Horan’s men survive a true test of their character
Tyrone posed serious problems for them in the opening half, but Mayo gradually found the answers
Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea and Seamus O’Shea react after a foul by Tyrone’s Colm Cavanagh at Croke Park. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
James Horan would have found out more about his team during yesterday’s 70 minutes than all their other matches this year. They were tested, they struggled but they found another gear to win. And with something to spare. A perfect All-Ireland semi-final really; victory yet plenty still to work on.
Mickey Harte set out his team brilliantly. The wily old tactician came with a plan. Particularly in defence with Conor Gormley and Joe McMahon filling in any gaps that appeared. This was, I suppose, possibly the last chance for old and new Tyrone to combine and win the All-Ireland.
But to lose the players who probably best represent both eras, Peter Harte and Stephen O’Neill, so early in the game were double blows they were unable to recover from.
O’Neill seemed to be moving well but he has long struggled with injuries and seemed to pull up in an innocuous-looking incident.
Harte departed after a shoulder by Tom Cunniffe. I thought the Mayo corner back was totally committed to the ball. I felt it was a fair challenge. Still, it was serious blow to Tyrone. Apart from his defensive attributes, so much goes through Harte’s hands. He drives the team forward and creates scores for others.
And still Tyrone were the better side in the first half and were unlucky not to go in leading by more than a point. Then again, Alan Freeman’s goal should have stood. I didn’t see a foul. I suppose the penalty Colm Boyle was awarded early in the second half made up for that.
Maurice Deegan was some distance away and probably should have checked with his umpires before making that decision. Those were the controversial incidents that happen in any game. I still believe Mayo would have won if these moments had gone against them.
A critical period for Mayo was the three points before the break from overlapping defenders Chris Barrett and Lee Keegan. They had started turning over Tyrone in possession. That is a rare sight. To go in only a point down changed the game’s perspective. Mayo seemed to be surging with belief.
That makes for a very positive half-time team talk. Horan could’ve just pointed to the momentum that had been created. He wouldn’t have needed to say much.
Mayo are such an experienced group now, so many mature heads who would not be overawed by the occasion or circumstance.
The character of the collective kept Tyrone at bay. They knew the need to play like themselves from the throw-in of the second half and 1-4 without reply in those next 12 minutes left Tyrone with too steep a peak to scale.
The first thing Mayo did was make Pascal McConnell kick long. That ensured a midfield battle, which they utterly dominated because their hunger for the breaking ball was so impressive. This was also evident from Robert Hennelly’s accurate kick-outs.
Keith Higgins shined in and around the midfield. He knows he is not a scorer but Horan’s decision to redeploy him out the field has reaped a creative return that makes Mayo a far better football team. They must have known their pace and power could eventually see off Tyrone.
I’m sure Mickey Harte did as well. He was quick to empty the bench as a reaction to Mayo’s increasing dominance of proceedings. But it wasn’t enough. I have no doubt Darren McCurry, Conor McAliskey and Ronan O’Neill will become key figures in a very good Tyrone side over the coming years but physically, yesterday, they struggled.
Mayo’s power was too much. More mature footballers, at the zenith of their powers, like Keegan, Cunniffe, Barrett, Donal Vaughan and Séamus O’Shea. They were relentless and ruthless. As they have been all summer.
It was by no means flawless. Be sure Dublin or Kerry would severely punish the 18-minute gap between Mayo’s third and fourth point.
What comes next for Horan can be ignored for a few days, simply because they don’t know their opposition yet, but what he can take from yesterday is a raft of positives. Their character stood up under serious pressure.
He also got to field Enda Varley and Michael Conroy. Both came off the bench to good effect with Conroy particularly impressive. I think he will replace Cillian O’Connor in the full forward line. The performance of Alan Freeman, especially his free- taking, means O’Connor’s shoulder injury won’t be so damaging.
We also saw Horan’s belief in the Mayo panel. Managers are always saying it but when Vaughan hit a wide, when a pass was on, he wasn’t long being replaced by Richie Feeney. There is quality right throughout the squad.
They look stronger than other Mayo sides in recent All-Ireland finals.