In 1980 the Derry Minors met Kerry in the All-Ireland final. Our young men took the field filled with hope, only to collapse soon after throw-in.
By half time the game was over and at the final whistle the scoreline, for posterity, was 3-12 to 0-11. The following year, the same group made it back to the final, this time against Cork. They had promised themselves and the county there would be no repeat. It was another funeral for good intentions. Derry were frozen to the spot from the throw in and a turkey shoot quickly developed. At half-time, as the Derry lads trooped, shell shocked, back into the changing room, manager Matt Trolan met them with the immortal line, “Shit in the nest again lads, cup of tea in the back room.”
Sometimes, a team talk is pointless...
Mayo footballers know the feeling only too well. Their league semi-final against the Dubs had started with great promise for them, confirming the feeling that they would not be pushed over this time. In the first quarter, they were focused, dogged and ought to have been 1-5 to 0-00 ahead. But as usual, they weren’t, because they spurned a series of great opportunities. The critical chance was a one-on-one with the keeper which Mannion or Connolly would have finished with ease. Instead, Jason Doherty’s very weak shot might as well have been gift wrapped for Cluxton. The disrespect Mayo have for possession is going to kill them in the biggest games. Against Dublin last August, they missed four clear goal chances. Against Down this year in the league, they missed nine goal chances. That is not a misprint, though it is probably a record.
Within a few minutes of Doherty’s dreadful miss a fortnight ago, Dublin - having suddenly realised that the match had started - quickly ended it as a contest, firing in two goals and umpteen points in short order. This swift and ruthless execution of a good Mayo team has sounded the warning klaxon throughout the land. Tyrone have been warned.
When Paul Mannion danced through for the first goal, elegant as Fred Astaire, it was time for Mayo folk to wander off for a pint. Mannion exudes class from every pore and unlike Bernard Brogan, he has absolute poise. Whereas Brogan too regularly gets a fit of the head staggers, kicking wildly and being blocked down, Mannion seems to rise above it all.
No one managed to get a hand on him all day, as he caught, scored, set up and generally floated about Croker, elusive as the scarlet pimpernel. At the end of the game, his kit was still spotless, as though he had just been dressed by his butler. A packet of Daz would last this boy a long time.
His goal was a classic of its kind and should be shown to every young forward. Instead of falling into the trap that the 99% fall into, he didn’t blast it towards the gaping far post, which is precisely what all keepers want. Instead, he finished smartly at the near post, leaving the goalie wrong footed. Mayo’s punishment for their early flurry of missed chances that day was severe, emphasising the need for Tyrone to take every chance presented come Sunday. The Dubs demonstrated what a nightmare they are to play against, translating defence into attack at break-neck speed. Unlike both Mayo and Tyrone, who play an exclusively short passing game, Dublin mix the long and short to devastating effect, which will make it very difficult for Tyrone to set up their formidable blanket defence.
As a result, against Dublin the westerners were chasing shadows as the play was switched from left to right at bewildering pace. On several occasions, the Mayo defenders were left in the nightmare scenario of running towards their own goals with their backs to the play.
To compound the problem for any defence, Dublin’s front six are all perfectly comfortable on the left foot. Left footers are more difficult to mark. Backs have to travel farther to get the block in and are less comfortable in that side. Take it from me. Time and again, Mayo defenders were doing the right thing, shepherding their man onto his left, only for him to kick it over the bar.
Lee Dixon often points out on MOTD that the defender should never stand in front of his opponent allowing him to choose either side. Instead the trick is to show the attacker where he wants him to go. With the Dublin forwards, this is pointless. Their casual two footedness bamboozled Mayo, scores coming at will against their normally suffocating defence. A feature of the current Mayo team has been their refusal to buckle but in truth, they were entirely at Dublin’s mercy. More frightening was the fact that Jim Gavin ran the bench early, starting in the 40th minute, yet this didn’t slow them down a jot.
The Dubs now have three forwards of the highest class: Brogan, Mannion, Connolly. On top of that they have a fearsomely quick defence and midfield. They also have a manager who is smart and sensible. Asked by one journalist after the game if he was pleased by his “young players” Jim Gavin said, “We don’t have any young players. We just have Dublin players.”
Sunday is an excellent opportunity for Tyrone to see where they are at. A good competitive performance will stand them in good stead for Ballybofey in a month’s time. It is imperative for morale that they are not blown away. As for the Dubs, they appear to be fully equipped for an era of dominance. The only remaining question is whether they can hold their nerve in the fiery furnace of Croke Park come late summer.