©INPHO/James Crombie Mayo goalkeeper David Clarke makes a crucial stop from Bernard Brogan late on.
Murph's sideline cut: 'This is the biggest thing to have happened to these counties, politically, socially, or spiritually, in 2012'
Mayo fans were rewarded for their faith with an exceptional performance against Dublin yesterday. Now they will face their biggest challenge yet, writes Ciaran Murphy.

MAYO AND DONEGAL in the All-Ireland football final; the more you say it, the better it sounds. The most novel pairing in the 128-year history of the hurling and football championships will bring the curtain down on what’s been one of the best Gaelic football seasons of recent times.

You know it’s a special one when Mayo (MAYO!) can be more blasé about its appearance in the final than their opponents.  If the number of songs recorded to commemorate an All-Ireland final was the sole barometer on which greatness was bestowed, then we can call it already – this will be the greatest All-Ireland final of all time!

People might see this pairing as a new order, and what their young managers have done for their teams is really quite extraordinary in the two years they’ve been in charge.  But for me, what makes this All-Ireland final truly exceptional is that this is the story of the year in both counties.  This is the biggest thing to have happened to these counties, politically, socially, or spiritually, in 2012.  And whichever one of them wins, it’ll be the biggest thing to have happened there in 20 years, or more.  I’m already thinking of those flights home from New York and London that weekend, and what an extraordinary couple of days those supporters have in store.

And Mayo are there courtesy of a really extraordinary performance, for three-quarters of the match at least, against Dublin on Sunday.  Andy Moran was a big part of the pre-match discussion, and his loss through injury was spoken about not just because of his ability on the ball, but also his leadership.  How do you replace that, we asked?  We thought James Horan had given us our answer when the team was named on Friday morning, but it wasn’t that simple.

Enda Varley came into the side, but Mayo replaced their captain by getting 10% more out of every forward they had on the pitch.  Leadership came from Kevin McLoughlin’s ceaseless running, from Cillian O’Connor’s pinpoint accuracy and cannon-gun boot, from Alan Dillon’s enduring intelligence on the ball, and from Michael Conroy’s hunger for work.

It was no coincidence that McLoughlin’s departure from the field was around the time that Dublin got on top.  Ever since his brilliant goal against Cork in last year’s quarter-final, he’s been a favourite player of mine, and he was exceptional again on Sunday.  The second-half return and wardrobe change (complete with Willie Joe Padden-inspired head scarf accessorising) steadied the Mayo ship too.

They are a team in the true meaning of the word, and if they might still have to pay the price for the absence of their captain in three weeks’ time, they at least gave him a performance to be proud of on Sunday.  Defensively they were superb – they fouled a little too much in the second half, certainly, but Keith Higgins, Ger Cafferkey and David Clarke in particular were excellent.

In last week’s semi-final Neil Gallagher showed that a firm grip on matters around the middle of the field is still key, and Mayo’s pairing of Barry Moran and Aidan O’Shea were immense around the park.  They were beaten for a few too many kickouts, but in open play they were far more industrious and hard-working than Dublin’s partnership of Eamon Fennell and Denis Bastick.  Moran is having a banner year, and his catch in the dying moments to help set up the last point of the game for Seamie O’Shea could be a defining moment in his Mayo career.  He can see himself as a leader now too.

I used to think that Mayo would only ever win the All-Ireland if they happened to be playing Galway in it.  They could forget about the All-Ireland and just beat Galway, which they’ve been doing for about 50% of the time that the sport has existed.  In the last 23 years they’ve faced Cork, Meath and Kerry (three times) in an All-Ireland final, so Donegal is something totally new for them.  That feeling of inferiority that might be burrowed deep in the Mayo sub-conscious, that has only made itself known on All-Ireland final day, can’t be there against Donegal surely.

If they’re ever going to do it, 2012 might be the year.  I’m sure this Mayo team is different, I’m sure their manager is an exceptional tactician, and an exceptional preparer of a team.  I’m sure of all of this, and yet…

If the fantastic Mayo support can have faith, after all they’ve been through, then I should too.

This week Murph was – pondering when was the closest we got to Connacht holding the Sam Maguire and Liam McCarthy Cups simultaneously?  In 2001, Galway got to both All-Irelands, won the football and lost the hurling by 3 points.  I think that’s about as close as we’ve gotten… and not many people would be throwing money at the Connacht double this year.

As it happened: Dublin v Mayo, All Ireland semi-final

VIDEO: Horan ‘delighted and relieved’ to reach All Ireland final

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