”What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is often where we start from” – T.S. Eliot
Rewind two years ago to the 2010 Championship and think of where both Mayo and Donegal stood in the footballing landscape. Armagh had disposed of Donegal in ruthless fashion and by doing so exposed the Donegal players to the harsh reality that they were way behind the counties operating in even the second tier of football. Armagh were far removed from the force that they were in the early part of the previous decade and they never gave Donegal a sniff. When you see the Donegal side that will take to the field in next Sunday’s All-Ireland Final they will in no way resemble the team that crumbled before our eyes on a summer’s day in Crossmaglen two years previously.
Mayo also occupied a similar position to that of Donegal. They exited at the hands of Longford in Pearse Park and could no longer fool themselves into thinking that they belonged in the top tier of footballing counties. While both teams have long since returned to the top tier, next Sunday will see them doing battle for football’s ultimate prize and in many ways their respective 2010 Championship campaigns marked the beginning of their journey to this point.
Donegal will enter the game as best-priced 8/15 favourites and rightfully so. Along their way they have beaten the teams who have set the benchmark over the last ten years in Tyrone, Kerry and Cork. They have been especially impressive since the All-Ireland quarter-final when only late lapses have let the opposition back into the games. As mentioned in a blog at the very start of the Championship, Jim McGuinness would have known that their scoring power would have to increase significantly and there can be no question that it has. A number of key players have also brought their games to a new level. Karl Lacey now rules the half-back line with an iron fist, stripping the opposition of the ball any time they dare try to run through with the ball. Neil Gallagher, a player who has worked tirelessly to get onto the team, has gone through a resurgence in the middle of the field and thus ensured that Donegal have no problem securing primary possession. Michael Murphy showed against Cork that he has in no way lost his touch when positioned close to the goal.
Mayo’s path to the final has not been near as hazardous as Donegal’s and right now they are only on par with a number of Mayo teams that have gone before them. Their game against Down was a non-event and for me while they were the better team against Dublin for 50 minutes of the game and led by 10 points, when Dublin came to life Mayo really struggled to contain them. Also during the period where they established their huge lead, they hardly kicked a wide. Everything went right for them and it seemed like one of those afternoons in Mayo football where nothing could go wrong. However plenty went wrong in the last twenty minutes. What we must also remember is that Dublin failed to take the two real goal chances that they got in the game as Diarmuid Connolly shot wide when he should have squared the ball and Bernard Brogan shot straight at David Clarke when perhaps if he had the chance again he would have opted to take the ball around the Mayo stopper and shoot into the empty net that was awaiting on the other side. Alas we will never know but the steps that Mayo took back in those last twenty minutes leaves me with enough doubts about their ability to contain Donegal next Sunday. They will need their forwards to go through a period where everything they touch turns to gold in order to establish a foothold in the game and for me there lies their biggest problem. Donegal have successfully dealt with better teams en route to the final and it is a huge ask for every Mayo forward to play to the level they did against Dublin for 50 minutes. Personally I don’t think they can play to that level again and this will allow Donegal to establish the foothold they need to control the game and play it on their terms.
I maintained from the time that the quarter-final draw was made and the route to the final was mapped out for those involved that the winner would come from the side involving Cork, Donegal, and Kerry. In my mind I thought Cork would triumph but Donegal forced them back into the bad habits that many thought had been vanquished from their game. Next Sunday expect Donegal to keep Mayo locked in the house of pain that Mayo football has lived in ever since 1951.
Donegal -2 pts (Evs with Paddy Power)
Donegal -3 pts (11/8 with Paddy Power)
Donegal Half-time/Full-time (6/5 with William Hill)
Karl Lacey to win Footballer of the Year (9/4 with Boylesports)