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Tyrone’s ruthless streak leaves Mayo searching for answers again

It was a Red Hand masterclass at Croke Park while Mayo failed to show up on the big stage

Now we know what we were watching through this strange, topsy-turvy football summer that proved all best guesses, all the doubters, all the world, wrong, wrong and wrong again. It was hiding in plain sight: A Red Hand masterclass. The Tyrone manual of how to win.

What a season. Tyrone started the year by scalping the novel Ulster champions, Cavan, and finished with one of their dashing, irresistible raids on Croke Park against the county whose story of tortuous conclusions go on into its eighth decade. Nothing could stop them. Not Donegal. Not Monaghan. Not Kerry. Not the outbreak of the Covid virus and the heated, loose debate which followed. Not the huge wave of sentimental hope for Mayo that spread like wildfire throughout the island all week.

Picture Ireland’s emotional landscape from a satellite on Saturday afternoon and the entire island would have been coloured green and red of Mayo, except for the vivid pulsing Tyrone sense of belief and self-reliance smack in the middle of the country. It was Tyrone against the world. And those are odds they love in O’Neill country.

“My starting ambition was to win one match,” smiled Fergal Logan, the understated manager who for a long time has been one of the best-liked football people within Tyrone.

“We managed to do that and it progressed from there,” he said, his face flushed from the exertion.

“We had no big plans. We just mucked in night after night and it was up and down and it ended happily with Tyrone as All-Ireland champions.”

Perhaps we forgot. We forgot the way that Tyrone teams tend to flourish and grow on these state occasions, when the dignitaries are present and the parade is solemn and everything is on the line. They were comfortably the better team on this balmy Saturday evening, settling into their highly organised, high-octane defensive system and then underlining their pedigree with a series of gorgeous individual scores.

This fourth All-Ireland marks a stunning debut summer for the new management team of Logan and Brian Dooher. Following Mickey Harte’s long, distinguished reign was never going to be easy. But they emulated the Ballygawley man in winning it all in their very first season. The season will always be remembered for the strange, meandering few weeks following their Ulster title when the camp came down with a Covid outbreak, causing their management to announce they could not field a team for their scheduled semi-final with Kerry.

For about 24 hours, there was confusion as to whether the Ulster men had withdrawn from the All-Ireland. And when it became clear they had not, nobody knew whether they would look like a shadow team or the real deal when they took the field again.

Now we know. What they did to Kerry, they also did to Mayo here. It wasn’t the prettiest of games but it was fascinating to watch from high in the stands, as Tyrone slowly and steadily bamboozled the Mayo men, lulling them with their fast-slow game, looking so smooth and comfortable, dancing through all attempts at pressure and then ripping the heart out of the late Mayo dream with two sweet, deadly goals.

The first came from a familiar source: Cathal McShane was on the field just two minutes when he delivered a tomahawk fist to Conor Meyler’s perfectly weighted ball to push Tyrone into a 1-10 to 0-9 lead. And on the hour mark, they struck again, this time a lightning raid and another lethal, floated ball from Conor McKenna for McCurry to bat into a gaping net. By then, it was clear that Mayo were chasing shadows, that all the old demons and ghosts were gathering for another winter of reckoning. It finished 2-14 to 0-15 and Tyrone looked comfortable and they looked at home in the old amphitheatre.

Where do Mayo go from here? Already, the opening sequence of this game feels like it belongs to a different time. When Mayo captain Aidan O’Shea won the first ball from the throw-in to start an attack which Tommy Conroy clipped brightly over the bar, the response from the crowd was huge, even joyful. All the memories of nightmare starts of previous years faded away.

But there was something forced about the noise, like the laughter of children trying to disguise their fear as they wander through the haunted house. Just as everyone predicted, it soon settled into a kind of grim, muscular waltz. Mayo went two up. Then Tyrone hit 0-3 on the trot. Briefly, the stage surrendered to the familiar chant of “Tyrone! Tyrone!”

In the 15th minute, Niall Sludden dived and deflected Conor Loftus’s goal chance away from the goal line. On the half hour mark, Rob Hennelly got a foot to a similar snatched effort from Darren McCurry. But the Edendork man brought his smart, tidy form to the big day and the battle between himself and Pádraig O’Hora quickly began to glitter as something vital and consequential.

At half time it was 0-10 to 0-8 and as kettles steamed and beer taps flowed around the county, the consensus was that, yes, the game would only begin in the second half: that it would, of course, go to the wire. But we weren’t watching closely enough.

There were signs in the first half that Tyrone had subtly but indelibly left their imprint on the contest. They enjoyed sumptuous periods in possession, gobbled up the Mayo attacking threats gradually turned the day Ulster-flavoured. Mayo are well used to the trappings and atmosphere of these All-Ireland days. As the game deepened, it came to feel and look like one of those breathless days in Clones; that if you could just see over the back wall of the Hill 16, you’d might see the Creighton Hotel and the bunting on Fermanagh street and the lad who’d had a few too many Harps and hadn’t even made the game. Tyrone made Croke Park their home.

Now Mayo know there is no comfort in facing Ulster opposition at this hurdle either. This was as grim a defeat as their 2012 loss to Donegal. Unlike their superheroic, heartbreaking days of valour against Dublin, it was a deeply disappointing performance shot through with old failings - wides, tentativeness and a spreading lack of know-how.

Ryan O’Donoghue was one of the team’s more convincing and bullish performers but his missed penalty in the 41st minute cast a spell of gloom in the Mayo contingent. They kept plugging away, mainly through the stubborn, brilliant interventions of Lee Keegan, Patrick Durcan and Oisín Mullin but increasingly they looked like men caught in a blizzard, moving blindly and on instinct. Tyrone, in contrast, looked as though they had all the time in the world. Darren McCurry finished with 1-4 to complete a dazzling summer, big Conn Kilpatrick owned the day at midfield. Niall Morgan didn’t put a foot wrong. Kieran McGeary had another marvellous day, striking a wonderful first half point but mostly moving about the field like a busy shop steward counselling and organising on the factory floor.

The Tyrone fans were delighted. But they didn’t seem particularly surprised. They believe these days will come. They watched with pride as the Red Hand jigsaw fell into place.

Mayo have lost 13 All-Ireland finals since 1951. But they have also lost six since 2011. It’s a shocking physical toll for players like Lee Keegan and Kevin McLoughlin to bear. And it’s a terrible burden for their people. The N4 motorway through Longford and Westmeath was festooned with Mayo flags and good luck signs as the Mayoites made their almost annual journey along the clogged artery this morning. The arguments that this was the year seemed grounded in a calmer logic this year came to nothing.

The worst of it is that now the younger brigade - Mullin, O’Hora, O’Donoghue - have been sucked into the vortex of these crushing experiences, with back-to-back All-Ireland defeats. The return of Cillian O’Connor next season will be welcome. But it will be a surprise if anyone in Mayo has the heart or stomach to even think about the next football season as the wait goes on.

On any other year, Tyrone would have been shouting for Mayo too. But they are sharp and bold and emphatic in their ability to summon and forge a kind of certainty in their potential for greatness. When the dust settles and 2021 joins 2003, 2005 and 2008 as the perfect football years in O’Neill country, they might stop to think about how torturous the counter-experience is for Mayo.

But only for a moment or two. Tyrone are the prime example of the truth that you have to take your chances when you get here. And it is easy to sleep on another man’s wound.

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