Joe Brolly believes Mayo’s ‘tactical fouling’ will stop Donegal’s game in Sunday’s All-Ireland Senior Football Championship final in Croke Park, but is backing Jim McGuinness’ side to emerge victorious.
The Connacht champions reached the final after hanging on to beat Dublin in the last four, shedding their previous tag of being weak on the big occasion in Croke Park.
Brolly feels their use of disruptive play was an example of how they have changed their game to become less naive on the field, and that approach has improved their chances.
He told RTÉ Radio: “I don’t think there’s a chance of a Mayo collapse. They are now organised along very modern lines.
“Jim McGuinness’ team are like a group of rugby internationals in the way their fitness is tended to and their system of play has been developed to suit them, and the same now applies to Mayo.
“They no longer go into games on a wing and a prayer, and they certainly cast off the ‘nice boys’ image during the Dublin match. I think there is a very fascinating final in prospect."
“There were 27 times where a Dublin player was trying to work his way forward and he was simply held or pulled down" - Joe Brolly
He added: “I had not noticed it during the Dublin game. I was conscious that they were pulling down the Dublin players as they were trying to mount attacks, but when I watched the video again the statistics were, even by modern standards, shocking.
“There were 27 times where a Dublin player was trying to work his way forward and he was simply held or pulled down.
“Of those 27 times there were 22 frees given by referee Joe McQuillan; three times he waved advantage and on three occasions he missed it altogether. But there was not a single yellow card, and it was a massive feature of the game that Mayo were able to disrupt Dublin in that way.
“It was endemic throughout the field. It was seriously disruptive. It is a matter for them how they choose to play. It is, though cynical fouling. I’m talking about tactical fouls. That is supposed to be a yellow card offence. It was difficult to see it on the day because obviously everyone was supporting Mayo.
“Once they were on the crest of a wave, they were getting a bye in a way for example in a way the Dubs wouldn’t have, or Tyrone or Donegal.
“But it was very clear and it had a decisive influence on the outcome. In the last 17 or 18 minutes, on seven separate occasions they simple dragged down either O’Gara, Brogan or McManamon as they headed towards goal. They simply dragged them down and were happy to concede frees.
“What it also says is this is a hard-edged team that are thinking logically about how to win games. They are no longer going to go out and play games and see where it takes them.”
The Sunday Game analyst is decisive in his opinion that Donegal are better prepared to cope with the ruthlessness of Mayo challenges, and that the Ulster’s side hard-tackling will still be a huge aspect of the game.
He is backing the approach ingrained in the Mayo players by James Horan to stifle Donegal, but not enough to take the Sam Maguire to Connacht.
“Donegal tackle very hard and there is no doubt they tackle very hard. But there is no comparison the Donegal /Cork game and that. For example in the whole game, Donegal conceded one scoreable free which was actually scored inside their own half. There is no doubt the tackling is very, very stout. They hit extremely hard.
“But what I’m talking about his tactical fouling where you put your hands around a man to stop him and you have no other aim.
“That will be particularly effective against Donegal because their whole game is running the ball out of defence. If they are being disrupted like that it will be very, very difficult for them to gain any momentum.
"I would imagine once again that will be a lynchpin of Mayo’s strategy. This is what the game has become now. The game is no less fascinating. There are a lot less mistakes. Everything is put under the microscope.
“It will be a very different sort of final than a final ten or 15 years ago. If either of these two teams could somehow be transported back in time, they’d beat the pick of anything that was around."
Brolly believes the performance of referee Maurice Deegan will be a crucial factor in what he expects to be a “dour” encounter.
“What I would expect is a very dour game of attrition. Mayo dictated the terms against Dublin. They won’t dictate the terms against Donegal. I think it will be very close and very fascinating. Donegal’s absolute composure and their defensive system and the fact they are very clinical with their chances will shade it.”