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The question marks hanging over Dublin and Mayo heading into this semi-final clash

It’s been an eventful season for both counties.

Dublin’s Michael Fitzsimons and Diarmuid O’Connor of Mayo in last year's All-Ireland final.
Dublin’s Michael Fitzsimons and Diarmuid O’Connor of Mayo in last year's All-Ireland final.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Updated Aug 14th 2021, 12:05 PM

TODAY’S ALL-IRELAND semi-final is unusual in that Dublin and Mayo arrive in with more question marks than answers hanging over them.

Should Dublin be concerned with their failure to blow away teams in Leinster? Are they struggling for motivation after dominating the landscape for so long? Is their lack of scoring threat from the bench an issue?

What can we read into Mayo’s Division 2 campaign and subsequent Connacht final win? Why were they so flat in the first-half against Galway? Are Ryan O’Donoghue and Tommy Conroy elite forwards capable of leading the county to All-Ireland glory?  

There are as many unknowns as knowns heading into this clash. That’s what makes it so fascinating. 

Both these squads have lost significant experience since last year’s All-Ireland final. Stephen Cluxton, Paul Mannion, Paddy Andrews, Michael Darragh Macauley and Eric Lowndes have left the Dublin set-up.

David Clarke, Chris Barrett, Keith Higgins, Tom Parsons, Donal Vaughan and Seamie O’Shea all retired from Mayo duty. Injuries have robbed James Horan of Cillian O’Connor, Jason Doherty and Brendan Harrison, with further doubts hanging over Padraig O’Hora and Oisin Mullin.

paul-mannion-with-chris-barrett Paul Mannion and Chris Barrett have departed the inter-county scene. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Declan Darcy, who was involved as coach under Jim Gavin, often told the Dublin players their careers would be defined by the big games they played against Mayo and Kerry. 

Both sides endured unusual campaigns. Mayo endured a Covid issue early in the championship but they had the squad depth to annihilate Leitrim anyway. 

Before the league even official started, Dublin were in the headlines for the training breach that saw Dessie Farrell receive a suspension by the GAA. 

Then the Cluxton saga caused further unwanted scrutiny on them.

For the first time in a long time, it can be said that the best players in Dublin are not representing the county, given how 28-year-olds Mannion and Jack McCaffrey had stepped away. Despite his advancing years and Evan Comerford’s rise, Cluxton is still among the very best goalkeepers in the country and his restarts remain the gold standard.

Kevin McManamon’s commitments as performance coach with the Irish boxers curtailed his involvement during the provincial campaign. When Philly McMahon came out and said in the media he was unsure if he’d be attending Bohemians’ Europa League tie in Greece or preparing with Dublin for the All-Ireland semi-final, it raised further eyebrows.

Those McMahon comments and the way the Cluxton issue was allowed to drag on prompted many to note that it would not have happened during Gavin’s military-like reign. 

In fairness to Farrell, Covid has contributed to much of these problems. But it’s clear the Dublin ship hasn’t been sailing quite as smooth as before. A under-par display against Wexford and poor second-half showing against Meath only added fuel to the fire. Dublin did show signs the machine was clicking back into gear against Kildare, however.

They’re not as brash and confident as before, but Dublin remain a stubborn outfit and no-one controls the tempo of the game like they do.

And there’s nothing like the sight of a Mayo jersey to focus Dublin minds.

Competing in the second tier of the league allowed Mayo boss Horan spread game-time around his squad. His regeneration has seen a fast, energetic and youthful team emerge from Connacht. 

stephen-coen-and-paddy-durcan-celebrate-at-the-final-whistle Stephen Coen and Paddy Durcan celebrate after the Connacht final. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

But the loss of free-taker O’Connor cannot be understated. O’Donoghue put his hand-up for placed ball duties and has looked confident so far. However, as Comerford will find out today, the air gets a lot thinner when Mayo and Dublin meet in the All-Ireland series.

This is where we’ll see how Comerford reacts to a few misplaced kick-outs when Mayo put the press on. Cluxton’s mental resolve was one of his greatest strengths. 

O’Donoghue must deal with the pressure that comes with kicking frees against Dublin in Croke Park, with a vocal Sky Blues support putting him off. 

Mayo undoubtedly have the athleticism to stick with Dublin. They’re an adventurous, running team, with powerful athletes in Paddy Durcan, Eoghan McLaughlin, Lee Keegan and Mattie Ruane capable of causing problems from deep.

Horan’s major concern will be getting enough scores to take down the champions. Dublin clipped 20 points against Kildare at their ease and it arrived after a poor first period where the missed 50% of their shots at the posts.

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Andy Moran often said he believed Mayo would need to hit at least 20 points to stand a chance of beating Dublin over the years. If they’re to win this evening, they’ll probably need to hit that tally. Realistically, their best chance of doing so involves them scoring a goal or two. 

Aidan O’Shea will spend time on the edge of the square and if he can make hay alongside Conroy and O’Donoghue, they’ve got a real chance. 

brian-fenton This might be the day Brian Fenton catches fire. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Brian Fenton and Con O’Callaghan have yet to really take off in 2021 but it would be dangerous for Mayo to presume that will continue. 

Rob Hennelly has replaced Clarke between the posts. Significant time has passed since his mistake in the 2016 All-Ireland final, but Dublin will undoubtedly look to fluster him and take him out of his comfort zone.

Farrell’s side will target his restarts with a full-court press. Hennelly will look to get them away quick or drive his kick-outs over the press into space to a Mayo jersey.

How Hennelly and Comerford cope with the intense pressure they’ll face this evening will be fascinating to watch. 

In one sense, it’s a free shot for Mayo, but in another they might never get a better opportunity to put a nail in the coffin of their great rivals.

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Kevin O'Brien

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