Winning All-Irelands is a difficult business. If only it were that easy, Mayo would have done it multiple times in the last 70 years.
ut Tyrone, those paragons of hard-nosed pragmatism and hardwired with a football intelligence that so often eluded their scattergun opponents, have it down to a fine art.
Once upon a noughties time under Mickey Harte, they were masters of getting it right on the biggest day – three times in all. Now, after Harte finally stepped away, Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan have gone the distance in their very first season.
It is a stunning achievement, one that appears almost incredible in the context of where they were in June (having surrendered six goals to Kerry in Killarney) and in August (as they battled the ravages of Covid). But now they are kings of September for the fourth time in their history, and there couldn’t be a more deserving winner.
There is a certain symmetry in the final scoreline – 2-14 to 0-15, a carbon copy of Mayo’s final defeat to Dublin last December. Then, they could seek a certain solace in defeat to a great opponent with a team that had progressed ahead of its time.
But subsequent events might suggest Dublin were already in incremental decline, and there is no such comfort for Mayo as they awake to yet another post-All-Ireland blue Monday.
Tyrone have the look of a team that will only get better, with the emphasis on that all-important word – team. Whereas Mayo, after an effervescent start that soon lost its fizz, played like a disparate collection of individuals.
True, some were heroic in traumatic defeat – no one more so than Lee Keegan, who kept carrying the fight when all seemed lost. Stephen Coen was another who showed great diligence in his primary defensive role while scoring a fine point and assisting Kevin McLoughlin for another. By the end, though, Mayo had disintegrated into a morass of crazy misses, myopic solo runs and mishit passes. It was their worst All-Ireland final performance since 2006.
How much of this is down to quality, or lack thereof? Quite a lot. But James Horan and his management team must share in the blame.
If you measure the ebb and flow of this error-strewn yet compelling decider, Tyrone were decisive winners on most of the key metrics.
Their tackle count was far superior – indicative not just of the same intensity that unravelled Kerry, but of Mayo’s similar propensity to run blindly into the Bermuda triangle of Tyrone’s voracious ball-strippers.
Yet again, the Ulster champions feasted off turnovers – but it wasn’t their only source of scores.
Tyrone went long off their restarts with greater frequency, and with decisive results. Three first half scores – Niall Morgan’s opening free, points for Darren McCurry and Niall Sludden – had their genesis in raking
kickouts directly after a Mayo point. Each one a momentum-killer.
The trend was repeated, even more spectacularly, on 58 minutes. Tyrone, by now enduring their own point-taking ‘yips’, had only tallied a goal after half-time and McLoughlin had just trimmed their lead to two … Morgan duly pulled out his ‘Callaway’ and drove beyond midfield, where Conn Kilpatrick made a soaring catch before releasing Conor McKenna.
Cue an object lesson in how to maximise a goal chance: McKenna waited just long enough before handpassing beyond the stranded Rob Hennelly for McCurry to fist home.
There had been much pre-match talk about Morgan’s more flaky semi-final moments against Kerry as well as the suspicion that Mayo’s midfield would hold a decisive ball-winning edge over Tyrone’s unheralded pairing.
All three delivered a decisive rebuttal here. Brian Kennedy was superb in the first half, Kilpatrick then took on the baton, shunting Matthew Ruane to the periphery long before Mayo’s putative Footballer of the Year candidate was
red-carded in stoppage time for lashing out at Kilpatrick, who was booked.
As for the mercurial Morgan – once he had rinsed away the bad vibes of a first kickout that failed to cross his 20m line – he was arguably the game’s most towering influence.
McCurry was named RTÉ’s Man of the Match after unveiling the full repertoire of his ‘Dazzler’ tricks, shooting 1-2 from play while winning and converting two first half frees. He had a compelling case, yet our marginal preference was for his fellow Edendork man between – and often beyond – the sticks.
Even overlooking his 0-3 from placed balls, Morgan’s performance was almost Cluxtonesque, from restarts but also in open play.
One cameo on the half-hour stands out. Bursting out onto a misdirected Bryan Walsh punt, he soloed up the middle, then pinged a defence-shredding pass towards Conor McKenna, whose deft aerial flick released McCurry through on goal.
His soccer-style attempt was brilliantly saved by Hennelly’s outstretched boot. It was still a huge chance, one that would have created five-point daylight between the sides – but at least Morgan nailed the ‘45’.
And so Tyrone led by 0-10 to 0-8 at the break. It could have been more; on the flip side, Mayo had also spurned two glorious goal opportunities.
This brings us to the familiar refrain of why Mayo lost: too many forwards guilty of poor decision-making or even poorer execution in those clutch moments.
Put through by Ryan O’Donoghue, Walsh should have shot with his left but turned back; he was half-blocked by Morgan and when the rebound fell to Conor Loftus for what appeared a simple rebound, his scuffed side-foot was blocked on the line by Niall Sludden.
Aidan O’Shea’s miss wasn’t as glaring but it was another case of wrong choice in the right position: released by O’Donoghue’s superlative long pass, the Mayo skipper should have checked back inside but went with his left, with zero conviction, and was blocked by Ronan McNamee.
The man who has never once scored in seven All-Irelands had his first half moments (of the non-scoring variety) but his legs had gone completely long before the end. This time Horan kept him on: a dubious decision rendered slightly less so by the long queue of equally floundering team-mates.
For all that, maybe we’d be penning a different script if Tommy Conroy had finished off his electrifying burst past Pádraig Hampsey with a goal (instead of shooting too early and wide). Or if O’Donoghue, after his Rashford ‘shuffle’, had found the top-right corner instead of an upright’s edge from that fateful 42nd minute penalty, awarded after Frank Burns handled on the ground in a goalmouth scramble.
That pivotal miss visibly drained Mayo’s already fragile belief. And when Conor Meyler flighted that inviting diagonal pass to precisely where Conor McShane had pointed, just beyond Oisín Mullin, we had the Groundhog Day sight of Hennelly caught in no man’s land as the ball was impudently flicked beyond him.
On a day when Mayo’s starting forwards tallied 0-4 from play while spurning as many goal chances, Tyrone now had one hand on Sam. They were never going to let go.
SCORERS – Tyrone: D McCurry 1-4 (0-2f), N Morgan 0-3 (2f, 1 ‘45’), C McShane 1-0, N Sludden 0-2, P Hampsey, K McGeary, M Donnelly, P Harte (m), D Canavan 0-1 each. Mayo: R O’Donoghue 0-8 (7f), T Conroy 0-2, P Durcan, S Coen, R Hennelly (f), K McLoughlin, L Keegan 0-1.
TYRONE – N Morgan; M McKernan, R McNamee, P Hampsey; K McGeary, P Harte, F Burns; B Kennedy, C Kilpatrick; N Sludden, M O’Neill, C Meyler; D McCurry, M Donnelly, C McKenna. Subs: C McShane for Donnelly (44), D Canavan for O’Neill (53), B McDonnell for Kennedy (57), P Donaghy for McKenna (66), T McCann for Kilpatrick (73).
MAYO – R Hennelly; L Keegan, S Coen, P O’Hora; P Durcan, O Mullen, M Plunkett; M Ruane, D O’Connor; B Walsh, K McLoughlin, C Loftus; T Conroy, A O’Shea, R O’Donoghue. Subs: E Hession for Plunkett (ht), J Flynn for O’Hora (52), D Coen for Walsh (58), A Orme for Loftus (65), J Carr for McLoughlin (74).
REF – J McQuillan (Cavan).
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