Mayo ready to exorcise past ghosts but Tyrone stand in way
Today's All-Ireland final between Mayo and Tyrone has all the requisite ingredients for a great contest.
It's being a novel final pairing of two teams who were underdogs who surprised their semi-final opponents and are peaking at the right time and, on paper at least, have little to separate them.
The bookies have Mayo as favourites but the nature of Tyrone's victory over Kerry in their semi-final can't be underestimated, particularly given the difficulties they had to endure as Covid-19 hit the squad and disrupted preparations.
Their semi-final was almost two weeks late in being played but Covid or no Covid, they were well prepared to surprise a Kerry team that just two and a half months earlier had walloped them by 6-15 to 1-14 in a league game in Killarney.
The tables were turned for the All-Ireland semi-final in Croker, with Tyrone going for goal on this occasion, scoring three through the clinical Conor McKenna and irrepressible Cathal McShane.
That the Tyrone joint managers Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan could spring McShane from the bench to help fire them into the final shows a depth of talent within the squad now.
McShane and Darragh Canavan, son of you-know-who, are potential aces in the pack to come off the replacements' bench and see out the game. It was interesting to hear former Tyrone ace Colm Cavanagh say that the Red Hand county almost seem to have a stronger team finishing than starting games, following in some ways the Dublin strategy of recent years.
Which is not to say the starting team is in any way weak, not when Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly, Conor Meyler, Kieran McGeary, Niall Morgan, Darren McCurry and the aforementioned McKenna are lining up from the off.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that Mayo don't have huge options off the bench as well.
For instance, Mayo weren't weakened by bringing Enda Hession into the white hot heat of the semi-final against Dublin; in fact, the Garrymore man turned in a great display and deserves his starting place this afternoon. Jordan Flynn arguably had his most impactful game in the green and red jersey that day too, scoring a memorable point in a busy, industrious performance. Darren Coen scored a point, James Carr was less accurate but very lively, Bryan Walsh and Conor O'Shea had their moments, and it was great to see Brendan Harrison get back on the field of play too.
But look at the starting team: Hennelly, Keegan, Durcan, McLoughlin, O'Connor, Aidan O'Shea, household names all, with new stars on the block Ruane, Loftus, O'Hora, Conroy, O'Donoghue, Stephen Coen. Eoghan McLaughlin hasn't always been a starter and due to the injury he suffered in the semi-final, he's not named to start this afternoon either. By keeping him in reserve in some games, James Horan et al have shown a willingness to embrace the stronger-finishing-than-starting-team ethic, although in the round it looks as though they've got the blend spot on.
What can we expect in today's final? From Tyrone, more expansiveness and ambition going forward than in recent years, though with an eye on defensive stability by dropping forwards such as Conor Meyler into deeper positions. Meyler was particularly good against Kerry as he mixed his duties of keeping a close eye on Paudie Clifford with setting up attacks whenever the opportunity allowed.
Midfield will be interesting and it could be tough for Tyrone's Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick as Mattie Ruane, Conor Loftus, Aidan O'Shea and Diarmuid O'Connor are all likely to operate around the middle at various stages.
Speaking of O'Shea, the captain, who has been named to start at centre half-forward, I fully expect him to redeem himself today after his under par display in the semi-final. He will be a handful for Tyrone wherever he operates.
Inside forwards Tommy Conroy, who roared into the Dublin game when it was there to be won and lost, and Ryan O'Donoghue, who has had an fabulous campaign to date, can have a big say in where Sam ends up, while Kevin McLoughlin has the wiles to exert a degree of control over proceedings, though I don't expect him to spend much time in the corner forward position in which he has been selected to start.
Though not named in the starting 15, Oisin Mullin may well be available to play a part. He adds forward impetus to the team, even when operating in the full-back zone. So too does Lee Keegan, while Padraig 'Only One Plan' O'Hora has been a colossus in the last line of defence.
Mayo's run to the All-Ireland final this year is as unexpected as it is welcome. With the raft of retirements early in the year compounded by injury to Cillian O'Connor before a championship ball had been kicked, expectation was replaced by no more than faint hope among many supporters. Personally, I had the fatalistic feeling that Mayo would win Connacht and possibly beat Dublin (from the outset this year they didn't look like the Dublin of old) but lose to a free-scoring Kerry in the final.
But this has been a year of surprises and it's not Kerry that stand in the way of All-Ireland glory on Saturday. Tyrone are no less formidable and can't be underestimated but there's no baggage for Mayo players, management or supporters going into this one. It may be the greatest chance ever to end the long wait for Sam.