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A new twist on same old Mayo v Dublin rivalry

Big changes on the pitch and on the line as familiar foes get ready to tango

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JAMES MCCARTHY

JAMES MCCARTHY

SPORTSFILE

JAMES MCCARTHY

The temptation whenever Dublin and Mayo get up close and personal is to frame this latest clash of deadly foes in the context of what happened before.

All perfectly understandable.

So we reference the eye-catching statistic that, over 15 league and championship matches, Jim Gavin never, ever lost to Mayo.

Or we cite James Horan's first coming to recall the last time Mayo actually beat the Dubs in 2012 - not once, but twice.

Or we wax lyrical about those famously fraught Croke Park duels: the three draws in league, All-Ireland semi-final and final; the three one-point Dublin victories to claim Sam in 2013, a 2016 replay and 2017.

This back story provides the context for the next episode of this never-ending soap opera, Saturday night's league contest in Castlebar. Many of the usual suspects will be on the pitch. Same old Dublin-Mayo?

Not quite. Both are evolving in more ways than one ...

BACKROOM MANEOUVRES

The most obvious change of all entails the end of the Gavin era. His decision to step down came as a bombshell, but the sense of upheaval has been minimised by the county board's choice of the natural heir, Dessie Farrell.

Ten of the players who started last year's All-Ireland final replay won underage All-Ireland medals, minor or U21 or both, with the new Dublin boss.

But any change at the top of such a towering pyramid is bound to produce a different dressing-room dynamic.

This league will be as much about Farrell getting to know his players all over again, and visa versa.

The return of Shane O'Hanlon and Paul Clarke to the backroom team provides continuity; Mick Galvin will be a new voice. But Farrell will be the driving force.

Likewise, there is no mistaking the main man in Mayo. James Horan is back for a second season - and sixth in total.

Behind the scenes, however, there has been lots of movement in the 'support team', as Horan himself describes the set-up.

Confirmation that Ciarán McDonald had joined the coaching team generated a 526-word statement from Mayo GAA back in December.

There was considerably less said on the departure of two of Mayo's 2019 selectors, Daniel Forde and Martin Barrett.

James Burke remains in a key coaching role, but the arrival of McDonald (still deified for his swashbuckling playing exploits) is an X-factor addition to a backroom team previously devoid of stardust.

How this new partnership evolves will be fascinating to watch, given that Horan no more than Ciarán Mac has always been his own man.

FAMILIAR FACES

Last Saturday Farrell picked arguably his strongest available team when injuries, fitness and mileage were factored into his thinking: he chose nine of the 15 who started the All-Ireland replay against Kerry.

This equates to eight who started last year's semi-final against Mayo: David Byrne, James McCarthy, John Small, Brian Fenton, Brian Howard, Niall Scully, Ciarán Kilkenny and Dean Rock. Paul Mannion, originally named, came off the bench while Eoin Murchan, Philly McMahon and Paddy Andrews, all sprung as semi-final subs, now started.

It suggested a manager determined to hit the ground running - but equally keen to keep a lid on any growing sense of Kerry confidence.

Just as Kerry drew level in Croker, Mayo were completing their own smash-and-grab deadlock in Donegal.

They had started six of the team that fell away last August: Brendan Harrison, Colm Boyle, Stephen Coen, Paddy Durcan, Diarmuid O'Connor and James Carr. A seventh, Aidan O'Shea, led a bench cavalry that included Kevin McLoughlin and Keith Higgins.

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

Some not quite novices, it must be clarified. However, in the absence of Stephen Cluxton, Jonny Cooper and Con O'Callaghan, there were promotions for three players who all excelled at U21 level for Farrell - Evan Comerford, Eric Lowndes and Conor McHugh. It proved a deflating and disrupted recall for Lowndes, whose combination of black and yellow cards resulted in red, but several Comerford kickouts caught the eye and McHugh (no stranger to his former Na Fianna boss) had a productive first half.

Seán Bugler, the blood sub cameo king last Saturday, is likely to get plenty of game-time this spring. Aaron Byrne's buzzing debut off the bench has surely earned a sequel.

Meanwhile, belying the impression that Mayo are a team growing old in front of us, Horan's line-up in Ballybofey was far more experimental.

With their absentee list in double-digits, there were NFL debuts for defender Oisín Mullin, midfielder Jordan Flynn and forwards Bryan Walsh and Ryan O'Donoghue - plus a first spring start for Pádraig O'Hora. Newcomer Tommy Conroy and another in from the fringes, James Durcan, appeared off the bench.

Mullin (the only U20 currently involved) and Flynn (a powerhouse athlete) have been touted as two who could push for summer places.

Last weekend, though, the biggest impressions were made by the terrier-like O'Hora at wing-back and Durcan, twin brother of All Star Paddy.

The latter crowned his short but prolific 1-3 cameo with a sensational, albeit deflected, equaliser. Conroy had earlier cut inside Neil McGee to point with his first league touch.

2020 VISION

For Dublin, the target could not be more obvious - or achievable.

Everything they do between now and summer will be predicated on maximising their chances of six-in-a-row.

For Mayo, the holy grail remains one-in-a-row but you are left to wonder is that still a tangible target after last August's All-Ireland semi-final 10-point (3-14 to 1-10) Dublin drubbing?

Finding the right blend of stellar veterans (whose legs haven't gone) and newcomers with the right stuff (who have the talent and mindset to instantly thrive) will be Horan's biggest challenge.

In the statement revealing McDonald's appointment, the Mayo boss suggested that his wealth of experience, vision and skill would "fit in very well with the development phase we are currently in".

Saturday may offer a clue as to whether this developing Mayo are stuck in transition or still a contender.