Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Joe Kernan: Dominance often a bridge too far, even for very best

Since 1989-90 only one team has succeeded in winning back to back All-Ireland senior football championship titles. While Cork were the side to reign supreme in those years, it was Kerry who were the last side to achieve this significant feat when they lifted the Sam Maguire Cup in 2006 and retained it in 2007.

Of course, over the last 20 years or so several outstanding teams have come to the surface in the All-Ireland series — Tyrone, Galway, Armagh and Meath to name but four — yet none of them have managed to win two titles in succession in that period.

Dublin went into last Sunday’s semi-final against Mayo under massive pressure as title-holders and were unable to book their place in the decider despite a strong second-half comeback that took them to within two points of the Connacht champions at one stage.

But they could not close out the game and surrendered their trophy. Now Mayo, a side that carries great hurt from numerous setbacks at Croke Park, will get the chance to end a 61-year title famine when they meet Donegal on September 23.

When the Dubs won last year, their triumph was hailed as a bonus for the GAA, the theory being that this would stimulate even greater interest in gaelic games, particularly in urban areas.

Indeed, it was being predicted then that Dublin had the capacity to remain a major force for some time given their vast playing and financial resources. Today, though, Dublin are in the doldrums and are now a side without a manager after Pat Gilroy decided to step down.

And this graphically underlines how a team that might one week be vying to capture the mantle of being hailed a great side as opposed to a good side can instead slip off the radar altogether.

Tyrone have won All-Ireland titles in 2003, 2005 and 2008 but manager Mickey Harte has to date been thwarted in his efforts to win back to back titles.

This, though, is seldom easily accomplished. When Cork won the All-Ireland title in 2010, the feeling was that Conor Counihan’s strong, physically imposing, hugely experienced and technically gifted side would remain lord of the manor for some time to come.

Instead, they have found the going particularly tough in the interim and have now been forced to go back to the drawing board.

Dublin’s demise in such dramatic circumstances last Sunday now further emphasises the fact that it takes a very special side indeed to remain at the top for a couple of years on the trot.

But it’s short term gain rather than distinguished longevity that will be uppermost in the thoughts of Donegal and Mayo when they clash in the final later this month.

No team has endured more setbacks in Croke Park than Mayo.

Indeed, if they were to win this year’s All-Ireland final, it is safe to assume that their victory would be enthusiastically hailed in 30 other counties such is the depth of sympathy for James Horan’s side.

They were beaten in the finals of 1989, 1996, 1997, 2004 and 2006 and in some cases by rather embarrassing scoring margins.

Kerry and Meath in particular proved their nemesis during those years, Mayo showing themselves singularly incapable of rising to the challenge.

This string of heartbreaking blows did little to enhance the image of gaelic football in a county noted for its sporting zeal.

Now Mayo get the chance to put the past firmly behind them but to achieve this they will have to overcome a Donegal side that is in pole position to win ‘Sam’ for only the second time in their history.

I well recollect Donegal’s only triumph to date in 1992. They had played Mayo in a semi-final which I thought was the poorest game I have ever watched at that level of the competition.

It was a tie that plumbed the depths to such an extent that I seriously considered not going to the final so certain was I that Dublin would comprehensively beat Donegal.

But to their great credit Donegal, inspired by Martin McHugh, rose to the occasion and offered a super-charged display that eventually blew the Dubs away.

The present Donegal side includes players of considerable experience — Karl Lacey, Eamonn McGee, Neil Gallagher, Rory Kavanagh and Colm McFadden among them — and I think that their combined skill and craft will help give the team an advantage.

Nevertheless, Mayo are not short on seasoned campaigners many of whom are imbued with the streetwise qualities that might have been missing from sides which represented the county in the past.

Alan Dillon, Kevin McLoughlin, Keith Higgins, David Clarke and Barry Moran along with the O’Shea brothers Aidan and Seamus have been round a few corners in their time without perhaps having an awful lot in the way of silverware to show for their efforts.

The pain of past ignominy can often prove a massive spur when it comes to making a big push for honours.

Mayo have endured so much heartbreak that their relationship with the All-Ireland Championship could almost be described as masochistic.

But this will certainly not deter them for striving to serve up another massive performance against a Donegal side that will quite rightly carry the role of favourites into the decider.

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