All roads lead to Croke park on Saturday for what will be a feast of football for Mayo fans, when both the women and men take on All-Ireland champions Dublin in their respective All-Ireland semi finals.
Thankfully, the powers that be used common sense and organised a double header, so supporters of both teams can reap the benefits of seeing both games.
It's hard to believe it's 2012 since Mayo last got the better of Dublin in men's football in championship. I have been at all Mayo/ Dublin games that have taken place since that great victory in 2012 (mostly finals ) and truth be told, I didn't travel with any great hope or expectations before, often fearing the worst, as Dublin had blitzed their way to their encounters with Mayo down the years.
To say Mayo gave a good account of themselves in all but one of those contests is a gross understatement. Often, I was left breathless because of the intensity and tension of what was unfolding before my eyes in a packed Croke Park. Mayo had the greatest team ever at the pin of their collars on several occasions.
I have covered several Dublin games in 2021 and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out there is a serious drop in their level of performance and ruthless efficiency.
Are the Dubs what they were?
Off-the-field issues that you would never associate with the very professional Dublin set-up seem to have crept in and opened cracks in the once unbreakable Dublin wall: - The pictures that surfaced on April 1 of their embarrassing early morning training covid breach leading us to think it was an April fools joke; the uncertainty and negative publicity surrounding Stephen Cluxton's future; players like Paul Mannion and Eric Lowdnes leaving the panel for whatever apparent reason; Kevin McManamon still being part of the Dublin set-up yet he was with the Irish Olympic boxing team in Tokyo for the last month and is only home; and most recently, an article published only last week about Philly McMahon’s uncertainty about his availability for Saturday's semi final - because of soccer commitments with Bohemians.
All of these instances/circumstances are unsettling and cannot have a positive impact on the team, no matter what way you butter them up. These various distractions would not have happened under Jim Gavin’s watch, you can bet on that.
Both Meath and Kildare had a great chance to turn over the once unbeatable Dubs; that is why I feel Mayo have a great chance on Saturday.
I did not expect to be saying that after Cillian O'Connor picked up his horrible Achilles injury in Ennis. I didn’t think Mayo would be able to cope without the championship's all-time leading scorer.
The middle third will be key
What also gives me hope and encouragement is the drop in the level of performances of some of Dublin's big game players. In this year's condensed league, Con O'Callaghan looked like he was capable of winning the Sam McGuire on his own for the Dubs. Right now, he is a pale shadow of that player - at a time when Dublin need him most. Brian Fenton too will go down as one of the greatest midfielders of all time but he too looks flat and is not dictating games the way he is capable of; he seems to be lacking in motivation, almost bored if you like.
Now is the time for Mattie Ruane to show us what he is made of. No question Ruane is Mayo’s top performer in 2021 and now the scene is set for Ruane to hopefully dictate the Croke Park middle third. The outcome of his duel with Fenton/James McCarthy will go a long way in deciding who plays in the All-Ireland final. The way Ruane is playing, he is well capable of outplaying Fenton, something I thought I'd never be saying about Dublin’s number eight.
While Dublin seem like they are beatable, it is still going to take a monumental effort to do, so with Mayo needing a lot of things to go right; Ciaran Kilkenny is still dictating games and will need close monitoring.
Getting the match-ups right
A lot of this week will be spent on trying to get the match-ups right. Paddy Durcan, Lee Keegan and Oisin Mullin will be assigned to Dublin's biggest threats; Padraig O'Hora too, if fit to do so.
The conundrum facing James Horan is whether or not to leave his bench somewhat strong or do you put the likes of Kevin McLoughlin and Eoghan McLaughlin in from the start?
The importance of keeping reserves cannot be over-emphasised. Look at the difference the aforementioned made when they came on at half-time against Galway.
Look at the impact the Cork substitutes made in last Sunday's hurling semi-final, especially Shane Kingston who came on and scored seven points for play and got man of the match. That is what is required of the modern day substitute, go on and make a telling contribution.
Dublin's back-up is not what it used to be; they will have players among their 26 we never heard of, but if Rock, Kilkenny, Costello, O'Callaghan and Co. click, the Dublin substitutes will be left where they are.
This game is crying out for an unexpected, unsung hero, a Darren McHale double or a Tommy Conroy goal feast. I hope that hero is wearing green and red. Dublin have given the chasing pack hope, showing us they are human and can have off days. Head on a block, verdict Mayo.