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Conor Deegan: "With all the pre-match sideshows the intrigue lies in which team can deal with them efficiently"

TheScore.ie’s Gaelic Football analyst believes that despite the hype and hoopla in the county, Donegal have the patience to stick to the task next Sunday.

Image: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

THE PLAYERS OF Donegal and Mayo are undergoing a regular routine this week, preparing for a game of Gaelic Football next Sunday.

They are well practiced in getting themselves set for a Croke Park battle but it will have become clear since their respective victories over Cork and Dublin that an All-Ireland final is a vastly different occasion.

A pairing that is as unique as this one reinforces that even more. When you haven’t seen Sam in 20 years in Donegal’s case and 51 years in Mayo’s case, there is going to be a predictable explosion of hype in the build-up to the match.

In 1991 when I was playing for Down, the hype was simply enormous as it was 23 years since the county’s previous All-Ireland appearance. Pete (McGrath) did as best he could to keep us away from it and we were fortunate that we had strong dressing-room characters like Greg Blaney and DJ Kane who helped to keep your feet on the ground. We trained regularly and had no club football distractions. We felt isolated, living in a secure bubble where our focus was on the match. It was perfect.

It must have been difficult for the Donegal players to seperate themselves from the hype in recent weeks. The county has gone ballistic and I think their supporters have bought into this theory that they are unbeatable. It’s a dangerous situation to develop and I felt it was a very good move from Jim McGuinness to take the squad out of the county and away to Carton House and Johnstown House recently.

McGuinness runs a very tight ship in controlling his team’s preparations. In that sense I would imagine he was privately livid with the debate over the team’s homecoming a couple of weeks ago. It was an unnecessary distraction but it was far enough from the game not to be a major influencing factor.

Different nuisances can affect players before a critical game like this. Tickets are a prime example. Some players may enjoy looking after their family and friends but I always found it a major headache. In 1994 each Down player was entitled to 25 match tickets, and with myself and my two brothers all on the panel, there were 75 tickets arriving to the Deegan household.

We debated over how to sort out the distribution but in the end gave up. Our parents took them and we let them choose the recipients. I would hope people respected players privacy in that regard before Sunday’s match.

The final itself can be more relaxed than an All-Ireland semi-final. The pressure of reaching the decider is removed and it boils down to one game of football to conclude the season. Pete McGrath’s philosophy was to instruct the players to sprint out onto the Croke Park pitch, drink in the applause and savour the atmosphere.

Soon it was time to lower the eyes to pitch level and while the noise of the crowd would ensure a constant background hum in the background, the key was to establish that focus on the game.

All-Ireland final day is a unique sporting experience. Star players can freeze and surprise heroes can emerge. With all the pre-match sideshows the intrigue lies in which team next Sunday can deal with them most efficiently.

Donegal are favourites, a team who the public and media have developed an image of as an unstoppable machine. There are certain imponderables though. What if Colm McFadden, their scorer in chief, is tied up by Ger Cafferkey who has had a really good year? What if Mayo move ahead on the scoreboard and Donegal are forced to chase the match? Will doubts creep into their setup then?

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Mayo defender Ger Cafferkey. Pic: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

A crucial element of this game is how much Mayo will trust the style of football has brought them this far. I felt Cork were guilty of making too many personnel alterations in the semi-final against Donegal. Similar to the Tipperary hurlers against Kilkenny earlier this year, they fell into the trap of adapting too much to counteract their opponents.

James Horan has been an outstanding manager this year and for him it will be worth remembering what got them to this stage. Foot passing that is quick and direct is essential if Mayo are to unlock Donegal’s defence. I noticed against Cork that Donegal placed three players in the midfield area in front of Graham Canty and Neil Gallagher charged straight at that area.

It forced Cork to move the ball backwards and Donegal had time to filter back to protect their defence. But if Mayo lob the ball in quickly, there is plenty space there to exploit.

Mayo have been a breath of fresh air this year showing backbone which we have not seen previously. Do they have the forwards to hurt Donegal? Alan Dillon certainly can, their wing-forwards are effective yet Andy Moran is an enormous loss.

And in this battle, I believe Donegal will have the patience to stick to their task and come out the far side. After the Ulster final, I felt I was looking at potential All-Ireland champions. Now they can attain that title.

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Conor Deegan is a two-time All-Ireland senior football medal winner with Down in 1991 and 1994 and is an established Gaelic football analyst for Newstalk radio station. He is giving his expert opinion for TheScore.ie of the key moments that will decide the destination of the Sam Maguire Cup in 2012.

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Conor Deegan

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