Tomorrow, Croke Park, 3.30pm (Referee: Maurice Deegan, Laois)
Latest from the medics and management… No changes in the Donegal team that started against Cork yet the side that was announced can clearly change come throw-in tomorrow. Could David Walsh force his way into the reckoning instead of Ryan Bradley?
DONEGAL: Paul Durcan (Four Masters); Paddy McGrath (Ardara), Neil McGee (Gweedore), Frank McGlynn (Glenfin); Eamonn McGee (Gweedore), Karl Lacey (Four Masters), Anthony Thompson (Naomh Conaill); Neil Gallagher (Glenswilly), Rory Kavanagh (St Eunan’s); Ryan Bradley (Buncrana), Leo McLoone (Naomh Conaill), Mark McHugh (Kilcar); Patrick McBrearty (Kilcar), Michael Murphy (Glenswilly), Colm McFadden (St Michael’s).
With Mayo the debate over what to believe in the team selection continues. Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle are both pencilled in for the wing-back spots but speculation persists over their ability to start. Richie Feeney and Chris Barrett would be the prime candidates to replace them.
MAYO: David Clarke (Ballina Stephenites); Kevin Keane (Westport), Ger Cafferkey (Ballina Stephenites), Keith Higgins (Ballyhaunis); Lee Keegan (Westport), Donal Vaughan (Ballinrobe), Colm Boyle (Davitts); Barry Moran (Castlebar Mitchels), Aidan O’Shea (Breaffy); Kevin McLoughlin (Knockmore), Cillian O’Connor (Ballintubber), Alan Dillon (Ballintubber); Michael Conroy (Davitts), Enda Varley (Garrymore), Jason Doherty (Burrishoole).
Checking the odds… No disputing who are the favorites with Donegal ranked at 4/9 while there is value offered in Mayo at 5/2. The handicap betting has Donegal (-2) at 10/11 while in the first goalscorer markets Colm McFadden is priced at 11/2 and Jason Doherty at 9/1.
Clues from the form guide… Can we find fault with Donegal’s form to date? A quick scan of the opponents they have felled illustrates how impressive their route has been this summer – toppling the modern giants of Tyrone, Kerry and Cork, and the local rivals of Cavan, Down and Derry. In the All-Ireland series they have shown a capacity to rise to major occasions and cope with new challenges.
Those second-half bursts were critical against Kerry and Cork, and provide persuasive evidence for James Horan in his approach to this game. Allow Donegal to construct a three or four point lead by the midway mark of the second-half and it is going to be arduous to overhaul them. Jim McGuinness has constructed a side who fight vigorously to protect an advantage.
The perception of Mayo is that their semi-final win over Dublin was their first landmark victory of the summer. That overlooks the significance of their Connacht final victory against Sligo when they played poorly for stretches yet still found a way to claim a success. And in the All-Ireland quarter-final, they succeeded in ripping apart Down in a manner redolent of Donegal in the Ulster decider.
The game breakers are… There will be collective and individual influencing factors at play on Sunday. Collectively there is the issue of who will be able to cope with the occasion. Conor Deegan wrote here during the week of how on All-Ireland final day ‘star players can freeze and surprise heroes can emerge’ and it is a salient point. The explosion of hype in Donegal in recent weeks has increased the challenge for Jim McGuinness to insulate his players. Mayo know from past experiences how those sideshows can derail a team’s challenge for Sam, hence the more measured and mature approach to this year’s build-up.
Donegal’s remarkable early second-half power play was integral to their victory over Cork but the first-half provided clues on how to unlock them. On the few occasions that Cork punted the ball in quickly towards Colm O’Neill in particular, they experienced joy. Finding space up front against Donegal can be difficult but if possession is transferred quickly, then it can be found. Mayo will need to implement those traits which underpinned their early dominance against Dublin.
Mayo may not have Andy Moran’s ball-winning abilities but they have Alan Dillon’s creativity and Cillian O’Connor’s nerve at landing points. The potential duel between Karl Lacey, who is having a marvelous season, and Dillon could be critical. There are other fascinating sub-plots like how Ger Cafferkey will manage to stifle Colm McFadden, is Kevin McLoughlin best placed to tame Mark McHugh and can the Barry Moran-Aidan O’Shea axis reign at midfield?
Gazing into the crystal ball… The unique backdrop to this game promises a magical occasion and wild celebrations for whoever succeeds. If Donegal hit the heights of their recent clashes, then it is hard to see past the sight of Michael Murphy lifting Sam Maguire after 5pm on Sunday afternoon. They have stars like Lacey, McHugh, McFadden and Murphy but also vastly under-rated figures like Anthony Thompson and Leo McLoone. There has been so much to admire in their approach and performances over the last two years under the guidance of McGuinness.
And yet they must deal with soaring expectations, the burden of heavy favoritism and the unfamiliar surroundings of an All-Ireland final day. Between minor, U21 and senior games, Mayo have an edge in the experience of national deciders. Until the Dublin game they did not look capable of matching Donegal yet the standards they set for the first 50 minutes of that game altered the picture.
James Horan has done a wonderful job in changing the mentality of this team while the influences of Cian O’Neill and Ed Coughlan have them primed from combat. Replicate their early performance against Dublin, avoid the late slump and they have an excellent chance. Enough of a one for us to suspect that after 61 years, the current setup could finally land the prize.