At the end of the Mayo-Dublin All-Ireland semi-final five weeks ago, as the ‘Green and Red of Mayo’ boomed out over the loudspeakers, the chorus reverberated around the ground like a war-cry signalling the end of the most hurtful oppression imaginable at the hands of Dublin for over a decade.
The atmosphere was incredible. Croke Park was a happy medium of elation and ecstasy, but Mayo stirred the emotional scale to its maximum levels by summoning all that pain, hurt and suffering from deep inside their guts to produce one of the greatest comebacks in living memory.
When Dublin’s castle was finally stormed, it was fitting that Mayo sacked it. They had bombarded the exterior walls before finally scaling them, climbing the steps to the castle top before hoisting the green and red flag on Dublin’s tower.
It was important that Mayo celebrated such a unique victory but, even in that moment, it was also vital to recognise that another tower lay in the distance, the one that Mayo have repeatedly failed to conquer for more decades than they can remember.
Lee Keegan acknowledged as much in his man-of-the-match sideline interview with Shane Dawson from Sky Sports. As the crowd was going crazy all around him, Keegan was still measured and composed, talking about the importance of having a recovery session the following morning before turning their focus and attention to the final.
Beating Dublin was a massive achievement but when Mayo looked back at the footage of the game afterwards, they would surely be the first to admit that Dublin were nowhere near the team they used to be. Dublin turned over the ball 35 times. In last year’s All-Ireland final, Dublin turned over the ball just eight times. The majority of those turnovers five weeks ago were a product of relentless Mayo pressure and intensity, but such a high volume underlined how Dublin were a team running on empty.
Still, Mayo finally got the maths equation right - eventually. Their old failings were smeared all over Mayo’s first half-half performance, when their conversion rate was only 40%. They were playing really poorly, but Mayo finally found their rhythm and stride and turned all conventional trends on their heads; for the remaining 55 plus minutes, Mayo’s conversion rate soared to 71%.
Can Mayo find the same conversion rate now against Tyrone, especially if Tyrone play with the same blanket-type defence they operated against Kerry? Mayo will have to stay patient to probe and work their way through that defensive cordon, especially with good support runs and enough support runners coming from deep. Their kickers will be under incredible pressure, but Tyrone still don’t have the same volume and quality of man-markers as Mayo.
That has always been a huge strength for Mayo, particularly against Dublin in past finals. With Paddy Durcan, Lee Keegan, Padraig O’Hora and Oisin Mullen (if he plays ) good enough to match up against any of Tyrone’s top attackers, Mayo have the luxury of releasing the pace of Mullen, Enda Hession and Eoghan McLaughlin (if he’s passed fit ) to punch holes and exploit space from deep on the counter-attack.
The match-ups will be key. Keegan will probably pick up Darren McCurry with O’Hora on Mattie Donnelly. If Conor McKenna plays as deep as he did against Kerry, that role will probably be handed to Mullen, especially as it may push him further up the field. The stand-out match-up then may come down to Conor Meyler on Ryan O’Donoghue. Meyler had an incredible 34 possessions against Kerry but his biggest contribution was how he clamped down on Paudie Clifford.
How will Mayo deploy Aidan O’Shea? He made no impact against Dublin from just seven possessions, with O’Shea winning just two of the six long balls played into him. Mayo would probably prefer O’Shea at full-forward again, considering the inexperience in the full-forward line without Cillian O’Connor. Yet given how much damage Kerry did on the long Tyrone kickout, Mayo will probably leave O’Shea mostly at midfield with a view to alternating inside as they see fit.
The Tyrone midfield pairing of Conn Kilpatrick and Brian Kennedy only had a combined 19 possessions against Kerry but their job was mostly to stop and track Kerry runners. They may do better on the long kick-out against Mayo, but their deep positioning also allowed the Tyrone defence to play more on the counter-attack that day, which may facilitate O’Shea’s positioning at the edge of the square for long periods.
One of the standout stats around O’Shea is his failure to score from play in six All-Ireland final appearances (including the 2016 replay ). The margins could be so tight in this game that it could come down to O’Shea catching a couple of balls and either sticking one in the net, or setting up a goal for someone like Tommy Conroy.
Tyrone are a much different animal now from the one which collapsed against Kerry back in June. During the league, Tyrone had gone away from the running-defensive game patented by Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin, to more of a kicking and less strait-jacketed style, which certainly suited some of their best inside forwards. But Killarney was a wake-up call, especially around how that game impacted on their defensive shape, and the potential devastation the top teams could cause them on turnovers.
Tyrone haven’t completely abandoned their kicking game, but they have become far more fluid, with defenders operating up front and forwards playing as defensive roadblocks. Tyrone may not be as defensive here but they will still trust the system which worked so well against Kerry.
Tyrone are still giving up more turnovers than they’d like, but they’re still much better set up to defend them, and profit on the counter-attack. Tyrone coughed up 0-12 from turnovers, but they mined 2-9 from the 35 turnovers given up by Kerry, most of which were forced from incessant Tyrone pressure.
This will be another war of attrition, but Mayo will bring a more serrated blade to the fight than Kerry did. Can they finally win? Yes. It will take a monumental effort, but on Saturday evening, the green and red flag should finally be flying from the highest tower of all.