Another box ticked for Mayo, even if they took their time to get the pen working. For a team that has spent the summer cruising along with top down, they found out yesterday what they were capable of when asked to run on a tank of dirty fuel. They put Tyrone away in the end by 1-16 to 0-13 but had to claw and scratch their way out of a first-half hole to get there. For that reason, it will stand as the most worthwhile day’s work of their year so far.
In fairness, it would hardly be Mayo without some bit of a wobble. It’s like that old story about the Australian rugby coach Bob Dwyer who upon arriving at a struggling club to be told that there was no money for tackle bags, spotted a heap of bust mattresses out by a skip and asked why weren’t they being used instead. Mayo have spent the championship peddling perfection but it wasn’t a resource they had access to yesterday. Instead, they had to make do and mend with what they could get their hands on.
“Today was a grind,” said James Horan afterwards. “The hardest game we’ve had, certainly in the first half. We were playing poor stuff but we kept going and kept battling. In the first half we had six wides and they were six of the easiest shots we’d had. We missed two 14-yard frees, we lost our free taker, we had a goal disallowed but it didn’t matter – we just kept playing and eventually we came through. I think today was good for us and we certainly took a lot from it.”
First and last, they will have taken the fact that they’ve made another final. In a different year, their opening half hour here would have been fatal. A crowd of 65,345 watched them go behind early and saw them trailing by 0-7 to 0-3 five minutes out from the break. They had already lost Cillian O’Connor to what looked like another dislocation of his left shoulder and had yet to score from play.
It was a first half that had a disconcertingly retro feel about it, like the worst excesses of the bad old days of Mayo made flesh at just the wrong time. Before the break they kicked six wides, dropped three short and caught the post with another. Sheer nerves seemed to have an anaphylactic effect, causing totems like Andy Moran, Kevin McLoughlin, Donal Vaughan and Ger Cafferkey all to put in as shaky a half as anyone had seen in an age.
McLoughlin’s 25th minute free that flashed wide from 14 metres was mortifying. Worse, it meant they got nothing from a move that saw Alan Freeman finish smartly to the net only for it to be called back by Maurice Deegan. It all was very Old Mayo.
And all the while, Tyrone were the same old Tyrone. They dealt with their losses far better, watching Peter Harte and Stephen O’Neill limp off in the opening 30 minutes yet still forging a lead.
Darren McCurry and Conor McAlliskey were causing problems in front of goal and Ronan O’Neill’s first act upon replacing Stephen O’Neill was to snipe the point that put them four ahead.
But as Mickey Harte pointed out afterwards, the losing of the game for Tyrone was their inability to get to half-time with that margin intact. It was Mayo’s defenders who waved the smelling salts under their forwards’ noses, Chris Barrett (twice) and Lee Keegan running from deep and showing them the way. It meant that for all their woes, Mayo ended the worst half of football they’ve played all year just a point behind.
“It was just unfortunate from our perspective that we let them back in for three points before half-time,” said Harte. “It gave them a position going in at half-time that they probably didn’t deserve. But overall, that’s the mark of what they are about. They ground it out in the first when they were on the back foot.
“While the scores they got in the second half will show up more on the scoreboard, those were ones that actually got them back into the game, back in real close contention. We knew at the time that for the effort and energy and control of the game we’d had, we weren’t in the best possible position that we ought to have been.”
Harte’s fears were well founded, as those three late Mayo points turned out to be the first drops in a cloudburst. They came out after the break and scored 1-4 before Tyrone managed a point, their goal an Alan Freeman penalty on 38 minutes.
Cause for complaint
Although Tyrone had legitimate cause for complaint as Dermot Carlin's foul on Colm Boyle was surely made outside the box, Freeman's penalty ended all argument. It put Mayo into the lead for the first time all day and they never came close to being caught thereafter.
So on they go, All-Ireland finalists again after a scare that will have done them not the slightest bit of harm. For sure, Mayo have problems – O’Connor will be a huge loss if he misses the final and Moran has yet to locate the form that made him an All Star in 2011. But when the gradient got steepest yesterday, they managed to find a rhythm and a gear to take them to the summit.
That alone will sustain them as they tackle the one peak that has always been beyond them.