When the plan is to play at a slow, laborious tempo with deliberate and very tactical attack play, can supporters ever expect an entertaining game of football?
Tyrone do precisely this. It is extremely frustrating to watch, worse to play against and for the Tyrone forwards, it must be demoralising. With Tyrone leading by three points, the only way for Mayo to get back into yesterday’s All-Ireland semi-final was through turnovers and mistakes. Tyrone obliged. Repeated lateral football with no forward momentum eventually led to errors — and then opportunities — for Mayo to seize possession and capitalise via excellent scores from Chris Barrett and Lee Keegan.
That gave Mayo some breathing space and lessened the barrage of verbals they must have received from James Horan – prior to the tactical assessment of course, positive constructive comments and the customary clap on the back — before going out for the second half.
This game highlights that Tyrone, as expected, were playing well above themselves throughout the year. In fact it was an achievement, which they should acknowledge and be proud of, to get this far. They will rue the loss of Peter Harte after five minutes followed by Stephen O’Neill after 26 minutes and reference this as pertinent to the lack of leadership shown as the game progressed.
Maybe they should also consider reasons for the dismal performance of a defence whereby Conor Gormley may have been their best player, and a non-existing three-quarter line — non existent in terms of presence and performance.
Who would have foreseen that Donal Vaughan would be able to track Mark Donnelly and not give him a touch all day? Or was it role reversal — Mark Donnelly tracking Donal Vaughan?
Tonight Micky Harte must be wondering how he got this so wrong. Switching Conor Gormley and Conor Clarke was a mistake. Clarke could not offer the leadership in the half back line that Gormley provides. Was this a concession that either player was incapable in their original position?
Instead of consolidating both lines, it weakened the defence as a whole. Sean Cavanagh, who just needed a good game yesterday to be in running for player of the year, was ignominious. His first score was on 52 minutes from a free! His well documented shimmy was brilliantly defended. With 45 minutes on the clock, he had quit. By now he had moved to centre three-quarters and was marked by Keith Higgins. He epitomised a team which had come to its end without even a spark or fight. Sad considering all they had been through.
Mayo will wonder too. They will wonder what happened that Tyrone got so far ahead. They will wonder why by half-time they were still behind. They should also wonder whether, if this Tyrone team was as good as years gone by, they’d have gotten back into this match.
I will attempt to provide reflection. Losing Cillian O’Connor to injury is obviously a huge blow and may have further repercussions. This point doesn’t need developing. However the composure shown by Mayo after his loss does. Enda Varley, his replacement, brought us back to last year’s All-Ireland final and reminded us why he hasn’t been an automatic starter. Repeatedly he shot from distance and from difficult angles. He took over free-taking duty and duly missed. Andy Moran, from play, and Kevin McLoughlin, from a 14 yard free also missed during this critical period. Had Chris Barrett not drove forward through the heart of theTyrone defence and scored an individual point, those demons may have re-awakened. What I am pointing to is composure, or the lack of it. Mayo will need to address this.
It will help if the full-forward line maintains their shape, if they pressurise further up the field and if they get someone reliable on free-taking duty. Once the game settled it probably wasn’t necessary for Tom Cunniffe to be deployed as a sweeper and surely Alan Freeman is the most reliable free-taker in Cillian O’Connor’s absence? This raises the question, why did Kevin McLoughlin pass up on the right sided frees after missing the tap over? Is his confidence so low? I could never have imagined Oisin McConville doing likewise. To credit Mayo, they came through what was potentially a sticky afternoon. They were comfortable after the penalty and looked miles the more rounded team. They did exactly what was required and allowed James Horan to rest some of his key players including Donal Vaughan and Aidan O’Shea.
I would suggest he has a number of aspects of his game to improve upon before the final. First, Alan Freeman is a good ball winner who is starved of good early possession. Often the running game doesn’t allow Mayo players to see the space he makes and provide him with the necessary pass.
Second, Mayo need to decide what is the best combination alongside Freeman in the full-forward line. Conroy, Varley and Moran the obvious options. Is Varley too erratic? Is Moran ready yet? Has Conroy played enough football?
Third, Mayo still take too much out of the ball in possession especially in the middle sector of the field. You would expect a high tempo, physical opposition to dispossess them more often than Tyrone did. The delays in possession also contribute to the difficulty in maintaining their shape as a full-forward line.
And finally there’s the free-taking. Alan Freeman, if Cillian O’Connor is absent, and Kevin McLoughlin should be given responsibility. Never underestimate the value of a free-taker in an All-Ireland final.