All-Ireland finals are merciless occasions. They don’t care who you are or what you’ve been through or how far you’ve come. They are over so quickly that there’s no time for anything other than cold, calculated professionalism. You either turn up ready for business or you spend the winter wondering what happened to you.
I always watch finals with a few fundamental questions in my head. Who has grasped what’s needed here? Which team has turned up with a clear idea of what has to be done to come out the other side of it smiling? How many players on either side truly get it?
The glaring difference on Saturday night was that so many more Tyrone players were tuned into the terms and conditions of the final. There was a game to be won and they went and did it. They didn’t try anything they shouldn’t have.
Go back to the semi-final and think of how Niall Morgan tried three different long kick passes with the outside of his boot and sprayed them everywhere, including out over the sideline. In the final, he was a different player. It wasn't about big Hollywood passes, showing off how good a footballer he was. It was professional, precise, no-messing kind of stuff.
That went right through the team for Tyrone. Their two big midfielders didn’t do anything more hectic or special than compete for high ball around the middle and move it on.
I was a bit amused afterwards to hear everyone raving about Conn Kilpatrick's catch to set up the second Tyrone goal. It was like the Roy Keane line about not clapping for the postman because he gets the envelope through the letterbox. That's why he was in the team.
There's a difference between being desperate to score and being serious enough about it to do the right thing to guarantee it
It was a good catch, don’t get me wrong. And he moved the ball onto Conor McKenna smartly and quickly. But if he had done anything less than that, you’d be asking questions. Big hardy midfielders are there to catch the ball and give it on to the smaller, quicker, more skilful lads. Especially in an All-Ireland final.
To be fair, that's one of the big changes to Tyrone since Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan took over. They have brought in Kilpatrick and Brian Kennedy and given them the job of being an option long down the field for Morgan's kick-outs. If you look at where Kilpatrick took that catch, it was midway between the Mayo 65 and 45. If you went back through the past five years under Mickey Harte, you'd struggle to find many Tyrone kick-outs that landed in that area.
There’s a simplicity to it that can be hard to beat. Stand your 6ft5in midfielder at centre-forward and ping the ball down on top of him. As good a catch as it was, Kilpatrick had his two feet on the ground when he took it. This is my point – you use the weapons you have to their fullest effect. You don’t have to be flashy, you don’t have to be spectacular. Just be good at the things that matter.
After the Kerry game, it was so obvious that one of Tyrone’s great strengths was their ability to handpass out of tight situations. The way McKenna went straight for goal from Kilpatrick’s pass to draw the defence before flicking away to his left for McCurry was a prime example of it.
He had two defenders and the goalkeeper coming to poleaxe him but he waited until it was definitely going to hurt to squeeze out the handpass. If you watch it again, you can see that he doesn’t look over to telegraph it – he makes sure McCurry is going to have every chance and every bit of space he can eke out to palm the ball home.
That is what you need to do. Total maximisation of the opportunity. Nobody did anything amazing, but all four players involved did the thing they have practiced in training a thousand times.
How many kick-outs has Conn Kilpatrick caught in his life? How many times has Conor McKenna done drills that involved drawing defenders to create space before getting the handpass away? How many times has Darren McCurry made that sprint to the back post to finish off a move? I'd say they're all nearly bored doing those basic things by this stage.
And yet, when the chance came and the right thing had to be done, all that practice and training clicked into place and they buried Mayo without having to even think about what they were doing.
This is where Mayo fell down, in my eyes. I would exempt Lee Keegan from any criticism because you could see he understood the rules of engagement. Straight after McCurry’s goal, he took it upon himself to get forward and strike a point.
Go back and watch his kick for it – he was 40 metres out and had to cut across the ball to get the right swerve on it but he did it with no fuss. A minute later, he won a free to bring the margin back to three. He had total certainty about what was needed and he went out and showed it.
You can’t say that for some of the other Mayo players. I felt at times that they hadn’t a true understanding of where the game stood and how easily it was getting away from them. They were missing chances by not taking them seriously enough.
I know that probably comes across as a stupid thing to say – it’s an All-Ireland final and there was nothing in their lives that they were taking more seriously right at that moment. But there’s a difference between being desperate to score and being serious enough about it to do the right thing to guarantee it. And if you go back and look at some of the Mayo misses in the second half especially, they came about because of bad execution of straightforward skills.
Think about Aidan O'Shea's kick in the first half, coming out on the loop onto his good left foot. He was too casual about it and pulled it wide on the near side. Think about Conor Loftus coming in off the left in the second half when it was 1-10 to 0-10. He was too rushed with his shot and cut across the ball and screwed it way wide on the far side.
Now if you took either of those guys onto a pitch and told them you wanted them to show young players how to kick a point from where they kicked those ones, they’d make them nine times out of 10. They would go through their kicking action, they would steady themselves and make sure of their footing and they would more than likely split the posts. But they made a mess of their kicks here.
You don't have to play cat and mouse with the goalkeeper. You don't have to pick out the postage stamp in the top corner
Same with Ryan O’Donoghue and his penalty. You could see throughout the game that O’Donoghue was embracing the big stage. Of all the Mayo forwards, he was fighting to get into the game. He wanted the ball. He went out there absolutely convinced he had the beating of the Tyrone defence. I love that about him – it’s one of his great attributes. He doesn’t care who he’s playing, he’s going to go for it and let them know all about it.
But that only counts for something as long as you do what you’re there for. And although he kicked his frees pretty well, he missed his penalty at an absolutely crucial time in the game. And worse, he missed it by not being professional and clinical about it.
Go back over the penalties that have been scored in big Croke Park matches in the last five or six years. Cillian O'Connor, Diarmuid Connolly, Peter Harte. None of them was flamboyant or technically complicated. They all went with the low shot pulled into the near corner. That's where you can get the most power just through your natural body shape.
You don’t have to play cat and mouse with the goalkeeper. You don’t have to pick out the postage stamp in the top corner. All you have to do is drill a low shot a foot inside the post and it won’t matter a damn what the goalie does.
Why can't you keep your head and do the basics right when it really matters in an All-Ireland final?
I know it’s all a matter of inches and that O’Donoghue’s shot only shaved the outside of the post. Half a foot to the left and it would have been hailed by everyone as a brilliant penalty for a young fella to have the balls to pull off in an All-Ireland final. But you get the same number of points on the scoreboard for one that goes in the bottom corner so why wouldn’t you just do the simple thing and go and mark your man for the kick-out?
All-Ireland finals are about finding the simplest route to the Sam Maguire. I have seen them lost because fellas were thinking about All Stars. I have seen them coughed up because fellas wanted to prove a point to management or because they wanted to show that they can do miraculous things. But at the end of the day, they come down to who was able to show that they could do the right thing at the right time. Everything else is beside the point.
The job for Mayo now is to work out why they weren’t able to do it. Why can’t you keep your head and do the basics right when it really matters in an All-Ireland final? What is it that you’re going out to achieve that stops you executing these skills that you know you have?
O’Shea and Loftus and O’Donoghue and all the rest of them have kicked plenty of scores in their lives. They’re not poor footballers. They’re every bit as good as the Tyrone players who walked up the steps of the Hogan Stand. They just didn’t show it when it mattered.
They have another winter now to come up with the reasons for that.