THE DAY after the gold and green machine had reduced Cork to blind panic in Croke Park, one newspaper posed the question on its website: “Would any team of any era have beaten Donegal yesterday?”
In a way it’s understandable: Donegal were so relentless in the critical stages of their wins over the Rebels and Kerry that it was difficult, when they rolled forward to the roars of Gaelic football’s loudest supporters, to imagine them losing. The latest hit single from the north-west tells us that Jimmy is winning matches, but that doesn’t fully cover it. At their best, what is most fearsome is the simplicity of their excellence: not a fumble, not a missed free, not an opposing forward who takes possession without feeling like a man tossed amid a pack of wolves. Jimmy is devouring matches, more like it.
Yet, despite seeing our two favourites for the All-Ireland dispatched, despite the odds of about 4/9 on Donegal to win, we can’t escape the feeling that some observers are losing the sprint of themselves.
First, the Gaelic football team that comes even close to being unbeatable will never exist. If you are looking for instances of the supposedly infallible being dropped from a height on All-Ireland final day, there are a host since the deluxe example of 1982. On the Saturday before the 1991 final, we remember watching ‘Up for the Match’ and feeling almost sorry for those excitable Down people.
The story was recounted this week of Brian McEniff, in 1992, asking the assembled press night journos who they thought would win the final, and the conclusion being considered so foregone that not one was tempted to plump for Donegal to beat Dublin, even out of politeness.
Perhaps the most apt example came in 1998: Kildare, another supposed machine, who also had dispatched three recent All-Ireland champions, against sideshow Galway.
Second, if there ever has been a team near to unstoppable, it is not Donegal 2012. They are often brilliant, yes, but were they not a sharp Paul Durcan save from a draw against Tyrone? Were they not held to 1-3 approaching half-time against Down? Did they not have a six-point lead with five minutes to go – built partly on a fluke goal – whittled to one by Kerry, and did Patrick Curtin not only slightly miscue a tricky injury-time chance to level the game?
Third – and most important – McGuinness is not the only Jimmy winning games. Mayo, you might have forgotten, have beaten Cork and Kerry at headquarters in the past 13 months.
Forget the westerners’ jitters in the closing stages against the Dubs for a moment. What heights of praise would Joe Brolly have reached if it had been everybody’s hot tips, Donegal, and not everybody’s favourite punchline of yesteryear, Mayo, who led the All-Ireland champions 0-17 to 0-8 after 52 minutes?
Only two other teams have done that to modern-day Dublin in the Championship: Tyrone 08 and Kerry 09.
In the drive against hype, Mayo players are told to focus on Sunday’s encounter as simply “game five”, while the majority of fans are reportedly resisting the no-doubt powerful urge to crack out the green and red spray paint and accost the nearest sheep or jalopy.
It is not hard to imagine them having cause to abandon restraint on Sunday evening. A big factor in Donegal’s dominance against Cork was their harvesting of Durcan’s smart kick-outs; but Barry Moran or Aidan O’Shea are unlikely to afford Neil Gallagher the clean catches he took against Cork. Those two and the likes of Kevin McLoughlin have the potential to win the battle around the middle third.
Elsewhere, Keith Higgins, if given the task, might shackle Colm McFadden, as he reportedly did in the league encounter between the pair in Ballyshannon, a feat all the more impressive considering Donegal’s dominance that day.
Indeed, Mayo do not give away much at the back – they have conceded 13 points from play in their past three championship games, not including Down’s two goals. Keep the number of placed ball opportunities for McFadden and Michael Murphy to a minimum, and the platform for victory will be there.
One concern as they attempt to ape the achievement of, say Down 91 or Galway 98, is that they don’t have a Linden or a McCartan, a Fallon or a Joyce.
Still, a side that have registered 3-37 in two games without Conor Mortimer and mostly without Andy Moran cannot be short of sharp-shooters.
If Mayo are to lose, it won’t be for a lack of physical or mental preparation. Much has been made of James Horan’s use of sports psychologist Kieran Shannon, which already played a part in Ballintubber’s first ever county senior crown, and of senior coach Cian O’Neill, who is surely involved in his fourth All-Ireland final running for good reason.
Just as important – and there are echoes of Mickey Harte here – is Horan’s emphasis on technique. He insists Mayo did not let slip a six-point lead in the drawn 1996 All-Ireland final he starred in on account of mental weakness, Liam McHale’s sending off, or Colm Coyle’s freak equaliser, but on his side falling short on the basic skills of the game.
“Not all of us could use both feet, not all of us could pass off our left or right hand,” he told Shannon, who is also a renowned sports journalist, in an interview for the Irish Examiner last year. “If our basic skill set had been very, very good, we wouldn’t have given away as much ball. We would have won.”
The same interview outlined how Horan had set up a detailed analysis of each of his players’ skills, and how those players are expected to address their weaknesses.
That is Mayo then: fit, focused and skillful, and lord, it is tempting to back them. The only doubts – apart from Moran’s injury – spring from their slightly easier route to the final, which makes it harder to assess how their qualities will stand up to the toughest scrutiny.
It is the last point for them to prove, this nagging doubt, perhaps created by their late collapse against Kerry last year and their failure to make much of a dent in Cork in this year’s NFL decider.
Mayo seem certain to at least go awfully close, to offer the favourites a test that befits an All-Ireland final.
If Donegal are off kilter even slightly, they will lose; but in McGuinness, they also have a psychologist of some repute, and if he can cajole another performance akin to the second half against Cork, Jimmy can win one more match.
With little conviction, we must conclude that Sam is, after all, in the immortal words of Anthony Molloy, for the hills.
*Follow Eamonn on Twitter: @eamonnomolloy