By Séamus Leonard
One of the most novel final pairings of all time, the clash between Donegal and Mayo is also one of the more difficult deciders in memory to call.
The main problem is that these two teams have so much in common, including similar journey to this juncture.
Both sides reached the All-Ireland semi-finals last year before being halted by traditional powers in the form of Dublin and Kerry. Then they both came out stronger this summer and retained their respective provincial titles.
Then they went on to overcome bigger counties in the shape of Cork and Dublin in this year’s last four. And they both have young managers who have managed to get their squads to buy into an energy-sapping, but unquestionably successful, game plan.
Donegal have long been associated, rightly or wrongly, with a lack of discipline (mostly off the pitch). That is certainly not the case now. Jim McGuinness’ men are incredibly well conditioned, and the counter-attack tactics they employ mean that they have to be one of the fittest - if not the fittest - sides the game has ever seen.
Mayo are no slouches in the fitness department either, but they are a little behind Donegal. The Westerners were always been one of the more attractive counties to watch over the years, but what they have sacrificed in style under James Horan they have more than made up for in their ability to mix it with other teams.
Mayo players have openly admitted that they were viewed as a ‘soft touch’ in the past, but they proved in their bruising semi with the Dubs that they can stand up to virtually all that is thrown at them, be it legal or illegal.
The first 50 minutes of the game against the Metropolitans was one of the most impressive performances seen on the hallowed turf of Croke Park in many a moon.
Mayo simply dismantled the defending All-Ireland champions. And while you could point out that the Connacht champions were over-run themselves in the closing stages, it should also be noted that Horan’s charges missed three glorious goal chances than would have put a more deserved gloss on the scoreline.
What made Mayo’s victory all the more impressive was that it was done without the services of captain Andy Moran after he suffered a season-ending cruciate knee ligament injury in the quarter-final against Down. It would be hard to imagine any other side coping as well with losing a player of that importance to their system.
But while that system has been good enough to get Mayo this far, it won’t be good enough to overcome Donegal. The Tír Chonaill men took the blanket defence to a new extreme in 2011, but the attacking dimension they have incorporated this season has been devastatingly effective.
There are some class performers in this Donegal outfit, but there is no ego allowed. Each and every one of the players have bought into McGuinness’ strategy, and they have been rewarded for doing so.
And none more so that Colm McFadden. The St Michael’s clubman has been a fixture in a Donegal jersey since 2002, but it is hard to remember him having such a profitable season.
One major worry for the Ulster champions is the fact that they conceded late goals against both Kerry (in the quarter-final) and Cork, and they cannot afford to let that happen again in what is likely to be a very tight encounter.
Another worry from a Donegal point of view is that if they don’t win on Sunday, it would be unbelievably difficult for them to come back with the same effort again next year. Also, everything has gone their way this summer, and if they were to fall at the final hurdle it could feel like they are destined not to lift the Sam Maguire.
On the other hand, you get the sense that this Mayo side could survive a final defeat and come back stronger next year. Not that James Horan & Co will be contemplating that theory at the moment.
Donegal deserve an All-Ireland title. They just need another 70 minutes of their claustrophobia-inducing best to achieve it.