rivals Kerry in the semi-final.

There will be inevitable talk of Mayo’s 65-year drought due to the infamous ‘curse’ but if superstition is something to be counted then Mayo manager Stephen Rochford and his followers will relish the fact he is unbeaten at Croke Park in his managerial career at both club and inter-county level.

GAA Mayo 65 year Sam wait
The winning Mayo Team 1951

Jim Gavin’s men are undoubtedly the ones that have it all to lose. They are the overwhelming favourites to keep the Sam Maguire cup in the capital and go down as one of the strongest football teams in history. You have to go back four years to the 2012 semi-final for the last Mayo victory over Dublin, and since then the boys in blue have gone from strength to strength.

It is the final that many shrewd commentators and Gaelic football analysts might have predicted last May. But after Mayo’s shock semifinal defeat to Galway to end their six-in-a-row Connacht hopes who would have believed that Stephen Rochford’s team would now be contesting their third All-Ireland final since 2012?

GAA Mayo 65 year Sam wait
28 August 2016; Dublin’s Ciarán Kilkenny, left, and Dr David Hickey after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final game between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

After the latest chapter of Dublin-Kerry football classics proved to be such a massive sporting spectacle it is extremely difficult to make a case against the holders who are now surely one of the greatest teams of all time.

And after clocking up a scoreline of 0-22 this fact alone surely propels Jim Gavin’s team into the favourites position against last year’s defeated semifinalists. This year’s decider could not be more contrasting and the real hope is that it will be a contest in keeping with a worthy football showpiece occasion.

If that fact is to become a reality then many believe that Mayo will also have to play at an unprecedented level of performance for the entire 70 minutes because for many of their experienced team it looks very like being the last chance saloon for many of them.

Formidable challenge

Mayo’s hard fought All-Ireland semi-final victory over an emerging Tipperary team made many assume the Connacht men might rather play Dublin in this year’s showpiece final but after the men in blue’s display of scoring power, skill and speed, Mayo might now feel they are facing a formidable challenge if not a complete mission impossible this Sunday.

GAA Mayo 65 year Sam wait
21 August 2016; Keith Higgins of Mayo in action against Alan Campbell of Tipperary during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final game between Tipperary and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

But Stephen Rochford will also be grateful to Kerry for providing him with some indication of how best to exploit Dublin’s few weaknesses.

Unlike their last meeting 2013 when the holders adapted a ‘gungho’ or ‘throw caution to the wind’ attacking style, Dublin proved against Kerry in the semi-final that they are also a very solid defensive unit especially under the high ball.

Proven ability

And with confidence levels at an all time high Dublin will not be changing their style now, with their semi-final performance built on the team’s high level of self-belief just as much fitness and athleticism.
Another factor, which has swung games in Dublin’s favour throughout the championship, is the squad’s strength in depth and their clever deployment of their ‘bench’.

GAA Mayo 65 year Sam wait
28 August 2016; Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Being able to introduce ‘game-changers’ such as late point-scorer Eoghan O’Gara is another strength that Dublin will bring to this year’s All-Ireland decider. In the end Kerry were unable to match them when it came to fitness levels and while Mayo are now also one of the fittest teams in the game they must also be able to outsmart Dublin and enforce their own game-plan.

Mayo’s real strength is their proven ability to score from anywhere on the field and while the midfield battle will be crucial the performance of their half-back line could well be where the game is won and lost.

GAA Mayo 65 year Sam wait
21 August 2016; Aidan O’Shea of Mayo in action against Josh Keane of Tipperary during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final game between Mayo and Tipperary at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Taking the scenic ‘back-door’ route also pitted Mayo against teams that were not Division 1 teams. With the exception of Tyrone in the quarterfinal all Mayo’s successes were against teams outside the top tier.

They have also had a very ‘work-in-progress’ look about them rather than a settled side with the team adapting to suit the opposition, but there will be no room for error against the Dubs.

Part of Mayo’s plan must surely be to put pressure on Stephen Cluxton’s kickouts. After two alarming and uncharacteristic blunders in the semi-final that led to Kerry goals Cluxton is vulnerable if pressurised.

The scene is set for an intriguing final in much the same way as this year’s hurling decider between Kilkenny and Tipperary. And although it will be a great tactical battle, this year’s football final has all the ingredients of being another wonderful Croke Park occasion.

GAA Mayo 65 year Sam wait
28 August 2016; The Dublin team huddle ahead of the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final game between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Mayo will be hoping to somehow exploit Dublin’s defensive flaws that Kerry exposed but they do not have a footballing genius like Colm Cooper or Paul Geaney.

Great record

Keith Higgins could have a crucial role to play for them wherever Stephen Rochford decides to position one of Ireland’s most versatile performers.

Apart from the kick-out errors against Kerry it was the change in midfield superiority after the interval that really changed the course of the game. And Mayo have a great record against the Dubs so will be relishing one last chance for many of the current Mayo team.

GAA Mayo 65 year Sam wait
21 August 2016; The Mayo team stand for the National Anthem prior to the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final game between Mayo and Tipperary at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Many believe that this Mayo team peaked in 2013 but their loyal supporters are also hoping that there is at least one more big performance in this experienced team. They may not have shone against the lesser lights of the game but they proved against Tyrone that they are capable of getting big results when it matters.

If they pull it off then Mayo’s historic victory would surely be one of the biggest Irish sports stories of the year, even though form points to the Sam Maguire Cup remaining in Dublin.

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