GAA season in review: Tyrone and Mayo reverted to type on the big day

Red Hand regularly find a way to win while Mayo couldn't take their chances more more
GAA season in review: Tyrone and Mayo reverted to type on the big day

Ryan O'Donoghue of Mayo is consoled by team-mate Aidan O'Shea after losing the All-Ireland final. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

ON The Sunday Game Live before the Mayo-Leitrim Connacht semi-final began in early July, Cora Staunton challenged Pat Spillane’s assertion that the only two teams that could win the 2021 All-Ireland were Dublin and Kerry.

“A lot of these Mayo players would disagree with that,” said Staunton. “They’re still looking for that Sam Maguire and they’ve shown over the last number of years that they’re not that far off.”

While Staunton was making her argument, Spillane was sniggering before condescendingly offering his reply “God bless your optimism, Cora,” he said.

Presenter Joanne Cantwell immediately intervened. “So, are you writing Mayo off already?” she asked. 

“Oh absolutely,” said Spillane. “And I’ll tell you why. Cillian O’Connor. He contributed 53% of Mayo’s scores last year. Without Cillian O’Connor, Mayo won’t win an All-Ireland.” 

Cillian O'Connor of Mayo scores a penalty. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Cillian O'Connor of Mayo scores a penalty. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

O’Connor’s season was already a write-off and, yet, Mayo went into an All-Ireland final just three months later as favourites. The main reason they were so fancied was because they were facing Tyrone, another side that hadn’t really been considered All-Ireland contenders in the same way as Kerry and Dublin were at the outset of the summer.

The anticipated Dublin-Kerry final had dissolved the previous month when Mayo took out Dublin and Tyrone sacked Kerry, with both matches decided after extra-time. The all-conquering Dublin empire was inevitably going to fall someday, but when Dublin’s castle was finally stormed, it was fitting that Mayo sacked it.

Mayo stirred the emotional scale to its maximum levels that evening in Croke Park by summoning all that pain, hurt and suffering from deep inside their guts to produce one of their greatest comebacks in living memory.

TYRONENESS

Two weeks later, Tyrone turned Kerry over with a display of absolute Tyroneness, a performance defined by the very essence of what has made Tyrone such a force in the modern era; tough, obdurate, resolute, thorny, spiky, all qualities underpinned by their refusal to back down.

When they beat Mayo, the script followed similar lines. Tyrone ideally fitted that profile of the dark force arriving by near-stealth — after momentarily departing the championship in August — and walking off into the night with football’s most glorious prize.

Tyrone were typical Tyrone and, in essence, beat a Mayo side that were typical Mayo.

Tyrone players celebrate with the Sam Maguire Cup. Picture: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Tyrone players celebrate with the Sam Maguire Cup. Picture: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

In the dogfight and taut arm-struggle, it was always expected to be, the All-Ireland final was played on Tyrone’s terms because they bent it to their will.

The manner of the victory added to Tyrone’s mystique and aura because it was defined by their stubbornness and strength of mindset as much off the field as on it.

Tyrone have always been prepared to do whatever it takes to win but they took that mantra to the extreme before the All-Ireland semi-final by withdrawing from the championship to manage their Covid outbreak and secure the time to get right for Kerry.

That decision momentarily put their All-Ireland semi-final on hold and threw the entire championship up in the air. Kerry could have decided to press on and advance to the final but there would have been no honour in that choice and Kerry were never going to take it.

Kerry may have paid a heavy price for that decision, but they still almost got over the line against Tyrone; shipping three goals and scoring none was critical to the outcome but losing David Clifford before extra-time was ultimately the defining factor in that loss.

It was a major turnaround from the side's league semi-final meeting in Killarney three months earlier when Kerry eviscerated Tyrone.

But throughout their modern history, Tyrone’s habit of finding a way around setbacks has defined their personality.

Tyrone kept finding ways to win. Three punched points in their narrow win against Donegal illustrated how they were moving more towards a running than a kicking game.

A Covid outbreak upset their plans for the Ulster final but Tyrone still edged an enthralling contest by one point. As expected, the Ulster championship was the main provincial show in town, but it still took a while to get going. Donegal annihilated Down in the opening round while only one of the four quarter-finals (Donegal’s one-point win against Derry) was a tight contest.

The semi-finals though, more than made up for it; the Armagh-Monaghan game was one of the greatest score-fests in the history of the competition, with a combined total of 56 points registered.

Munster was a total write-off, with Kerry beating Clare, Tipperary and Cork by an aggregate margin of 50 points. Connacht wasn’t a whole lot better, with Mayo defeating Sligo, Leitrim and Galway by the same aggregate margin.

Leinster didn’t follow its usual pattern but that was more down to Dublin’s lack of dominance compared to previous years; they only won their three games against Wexford, Meath and Kildare by an aggregate of 22 points.

When Dublin were chasing the game in extra-time against Mayo, all the vulnerabilities which had been evident all summer were finally realised and severely punished; Dublin turned over the ball a staggering 35 times, with 26 of those turnovers in the second half and in extra-time, which was the clearest indicator of a team running on empty.

Mayo were brilliant that evening but all of the old failings in All-Ireland finals came back to haunt them a month later — the concession of goals, and a poor conversion rate of 48%.

Overall though, Tyrone won with a display of absolute conviction and belief in their system, of their way, and trusting that their way would carry the day. 

It was an apt metaphor for the story of their season.

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