There is so much intrigue and speculation about this evening's gripping All-Ireland final.
Well, I think it is going to be a proper game of football. Both Mayo and Tyrone will go after each other here. I think there is a chance both teams will let loose on each other. It will be highly tactical but it could also be full throttle. When you have two teams who fully believe they can - will - become champions, then it means there will be a collision. Of game plans; of bodies; of sensibilities. Of tradition. And what happens then?
Well, then, you are left with a game of will.
There are so many fine margins involved here. The similarities between Mayo and Tyrone became glaring once they were paired - against national expectation - in what is a first ever senior final between two behemoth football counties. The two teams are so evenly matched and share a strong self-belief. They are hugely invested in their belief system and share an unbreakable faith in what they are about. As it happens, they are well balanced in terms of technical ability and skill-sets and athleticism as well.
And the comparisons don't end there. I think we will see a mirroring of game plans. Both teams - and managements - will go after the same things. They will go after the other's goalkeeper in the belief that there is a weakness in the other side. Tyrone will feel that Rob Hennelly can be got at. Mayo will feel that Niall Morgan can be got at. Conversely, they will know that both goalkeepers have a considerable arsenal: they are both fine players with impressive kicking repertoires. And they are both a bit eccentric - maybe all goalkeepers must be. But both men can have a major bearing on this final, for better or worse.
Because of this, expect to see both sides pressing the kick out. In the modern game, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get pressure on the ball because goalkeepers are getting better - and playing with greater calm in the face of pressure. They can see the wood from the trees more clearly and are confident now to take that kick out through the sliver of a fifteen-metre gap. So the challenge to press is harder. But one slip or moment of madness or a bad decision and you can be hurt. Both teams will look to exploit that on the other’s kick out.
Once the ball moves into open play, both Mayo and Tyrone will press high and ask questions. If only to lay down a marker and to put their stamp on the game; to attempt to become the dominant team in the contest. I feel a lot of this final will be compressed into that mid-block area. You will see a lot of action in that middle third.
Now: Mayo have made massive strides in becoming an excellent running team. Since the Covid break they have improved on that at a phenomenal rate. Tyrone won't want marauding half backs, along with Lee Keegan and Oisín Mullin and Mattie Ruane bombing through their cover. How do you deal with that? By using your forwards as a block across the front and going man-to-man at the back.
Mayo will look at Tyrone in a similar prism. The Tyrone players are physical and strong and have fantastic agility. They dance out of tackles and away from lunging hits with ease. But they are not a big team. Both teams want to play a transitional game. So they will be hell-bent on stopping the other from achieving this.
And I think Mayo will bring the same level of respect and intensity and discipline to Tyrone in their defensive effort as Tyrone brought to Kerry. They will track runners honourably. They will pack the D and they will make life difficult from Tyrone. They know that the Tyrone engine starts at half back. They have so many pocket dynamos - Niall Sludden and Conor Myler and Peter Harte - low to the ground guys with serious shoulders and power, speed and agility. Mayo will want to stop those runners at source.
The mid-block press will be breached at times. Then comes the dirty part: the will to fall back and defend in the last third. Both teams will have the stomach for that all day long. I am convinced of that.
And that brings us to an interesting dynamic in terms of Mayo's Lee Keegan marking Conor McKenna, Pádraig O'Hora on Darren McCurry and Enda Hession (or Oisín Mullin) on Mattie Donnelly. These three Mayo defenders were serious operators against Dublin. I felt that trio turned the game. They were physical, relentless, they were in their opponents' ears, they broke at speed and were disciplined. There is a lot being made of Tyrone's attack - particularly with that splendid bench. From what I saw, the Mayo fullback line is up to that challenge.
So if Mayo are successful in defending in the mid-block, then Tyrone need to look early to their inside forward line. That is when the action moves from that congested zone into those one on one battles in the last third. And that is the part of the game I am most looking forward to. Kerry didn't do that. They continued to try and run through the Tyrone hazard rather than look up to play early ball to David Clifford and company. Will Tyrone be prone to the same error in the heat of battle? Can they find quiet moments in their minds to move the ball and find that moment of time and space on the weak side to kick a dangerous pass beyond the Mayo press?
I have a sense that Mayo have a crucial advantage here because I think it is in Tyrone's DNA to run the ball. I know this sounds like a contradiction because I lauded Mayo's running game above. But! Mayo are traditionally a kicking team and they still have that string to their bow. If I was James Horan I'd be looking for a 50/50 split between the kicking game over the Tyrone mid-block press and an aggressive hard running game. One play, they look to Tommy Conroy, for instance, early on the diagonal with runners flooding through from deep. The next, they look to run the ball direct and with pace. You are then posing a whole new set of problems for the Tyrone fullback line. Against Kerry, Pádraig Hampsey and Ronan McNamee felt emboldened enough to get forward and kick scores. They may still do that but if Mayo vary their attacking game, they will suddenly have a to-do list of nine or 10 things rather than three or four. Maybe the confidence on the ball and the luxury of roaming disappears.
Finally, the physical conditioning of both teams is remarkable. They are powerful, quick athletes with serious aerobic capacity. It promises to be very high energy.
If it comes down to fine margins, it is vital that the teams don't wander away from the script for prolonged periods. In the All-Ireland final of 2012, we in Donegal had to navigate our way through the mid-block press against Mayo. But when we went 2-2 to 0-0 ahead at the start of the game and were eight up, we started kicking the ball from deeper areas and it gave the Mayo fullbacks a chance to get out in front and knock the ball away. We went from being ruthless to drifting into 50-50 scenarios and squandered the strong start. It was one of the few times I got angry at half time. I bring this up because I think the clarity of the game plan and sticking with it is vital to both teams.
And I feel Mayo will do this. They have the focus. They have the capacity to deal with adversity. We know this - in fact, they normally double down. That’s why they didn’t flinch when Cillian O’Connor got injured. They are persistent. Those qualities are there in buckets. And it doesn’t happen by chance. That is the fuel that has been thrown on their fire by James Horan and his management team.
Tyrone have this toughness too, absolutely. But I think Mayo hold a slight advantage because they are just so battle hardened. What hasn’t already happened to them? All of those grim defeats have to be beneficial somewhere along the line. Because: here they are, again.
All of that said about Mayo, Tyrone have confidence on top of confidence. What I mean is: they are always confident. But their achievement against Kerry will super-endorse that. The age profile of the team is significant. They are winners at underage. The biggest strength is the collective - the team approach that underlines everything they do. When Tyrone played Donegal in the national league it was a gorgeous spring evening. I was out in the garden when the game began. I was listening to the start of it on Highland Radio, finishing up. And you could sense the energy on the commentary. Big hits and pace and scores and what-not and within a minute or two I raced into the house to turn on the television. And after that game I had seen enough to make me believe that Tyrone could be dangerous. They were hungry and feisty and well-drilled. Those qualities have become magnified since.
So I think the crowd in Croke Park and watching around Ireland will slowly become transfixed by a football game between two very similar teams that boils down to a very pure battle of will. A game of will is about who can hold out the longest.
And you must then draw on every past experience in your sporting life and beyond. And I just feel that if the game is reduced - or elevated - to that space coming down the track, it will produce a true champion. And I struggle to see beyond Mayo getting there in that scenario. It’s just a gut sense based on everything Mayo have come through as a group and a county, with all the hurt they are carrying and the necessity, sooner or later, of finding a release.