DUBLIN — “Any tickets?” “Anyone buying or selling?” Any other year, such would be the refrain in the streets near Dublin’s 82,000-capacity Croke Park throughout the morning of Gaelic Football’s All-Ireland final.
But instead of the usual August or September, this year’s delayed and truncated competition will finish the week before Christmas, with those tens of thousands of supporters told watch from home.
Restrictions imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic mean that come 5pm on Saturday, the vast arena will echo only to the collisions of the 30 players and the yelling of substitutes and coaches.
“It’s a pity there won’t be a crowd to see [the final],” said Maurice Quinlivan, part of the Tipperary team thrashed by Mayo in the last four, while previewing the match on Irish radio.
Even watching in a bar will be difficult, as only premises that serve food can operate under pandemic-related rules. Around 3,500 of Ireland’s pubs have been forced to close since March for all but two weeks.
“We miss the fun, the craic,” said John Maughan, a former Mayo player and manager. “It’s not the same.”
But while the final’s trappings will be eerily unusual, the contestants will be all too familiar.
For the fourth time since 2012, the final sees Dublin take on Mayo, teams that also met three times in semi-finals over the period, the first of which in 2012 resulted in the sole Mayo win.
Dublin’s 1.3 million population and huge financial resources surely have underpinned unprecedented recent successes,
The county’s team going for its sixth successive championship and many observers view it as the best in the sport’s history.
“They just don’t make mistakes” said Joe Brolly, a 1993 final winner with Derry. Speaking on Eir Sport, Brolly likened a “merciless” Dublin to New Zealand’s back-to-back rugby world champions of 2011 and 2015.
Mayo, on the other hand, will hope to end an unmatched finals losing streak. Without a championship since 1951, the team has lost nine deciders since 1989.
“Ya gotta admire them, they keep coming back,” said Ciarán Whelan, a former Dublin midfielder, previewing the final on public broadcaster RTÉ.
Some of those losses have been narrow last-minute head-scratchers and have come after the unlikeliest of bounces.
Mayo lost a final replay in 1996 after the first match ended in draw. Opponents Meath fluked an equaliser with a last-ditch hit-and-hope punt that dropped short, but bounced, almost uncannily, over the crossbar – levelling the score just before the final whistle.
The replay was marred by a brawl that saw Mayo’s best player sent off and Meath winning by a single last-ditch point after a Mayo defender slipped.
Two decades later, Dublin beat Mayo in the final, also after a replay. As rare as own goals are in Soccer, they are almost unknown in Gaelic Football. The drawn 2016 final saw two Mayo own-goals in the first half.
A year later, in the team’s most recent final appearance, Mayo let slip a two-point-lead close to the final whistle as Dublin again eked out a victory with an injury-time winner.
The agonising losing streak has been attributed to fervent supporters exerting unsettling pressure on players – amateurs all – or to an absence of the composure needed to get across the line in a tight finish. Or to the team not having enough “marquee” scorers to take the chances created by dominance further out the field.
Others have pointed to a so-called “curse” pronounced by a priest when the last Mayo team to win a final, all of 69 years ago, allegedly disrespected a funeral cortege while en route home from Dublin.
The streak and the “curse” have been picked up by broadcasters in Australia, Britain and the US.
The rare overseas coverage for Gaelic Football has weaved in comparisons with similar decades-long baseball hexes featuring the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox.
Mayo hope that this most unusual of years will end fittingly – with a curse-breaking win over all-conquering rivals
In another of the back-to-back radio and television previews of Saturday’s final, Barry Moran, a now-retired member of Mayo’s losing finalists since 2012, lamented that “we just haven’t got over the line, it just becomes more and more of an obsession.”
Mayo can only hope that this most unusual of years will end fittingly – with a curse-breaking win over all-conquering rivals.
“We’d all like to see Mayo finally end the jinx,” said Kieran Donaghy, whose Kerry team hammered Mayo in the 2006 final, speaking on Newstalk Radio on Thursday.
But Donaghy thinks that the reigning champions will again have too much for their persistent challengers.
“The bookies aren’t often wrong, they have it at 5 or 6 points,” he said.
Ex-Dublin star Alan Brogan believes Mayo’s hopes depend on those lining out in their first final – young players who “don’t necessarily carry the same baggage” as veterans of several losses.
Maughan thinks that Mayo must try contain Dublin in a tight contest and hope that the champions, who have cantered to the final, could somehow lose their nerve in a rare tight finish.
“If you’re in contact with Dublin going down the home stretch, well then you might have a chance,” he said.
Quinlivan thinks Mayo will go close but that a relentless Dublin will prevail.
Mayo “have the physicality” to unsettle the champions, he said, before predicting Dublin will win after they have “their purple patch.”Show