herald

Tuesday 26 March 2019

Green and red and blue all over - a saga that keeps giving

James Horan
James Horan

It is one of the great curiosities of the Jim Gavin era that Dublin/Mayo is rightly acclaimed as the rivalry that has defined a decade.

Why so curious? Because Mayo have met Dublin 13 times under Gavin ... and haven't beaten them (or him) once in all those attempts.

Ten defeats, three draws, zero victories. Not since the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final - Pat Gilroy's swansong in the big ball hotseat - have Mayo remembered what it's like to actually topple the Dubs.

And yet this is the rivalry that will define Dublin football's greatest era. Far more so than Dublin/Kerry, even though Eamonn Fitzmaurice vanquished Gavin twice in league combat - in 2015 and then the 2017 final - while his successor, Peter Keane, has now kickstarted his own rivalry on a victorious note in Tralee ten days ago.

It's also true that Fitzmaurice flirted with rare championship success against a Gavin-led team: in two fascinating semi-finals, 2013 and '16, his Kerry team engineered winning positions only to be overtaken in the home straight. Their one All-Ireland final encounter, 2015, was statistically close, even if it felt like a three-point hammering.

Oppressor

Enough green-and-gold digression. This Saturday night is all about the green-and-red and how it interacts with the sky blue oppressor.

The beauty of Dublin v Mayo is manifold and full of contradictions. Among them is the paradox that Dublin frequently struggle to locate any of their trademark summer fluency against Mayo - and yet invariably find a way to beat them.

The converse is also true: Mayo always quietly fancy themselves to get in Dublin faces, to knock them out of their comfort zone ... and still victory eludes them.

Different Mayo managers, albeit largely the same core of players, have located any number of ways to either lose traumatically or (marginally better) snatch draws from the jaws of victory.

Mayo's hit-and-miss parade against the Dubs has reached epic levels of tragedy and farce. The 2013 final when Dublin, their bench already emptied, finished with two 'crocked' players on the field and still held on.

The 2015 semi-final stalemate and first major eruption of the jersey-shredding Lee Keegan/Diarmuid Connolly duel. That year's replay, when the drama started even before throw-in with Connolly's suspension rescinded by the DRA.

And then onto the match where the usually reliable Keegan undercooked a point attempt to push Mayo five clear ... and the rest is history.

The drawn All-Ireland of 2016, when an initially dominant Mayo gifted their great rivals not just one own-goal in the first half - but two.

The replay, when Keegan scored a brilliant goal only to be black-carded; when Stephen Rochford's shock omission of his All Star-elect 'keeper backfired spectacularly; and when Cormac Costello emerged from all the chaos as Dublin's unlikely super-sub hero.

Or how about the 2017 final - Mayo's most impressive SFC display against Dublin post-Gilroy - but again they were eclipsed in the home straight, partly self-inflicted (Donie Vaughan's red card) and partly because even an identified flying object (Keegan's GPS tracker) couldn't distract Dean Rock.

Last rites

When you reflect back on all those epic battles, you get a flavour of why this rivalry has breathed life into a sport at the very time when the naysayers have been consumed with reading Gaelic football's last rites.

The more prosaic reality about Dublin/Mayo in spring-time is far less dramatic. Gavin's team has won the last four NFL meetings by a cumulative 32 points, dating back to 2014 when 14-man Dublin rescued a thrilling late draw.

That was James Horan's last crack at the Dubs. Now he's back, hoping to recapture that winning sensation he experienced twice in 2012: in both league and championship.

Then again, that was before Jim ...

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