FOR THE VAST majority of the last decade, Mayo played second fiddle in their rivalry with Dublin.
This evening’s trip to Croke Park presents a rare opportunity for James Horan’s team to kick Dublin while they’re down. In the process they can build on last August’s All-Ireland semi-final win and strike another important psychological blow, perhaps confirming they now hold the upper hand in the war between these counties.
We became used to Dublin hitting the ground running in the league during the Jim Gavin era, but this time it’s the Westerners who’ve started the campaign unbeaten. It’s only the fourth time since 2007 they haven’t lost at least one of their opening two league games. The last three times it happened, they went on to make the final.
The Dubs have lost three straight, and a fourth successive defeat would increase the pressure on Dessie Farrell, while leaving them mired in a battle for survival in the top flight.
It won’t be lost on Horan that Mayo haven’t beaten Dublin in the league since 2012, when he was starting his second season of his first stint in charge. They repeated the trick later that summer, surviving a late fightback to dethrone the champions in the last four of the All-Ireland series.
Naturally, both sides have undergone considerable transformations since then.
Dublin have three survivors from that team: Mick Fitzsimons, James McCarthy and Ciaran Kilkenny. Mayo retain their manager plus Lee Keegan, Aidan O’Shea, Kevin McLoughlin, Jason Doherty and Cillian O’Connor.
Expect to see a much-improved Dublin performance this evening. They’ll have been frustrated with the poor start to the year, coupled with all the discussion around their apparent demise.
Dean Rock pointed out this week that, taking out their second-quarter fade-outs, Dublin hadn’t actually performed as badly as the narrative would suggest. He added that he was hopeful Farrell would have a full hand available to him this weekend.
It’s a stretch to expect Dublin to return to a full compliment, but even the return of Eoin Murchan, Cormac Costello, James McCarthy and Con O’Callaghan would add energy, pace and firepower.
Mayo won’t have the explosive Tommy Conroy for the rest of the season and Cillian O’Connor is still making his way back to full fitness. So they won’t have the firepower to hurt Dublin’s full-back line like Rian O’Neill and the Clifford brothers did.
The Connacht champions do have Ryan O’Donoghue continuing the form that saw him pick up his first All-Star last winter. Jason Doherty would have benefited hugely from the bye-week after two tough games on his return from a back-to-back cruciate injuries.
And Oisin Mullin returns to the team, making his first start since turning down a professional contract with the AFL’s Geelong.
Horan named a youthful starting team, particularly in attack where Jack Carney, Paul Towey and Aiden Orme all feature.
If Mayo lose tonight, Horan will take criticism for his failure to put out a more experienced side with the intention of taking Dublin’s scalp when they’re vulnerable.
Over the last decade, Dublin never let Mayo gain confidence by losing to them in league games, even if they took place on a rainy Saturday night in Castlebar, months removed from the business end of the championship.
Dublin always saw the value in keeping your rivals down. They strived never to allow their rivals get a taste for winning competitive games.
Even during February meetings between 2018 and 2020, when Dublin were not long back from team holidays, they knew there were certain league games they couldn’t lose.
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Brian Cody had a similar mantra during the Kilkenny glory days.
“Playing Tipperary always brought more pressure but we loved playing them,” wrote Jackie Tyrrell in his autobiography. “We loved beating them even more. We couldn’t beat them enough.”
Dublin did likewise to Mayo over the years, until they didn’t. Last August, the Sky Blues were six points ahead at half-time but by the end of extra-time it was Mayo who were celebrating.
They ended the longest unbeaten run in the All-Ireland SFC, and took some of the aura of invincibility away from Farrell’s team. To do it twice in-a-row would be another milestone for this Mayo team.
Don’t forget, after the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final, it took Mayo another nine years before they again experienced the feeling of beating Dublin.
As Tyrrell said about on Tipperary, “If they beat us once, they’d act as if they had been thrashing us for a decade.”
Mayo have beaten Dublin once. Now the challenge is to do it again.
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