No county has been so near and yet so far in modern-day Gaelic football as Mayo. Remarkably, they have been in nine finals since 1989. They have been in three replays, and – incredibly – they have lost to Dublin by a single point in three finals. This year, probably the strangest in living memory, they are back in the final again; this Saturday they will once again square up to their nemesis, the Dubs, who are seeking to win a sixth All-Ireland title on the trot.
Mayo manager James Horan has introduced several new young players to his panel this year, but the most eye-catching line on the field in this championship has definitely been their full-forward line. Cillian O’Connor is on fire and has been playing the best football of his career, while young Tommy Conroy has been a revelation in the other corner with his direct style. But the focus of the Mayo attack is their captain Aidan O’Shea, who seems to have finally found his best position, at full-forward. If Mayo are to win on Saturday, they may need the big Breaffy man to have the game of his life.
O’Shea is relishing the challenge of playing the Dubs again and knows that any mistakes will be punished ruthlessly by the champions.
“Our concentration levels have to be at a very high level. You cannot afford to make mistakes against Dublin or you will be punished ruthlessly”, he said at the Mayo All-Ireland (virtual) media night last week.
O’Shea says that it has been very exciting to be playing in such a free-scoring full-forward line this year.
“It’s been great. The two lads (Cillian O’Connor and Tommy Conroy) compliment each other very well. Cillian needed a break from the game. He has put in an incredible effort over the years – in terms of injuries – to be able to play, but this year he has been able to train and play without injury. What a player he is.
“Tommy is a modern-day corner -forward. He has both feet, is very direct and has an eye for goal too. They are also working so hard when we don’t have the ball”, he said.
All-Ireland finals involving Mayo would normally mean massive hype within the county, with tens of thousands of people from Mayo preparing to go to the match and thousands more arriving into the country from all over the world. So it will be a very strange occasion for the Mayo team this weekend.
“A lot people have not been able to do things they normally would this year and we know that as players we are blessed that we can go out at train and play. We just hope that we have brought a bit of joy to the people of Mayo so far both at home and around the world and hopefully that can continue on Saturday”.
Playing in Croke Park is different to playing on any other surface, and Aidan says that the Mayo players will have to be ready for that on Saturday.
“The ball moves a bit quicker in Croke Park, and that gives a bit of an advantage to the forwards, however the Dubs have such strong recovery powers in their defence…we will have to make sure we can capitalise on the possession we have. We need to be smart and use our running game to the best effect on Saturday”.
The rivalry built up between Dublin and Mayo over the past decade has been the stuff of GAA legend, but Aidan O’Shea wants to change the narrative on Saturday. “There has been a great rivalry between the counties and it has been one-sided so far, but the games between us have been unbelievable, to be honest. There is huge respect there between both teams and we seem to bring the best out of each other when we meet. There is nothing that focuses the mind better than playing against the Dubs and it will be no different this time either”, he concluded.
So, a Christmas All-Ireland final in Croke Park. Will it be the ‘Fairytale of Croke Park’ for Mayo, or will it be just another day at the office for this brilliant Dublin team? The throw-in on Saturday is at 5 pm.