What can be said about an All-Ireland final involving my home county of Mayo? It felt like they had exhausted all storylines over the past decade but here they come again. Another final chukka, as they used to say in the Raj. Or, to put it more plainly: we go again. But, then, this is new. We haven't played Tyrone at this stage of the All-Ireland championship before. It's a new task for Mayo.
Tyrone's ransacking of Kerry has taken the season into unexplored country. James Horan and Ciaran McDonald were in the stadium that afternoon and as they drove home afterwards, they had plenty of food for thought. Their intelligence on Kerry would have been considerable. I imagine that a wheelbarrow must have been required to carry the files and books on Kerry football out of Mayo GAA headquarters that week.
And in its place a slim manila envelope carrying results and random pen pictures of the Tyrone squad on the desk. Because Tyrone came into this year as an unknown quantity, starting out on a brave new adventure after two decades defined by the vision of Mickey Harte. So the Mayo backroom team will have busied themselves in the meantime. They will know that they are meeting a highly organised side.
When you analyse the astute and clever pre-game decisions made by the Tyrone bootroom before the Kerry game, it becomes clear that in many ways, the winning of the game took place before the ball was thrown in. I felt Tyrone were superb in their defensive set up and chose their match-ups brilliantly. Of the Kerry forwards, only David Clifford played to his potential but even then Ronan McNamee never backed off and took him for a first-half point.
Tyrone excel at man-marking - knowing they have a safety net of cover that allows them to go flat out. That attitude is down to their management. Just look at what I would call the coronation of Conor Meyler as an elite footballer. For years, I saw Conor as a kind of typical Tyrone transitional player. But not this year. His influence has been an integral part of Tyrone's rise. Donegal's Ryan McHugh, a star turn against Down, was blotted out by Meyler in Enniskillen.
Then Ryan McAnespie of Monaghan was similarly closed down in the Ulster final. Paudie Clifford, on a rampage for Player of the Year, ended up chasing Meyler for long periods in the semi-final. He has thrived because management clarified his role and their expectations of him. It has liberated him and he has grown into the season in a way that places him firmly in All-Star territory - and as one of the stand out players of the year. He is the most conspicuous example of confidence flooding through individual players with startling results.
The other key decision made by Tyrone was the concession to Kerry’s kick out by allowing them to go short. It was clever in that it gave them time to set up their defence and to then double and triple-team the Kerry ball carriers. It was a strategy and it said: if we are to win this, we have to have a team commitment to minimise the goals against. They made that commitment. It became the engine for their victory.
It seems reasonable for Mayo to expect a similar Tyrone defensive challenge: a light to heavy blanket allied to a lightning transition. So what do Mayo do to break that defensive unit down? Well, their comfort in chaos will be a help. They thrive in broken play and unpredictability. But that will come at a certain time in Saturday’s final.
There are two other approaches: the patient Dublin approach where you swing the ball from wing to wing until someone falls asleep and a gap opens up. I believe this would be totally unsuited to Mayo’s personality and temperament. It would frustrate their fans - and, I think, the players themselves.
The other method is through strong runners bursting through the first tackle and then off-loading the football to a runner off the shoulder on their first touch. I imagine this will be Mayo’s preferred route. It creates chances, it draws frees and it attracts black cards. In fact, the guy who releases the ball can often draw contact through a late tackle.
In many ways, Tyrone and Mayo are similar teams.
The cold facts show that as Tyrone's defensive intensity increased over the summer, so did their foul count. Donegal scored 0-5 from frees out of 1-14. Monaghan got 0-6 out of 0-15 (40 per cent). Kerry 0-8 from frees out of 0-16 in normal time (50 per cent). So, clearly, they are prone to fouling once that first line of cover is broken. This is an opportunity for Mayo to get vital scores in a game that is likely to be tetchy and claustrophobic.
What about giving up the short kick-out? It’s a short question that has massive implications. Tyrone survived a colossal failure in the kick-out department against Kerry through their success in turnovers. It is a conundrum for James Horan. If Mayo accept the short option, then they have a journey to make. They will face that high Tyrone press. It takes a toll to get the ball a hundred metres up the field- again and again and again. But if Mayo do kick long and compete, are they better at the overload than Tyrone are? I would say that it is a 50-50 battle. These are the decisions that separate managers from pundits and fans.
Personally, I would gamble on going long and winning the overload. Why give Tyrone a chance to set up that defence? The quality of long-ball possession is so much more valuable than restarting the ball short. Opt for the short kick-out and, yes, you have possession but you are facing that formidable Tyrone set up and the ball is an awful long way from their goal. Brian Dooher and Fergal Logan have teams where they want them then. I think the long ball is a positive option. You aren't hedging your bets. You aren't allowing Tyrone to dictate terms.
In many ways, Tyrone and Mayo are similar teams. Their athletic profile is impressive. Both teams move very rapidly and randomly around the pitch until they reach the attacking half of the field when some patterns emerge. Mayo have an edge in pure size.
Against that, Tyrone are more comfortable or polished in the fine skills of the game - passing, possession, evasion, drawing an opponent and dishing a good ball. Both teams have big men in the middle of the park. But the Tyrone unit is very functional and plays between the two 65s. This is significant for Aidan O’Shea. This may be the one All-Ireland final where he is not asked to check middle-distance runners like James McCarthy or Fenton.
There should be no debate about the selection of Aidan. There is so much nonsense spoken and written about him. In the semi-final, he won some key possessions in the first-half and he could have had 0-3 by the break. His move to full forward would have been viewed differently then. I can see him spending time at midfield against Tyrone, at 11 and at 14, if required. He has played many smashing games for Mayo when he was the outstanding player on the park. And I believe he can will himself to bend the shape and direction of this All-Ireland final in his favour. It is a massive opportunity for him.
Lurking in the background is a variable we have essentially dismissed. We forgot about Covid because of Tyrone's Herculean effort in the extra-time period against Kerry. But don't cod yourself that it didn't affect them. Against Kerry, there was no Richie Donnelly or Rory Brennan on the match programme. They weren't kidnapped! They were clearly struggling. So it is unfair and untrue to say it has had no effect. We tend to park the idea and assume it is a past tense. But we don't know to what extent they are still dealing with the aftermath of the outbreak. It could re-emerge as a factor in ways that even Tyrone can't legislate for on Saturday.
I have attended all of Tyrone's games except for their opener against Antrim. They were quietly impressive all season: tidy and toiling away and they are the sum of their parts. They have no real superstars but lots of good players. That is their strength. There is no doubt that the change in management and philosophy has emboldened them.
The change has not been radical but they have reshaped the team to their vision: to meet teams higher up the field and return to a kick passing game; to leave two to three up front at all times. I remember being at a Tyrone game where Mark Bradley was the lone full forward. They have also revitalised guys like Darren McCurry, Myler and Kieran McGeary and helped them to play with a radiant self belief.
Nobody can argue that these counties don’t deserve to be here. Both came through titanic semi-final victories. Consequently, both will be adamant in their belief that they will win it all now. Their conviction will be absolute- because they are not meeting one of the serial All-Ireland winners.
And Mayo have yet to play for 70 minutes. This is an All-Ireland final. Nothing else than a 70 minute return can be acceptable. They must will themselves to compete from the start. They need to be tidy in their turnovers (20 or lower) and wides (6 or lower) in order to win and to break this long streak.
Mayo have lost plenty over the years but don't call us losers.
Obviously, Mayo have endured a fatalistic relationship with the task of winning the All-Ireland final. I remember a lovely interview with Paddy Prendergast, Mayo's last living member of the 1951 team from a few years back. Paddy spoke a lot about the memories. But he said this: If you are in a final, then of course you have a chance. He was displaying the '51 medal in a lovely humble way. He said: If you get to a final, you should be bloody well good enough to win it. There is a lot of truth in that.
I believe Mayo will win this final. There is not that much to separate the teams in terms of attitude and ability. Mayo have been forewarned by Kerry in that they were given a demonstration of what not to do. But Kerry also illustrated that you can create a lot of chances against Tyrone - goals and points.
To win these major days takes courage and bravery. You have to be brave to turn up and play and perform. There is a requirement to never doubt yourself. Coragem, the Brazilian football coaches call it. This is the critical attribute. They place a very strong faith in it. They should know. They have won five World Cups - in the most competitive and widely played field game in the world.
What do they mean by this? They are talking about the courage to make mistakes and to then recover. The courage to keep going. The courage to bend the game to one’s own will. That is what they mean.
Mayo is a proud county. It has suffered plenty down the decades and emigration, rather than All-Ireland heartbreak, has been our greatest curse. Mayo have lost plenty over the years but don’t call us losers. I would argue that we have stood tall and always shown resilience and have always come back for more - including on Saturday evening.
I do believe that when the championship ends Mayo will be the champions of Ireland for the first time in 70 years: that this team will bring an end to the grand obsession.