All Ireland Senior Football Final Preview

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Dublin third in a row or Mayo’s elusive All Ireland win?

Third Sunday in September can only mean one thing. Sam Maguire is either staying in the nation’s capital or heading out West to Mayo for the first time since 1951. Hawkeye Sidekick evaluates both sides and wonders if Mayo can produce a performance to get over the line?

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Jim Gavin continues to excel

Dublin enter this All Ireland Football final as firm warm favorites based on their dominant performances in the championship this season so far. Carlow provided resistance in the opening Dublin championship appearance but the reigning All Ireland Champions went through the gears in the final quarter to run out comfortable winners. Westmeath were no match to Dublin in the Leinster semi-final; one sided contest but one that introduced the GAA world to the talents of Con O’Callaghan. The Cuala clubman has excelled in hurling with his club but decisively focused on football this season with devastating effects. His scores from play, his movement and ability to hit off either left or right have caused opponent back lines with massive headaches.

It has being a season where new Dublin leaders have emerged. Jim Gavin has provided Jon Small, Con O’Callaghan and Paul Mannion with key roles and they have flourished allowing Dublin management with the great luxury of leaving the caliber of Paul Flynn, Diarmuid Connolly, Bernard Brogan, Kevin McManamon, Michael Darragh McAuley in reserve. It is a scary prospect that if Dublin flounder this weekend, Jim Gavin can bring on this experience and winning mentality of these players to proceedings.

The Leinster SFC final against Kildare was reported as a game effort from the Lilywhites; obvious most of the rat pack forgot the first quarter when Kildare were blown away. They never hit a meaningful shot at Dublin throughout and only for a quick 1-1 at the finish, the scoreline would have being more accurate than the nine point margin at the final whistle.

Monaghan were meant to provide aggression, defensive nous and bite but none materialized as Dublin brushed past the challenge with contempt. 1-19 scored against a team who pride themselves on strong defense. Pundits thought Tyrone would cause the upset but it was as remote as Frank De Boer getting a fifth league game with Crystal Palace. Dublin’s pace, power and movement caused Tyrone massive problems and the star performers shone once more. O’Callaghan, Rock scored at regular intervals and Tyrone were routed in the middle third. 2-17 scored against a Tyrone side who looked impeccable in defensive work this season.

All lines are working in a cohesive fashion. The forward line are scoring on average 24.5 points this season in the championship. The back line are conceding a misery 12 points per game this season where Cian O’Sullivan has provided leadership and organization in the sweeper role. The midfield area has seen dominant performances from Fenton and McCarthy who have provided attacking support along with the McCaffrey from the wing back position. No genuine weaks and then you have the distribution of Stephen Cluxton, the template in which all intercounty goalkeepers must evaluate against. Do Mayo push up on the kick-out or surrender possession to Dublin deep in their half? Intriguing stuff.

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O’Shea performance key

Mayo have had an epic passage to the All Ireland Senior Football final. A regulation win against Sligo then resulted in a disappointing reversal to Galway in the Connacht SFC semi-final raising alarm bells in the county; the team were lackluster and not helped by the red card issued to Keith Higgins. Mayo had chances to not only get a replay from Salthill but also could have won only for questionable shot selection in the closing stages.

It was not to be and Mayo were again dealt the hand of going through the treacherous qualifier route. A banana skin was averted as Mayo overcame the challenge of Derry at home after extra time; a performance which was a mixed bag. Defensively at sea dealing with the long ball. Forward line failing to fire as a cohesive unit until extra time when Mayo’s conditioning and squad depth kicked onto secure victory.

A tricky trip to Cusack Park, Ennis then followed. Clare were seen as a team who would provide a stiff test and so it proved for forty-five minutes of the contest. Clare’s lack of scoring power to reward a dominant opening period was decisive as Mayo dusted themselves down at the break to go through the gears and beat the hosts by seven points. Cillian O’Connor was pivotal to the victory scoring 1-5.

Next round was a game against a Cork side pretty much written off by everyone. Mayo were dominant heading in the final quarter and management trying to save players hauled off the likes of Boyle. Moran. The move nearly backfired as Cork regained impetus and could have won the game in regular time. Mayo were again forced into a corner but their composure and resiliency were to the fore as the side won by the solitary point in the proverbial nail-biter. Question marks surfaced on Mayo management and their substitution policy, improved performances were now expected heading into the All Ireland Series.

Roscommon were next in the All Ireland Quarter Finals. Mayo underwhelmed in the opening exchanges as Roscommon had two goals on the board early doors. Mayo were again looking vulnerable but Lee Keegan (1-3) and Cillian O’Connor (0-3) rescued the result. Andy Moran work rate and scores (0-2) from play ensured a replay for Mayo who then made no mistake in the replay. Dominant middle third performance and the replay was over in the first quarter as Mayo struck goals at will. Superb running lines from deep causing Roscommon endless issues whose kick-out strategy was devastatingly exposed. 4-19 was a superb return for Mayo on the day and the likes of Jason Doherty, Tom Parsons and Kevin McLaughlin shone.

Kerry in the All Ireland Semi-Final, a much fancied Kingdom struggled to compete in the work rate and middle third departments over the two games. Aidan O’Shea was sacrificed in the full back role to contend with the threat of Kieran Donaghy, a player who has haunted Mayo in past seasons. O’Shea did as well as he could but his full back role robbed Mayo of their talisman in the middle third. Mayo again were left to rue defensive lapses to allow Kerry back into the opening contest and another replay loomed large on the horizon. Mayo were excellent and made no mistake dominating the middle third and striking goals early to keep Kerry at distance. The result was never in doubt as Kerry flagged under the pressure exerted by Mayo in the middle third; starving quick ball into the full forward line. It was a controlled performance. Andy Moran continued his superb performances with a cameo full of leadership and scoring threat.

The question though now for Mayo is attrition. Have Mayo enough in the tank to produce a performance to topple Dublin? Mayo’s tenth game in the championship, momentum has being built but at what cost. Mayo have to be on point from the first whistle; their resiliency has being truly tested but this is Dublin and their ability to kill off games is at a different level to anything that Mayo have faced this season. Work rate needs to be manic on Sunday, just wonder on the effects of the past games this season?

Who wins Sam Maguire?

Familiarity breeds contempt. Mayo are well aware of the Dublin threats having faced them last season but there are new threats to consider. Can Mayo management spring new threats for Dublin management to consider during the final this weekend? O’Shea positioning aside, what else can they throw up which will cause Jim Gavin to take stock. I am struggling for answers to that question.

The squad depth in the final quarter looks heavily weighed in Dublin’s favor with Flynn, Brogan, Connolly in the ranks. Mayo potentially have Patrick Durcan in the ranks to make an impact. Coen and Loftus will need to bring ‘A’ game to the mix to make the required impact.

Dublin have shown their versatility in defeating opposition in different manners. Man to man or blanket defense, Dublin will make the necessary adjustments. Mayo to be fair have improved their kick game, distribution to the inside forward line but on Sunday they are faced with a total entirely different proposition.

Dublin will keep their defensive shape; sweepers in O’Sullivan and Cooper will look to repel Mayo’s attacking intentions early. Can Mayo’s running lines consistently create the chances to score goals at regular intervals? They need to score a couple of goals personally to win Sam Maguire. I have my doubts.

Dublin enter this final contest looking to write a few wrongs from last season’s final games. A sense that perhaps Dublin just about got over the line last year. A bit disingenuous to Mayo but Dublin will look to impose their will early on this final; a repeat of last year’s opening final performance will not be tolerated by Jim Gavin and management even though they had scored two goals in this time (albeit Mayo own goals). Dublin looking for three in a row are looking to put on a show and early middle third dominance may setup this cameo. If this happens, this contest could be over early.

Where do Mayo win this game? Until they get over the line, they will be asked the wrenching question whether they have the mental and physical fortitude to get over the line. A touch harsh, their resiliency is beyond reproach. Mayo need to involve Aidan O’Shea early; get their key player into the game, supplying incisive ball to the deep runs of Boyle and Keegan.

Mayo have to provide an intensity in work rate throughout; they will go for the full seventy minutes. The issue is defensively. The full back position sticks out like a sore thumb. The kick-out strategy is a concern, cannot see Dublin letting Clarke take quick short kick-outs like Kerry did. Clarke may have to go long and distribution has being critiqued last season by Mayo management. Dublin work rate in the tackle will be a considerable threat this weekend; quick turnover could spell trouble for Mayo.

Mayo’s half-forward line also needs to provide a scoring platform as well like they did against Kerry last time out. Diarmuid O’Connor needs to be a goal scoring threat; making selfless runs from deep to keep Dublin’s half back line on their toes. Cillian O’Connor, Andy Moran and Jason Doherty need quick ball to assert influence inside. Kevin McLaughlin needs to be the player to win that dirty second ball. Mayo have excellent facets of play which Dublin will need to pay close attention to but also they have vulnerabilities which should be exposed early doors.

For Mayo to win this game, they have to be almost pitch perfect in back, midfield and forward lines while nullifying Dublin in the middle third for long periods. It is a tall order and one that I do not see happening on Sunday unfortunately; it would be a superb story if Mayo get over the line but Dublin look the more polished side on paper and the squad impact in the final quarter could break Mayo hearts again.

The officiating will play a factor; interesting to see how Joe McQuillan plays this contest. Does he let the game flow or does he go selective in officiating the tackle? Mayo’s work rate to win possession has being a hallmark this season; officiating has ruled that their tackling was on point. Interesting subplots.

Verdict: Dublin

Dublin to win based on an excellent opening quarter, expect a fast start from the reigning champions. Mayo to grow into the contest but a lack of goal threat in the final will be their undoing due to the well structured Dublin back line. Dublin by four / five points. Dublin’s forward line have the better long range shooters as well as the inside threat to seriously put a score on a Mayo back line who will be under pressure throughout. Dean Rock potentially could be key player in this regard with his free taking prowess and potential goal scoring threat despite the best efforts of Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor.

All Ireland Senior Football Quarter Final Preview

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All Ireland Football Semi-Final spots up for grabs

Sunday sees the first of the All Ireland Senior Football quarter finals. Kerry take on West Coast rivals Galway and Connacht football kingpins Roscommon take on a battle hardened Mayo outfit. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Can Galway stifle Kerry’s attacking play to upset the odds?

Galway enters this contest wondering realistically where they are in terms of team development. A narrow victory over Mayo in the Connacht semi-final saw several good moments and indicated scope for improvement which never materialized in an utterly disappointing Connacht final display against Roscommon. Last weekend, Galway took advantage of an insipid Donegal performance to easily advance to the last eight of the competition.

The performance was good but Donegal were shambolic throughout. A season where NFL Division One football was secured earlier in the season, Galway are still an unknown quantity on Sunday. They have superb footballers in all units. Silke, O’Donnell, Conroy, Sice, Bradshaw, Armstrong, Walsh are superb talents and if the game is an open affair, Galway will more than match Kerry in the skills department.

The main issue for Galway will be on how they stifle Kerry’s forward line who were extremely impressive in their Munster football final triumph. The speed, tempo, movement, quality distribution was a joy to watch and Kerry’s forward line were causing chaos with every possession in the attack.

Kieran Donaghy in the full forward position poses serious issues for Galway. What does Kevin Walsh and Galway management do? Donaghy’s aerial ability will pose Galway untold problems. Do Galway consider moving back Conroy to negate this threat? His physicality and power under the dropping ball would certainly be a plus point for Galway defensively but Galway will lose something further up the park. It is an intricate balancing act.

Kerry’s forward line has sparkled this season. James O’Donoghue has had a superb season so far; back to his 2014 form. His movement and ball striking have being exceptional. Paul Geaney as an inside full forward threat will punish Galway if given time and space. There is no weak link in this attacking unit. Galway will do well to keep Kerry under control so they are going to have to score heavy to keep in the contest.

Do Galway have hope? I believe they do. The Kerry performances this season in the championship have shown occasional lapses defensively. Clare for forty minutes in their Munster semi-final fixture exposed Kerry on occasion. For as bad as Cork were in the provincial final showcase, they could and should have scored a couple of goals against Kerry as the full back was left exposed due to player running overlaps. Galway need to score a couple of goals to seriously upset the odds tomorrow and with forwards such as Comer, Walsh, Armstrong in the starting line-up and Michael Meehan coming off the bench, chances will be created provided Galway’s outside players play good, fast ball inside to their forward line early.

That prospect though is dreamland stuff as Kerry will be prepared for Galway particularly after the recent U21 football fixture between the two counties earlier in the year. Kerry U21’s were humbled by Galway; the groundwork of this win was midfield dominance and this is an area where Galway will look to impose their will on proceedings. O’Curraoin and Flynn will look to set the tone with early 50/50 wins. Conroy will provide leadership and game management but a lot depends on whether he is tasked with stifling Donaghy.

Kerry’s midfield are no mugs. Maher and Buckley will look to execute the fundamentals well and with Donnacha Walsh coming back into form. Kerry have players to win their own 50/50 ball as well. I think the game will be a good spectacle for the neutral but if the weather is anyway decent, Kerry’s forward line could be too much for Galway defensively. It is imperative for Galway not to let the heads drop; it happened last year against Tipperary so twelve months on, it will be interesting to see how far the team have progressed. Kerry to advance but Galway will expose defensive issues with Kerry. The kick-out strategy could be also vulnerable if Galway decides to push up on the Kerry kick outs given their talent in the middle of the park but it is Kerry for me by five points.

Can Roscommon cope with the Croke Park occasion to expose Mayo?

I admire Kevin McStay, always liked his candid opinion on the Sunday Game and despite ferocious criticisms from within Roscommon, his side have secured the Connacht Senior Football title with a youthful, energetic side.

Roscommon had a miserable NFL Division One campaign but the calibre of opposition faced improved the side; the NFL Division One factor has being huge for Roscommon and they have safely negotiated Connacht with a minimum of fuss with a professional win over Leitrim and then overwhelmed Galway in the provincial final.

The victory against Galway was no fluke. Galway complacency argument is a little rich; a disservice for anyone associated with Roscommon who dominated the aerial exchanges in midfield and their speed and tempo consistently had Galway on edge throughout.

Enda Smith was sublime in the provincial final. His cameo from the middle of the park set the tone for others to follow. His catching and distribution were on point throughout and laid the foundations for Roscommon to score. Yes, there were numerous missed chances in the opening period but one hopes that McStay and management have worked on that side of play in the three weeks after this triumph.

A side which has a good age profile; more progression and scope for improvement can be seen for the team in the coming seasons. Roscommon should have no pressure on them this weekend. Mayo will be expected to triumph and they need to embrace the occasion. Their record in Croke Park has being shocking recently; too much pressure applied within and players have failed to produce.

Mayo come into this fixture with football fans wondering where the team are this year. The loss to Galway exposed leadership issues both on and off the pitch, misfiring sweeper system where Boyle was caught in catch twenty-two situations too many times. The qualifier campaign has being less than plain sailing. Extra time was required to beat Derry and Cork and in between struggled to impose their will against Clare until breaking away in the last quarter.

Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor have being outstanding for Mayo this season offensively. The decision to replace Moran last weekend nearly backfired against Cork; a true leader and leads by example. His work rate and ability to take a score has being to the fore this season. O’Connor against Cork was lights out; he focused on his inside forward line play and it paid rewards. Two vital attackers for Mayo.

The emergence of Aidan O’Shea is a welcome boost for Mayo. The Breaffy clubman had an indifferent start to the season but the physically imposing player has played superbly in recent outings. He needs to continue this form for the rest of the season.

Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle and Patrick Durcan are one of the best half-back lines in the country. I am dubious on Boyle as a sweeper though; better when having to man mark an opponent and contributing with scores from play. Keegan usually takes his game to the next step at this time of year. Durcan is so underrated; great running game and ability to score from long range.

The issue for Mayo is the full  back position. Ger Cafferkey has admirably tried to fill the position but Cork and other opposition have highlighted the area with ball in recent seasons. Roscommon will look to test this area of the pitch again as Cork created goal chances last weekend which on another day could have gone in. It is not just down on the Mayo full back; players around him need to protect the space in front of the full forward line but Mayo options to fill the full back position look limited.

Mayo management as well have not gotten away with criticism. Their substitution policy has created much debate particularly last weekend. Rochford’s decision to haul off Moran, Boyle against Cork was a mistake. Mayo management will point to scientific facts for the decision but these players were having good outings, why change a winning team? The decision making last weekend adds more ammunition to the fire when you consider the Mayo goalkeeping fiasco in last year’s All Ireland final replay. Management need to provide confidence and right now, they are struggling for form and confidence themselves.

Roscommon to win  will need to overcome their Croke Park nerves. Mayo are a battle hardened outfit in Croke Park and will relish playing a youthful side who have had nightmarish experiences playing at HQ.

The early exchanges will set the tone. If Roscommon can settle into the contest, then we will be in for a good game. Mayo will look to build momentum during the contest; continue the good form of their attacking units. The Roscommon back line will need to be disciplined and have slight reservations that they will leak needless frees.

Mayo’s experience could hold sway here, hoping Roscommon can produce a performance. The occasion is the one area I worry on Roscommon so tipping Mayo for a five point win. Two exciting encounters and mark the business end of the football championship!