With a summer of action reaching its pinnacle this Sunday, Meghan McSweeney previews this year’s All-Ireland football final

It has been 20 years since either Donegal or Mayo have won an All-Ireland final. Donegal return to Croke Park this Sunday for their first All Ireland appearance since their victory over the Dubs in 1992, while Mayo’s time without a win dates back to 1951.

Twelve months ago, this Donegal team was criticised for ruining the game as their defensive tactics were widely attacked, but Sunday has become D-Day for Jim McGuiness’ men. One year on from all the criticism, after their semi final victory over Cork, and pundits such as Joe Brolly and Pat Spillane are eating their words and praising Jim McGuiness for his (albeit, still quite defensive) tactics.

This All Ireland final is not one that the bookies would have predicted. Cork, the favourites, are out and the defending champions Dublin were dethroned by a Mayo team who snuck up under everyone’s radar. Donegal’s performances throughout the championship have given them the deserving title as favourites for this match.

After defeat to Dublin in last year’s semi-final, the Ulstermen were determined to be back in championship football in late August/September. Their high-tempo style of play has yet to be matched by any opponent this year. One wonders how they are able to maintain such intensity throughout not just the individual games, but throughout the championship, but perhaps it has something to do with the reported eight meals a day the team is consuming.

The team has been built upon the northern football tradition of physicality, which was too powerful for usual contenders Tyrone, Kerry and Cork this year. This is obvious when one compares players such as Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden to themselves last year. Both players are vastly improved and are almost guaranteed to receive All-Star nominations this year.

While Tyrone and Kerry are undoubtedly aging teams, they still are two of most successful teams in the last decade, and though Cork were many people’s pick to be champions on September 23rd, Donegal’s’ victories over them are a true signal of intent.

Mayo, on the other hand, enter this All Ireland final not having won it in 61 years. In spite of this, Mayo have earned themselves the title of the ‘upsetting underdogs’ over the past decade. Mayo conquered Dublin in All-Ireland semi-finals both this year and in 2006 and also defeated the reigning All-Ireland Champions Cork in the quarter-final stage in 2007.

Mayo also boast the record of being the most successful Connaught team in recent years. Similar to the Leinster championship, however, the real test for the Connaught provincial champions comes at the quarter-final stage and beyond.

If Mayo are to succeed on Sunday, they will have to return to the form that saw them defeat Down in this year’s quarter-final. While victory over the Dubs cannot be overlooked, it was not convincing. Mayo barely overcame the capital’s team without Captain and star-player Alan Moran and his loss and guidance will be missed against an opposition who have been in form all season.

Truth be told, Dublin’s performances in the 2012 Championship came nowhere close to achieving those of the 2011 campaign. Despite leading the Dubs by ten points at one stage, Mayo let the Dubs back in, eventually scrapping through as two-point victors, as Dublin’s midfield commanded the last 15 minutes of the semi final.

Donegal are a similar, if not greater, physical threat. They will punish a Mayo team if they retreat into such a defence. Mayo must learn from Cork’s mistakes. Donegal build their attacks right from the back. The midfield physicality of Kavanagh and Bradley will prove a difficult test for the Mayo pairing of Moran and O’Shea and the latter must win the lion’s share of their kick-outs.

Donegal’s wall of defence left Cork full-forward Colm O’Neill and his fellow forwards starved of the ball. Donegal build a fortress of a defence that hinders fluid football teams such as Cork, Kerry and Mayo. To win on Sunday, Mayo must do what Dublin did in 2011. They must play Donegal at their own game.

Mayo scored wonderful long ranging points against Dublin, Cillian O’Connor being a prime example. Furthermore, Mayo must score goals in order to put Donegal under pressure. If Donegal are put on the back foot they will be forced to switch to a more attacking style, which will not suit their preference to have twelve or thirteen men defending the ball.

Mayo’s Varley and Dillion must work themselves into goal scoring chances and take what they can, but Donegal’s fitness and physicality should prove too much for Mayo. If Donegal are ahead at half time, it will be difficult for a Mayo side to force them to relinquish a lead. Donegal must take their points and avoid the 16 wides they had against Cork.
It was not the All Ireland pairing anyone predicted, but this new-look final it is one that is good for the game of G.A.A. football.