Rumours of Tyrone’s demise have been greatly exaggerated judging by the events that unfolded at MacHale Park, Castlebar yesterday.
Mickey Harte’s revamped side made light of the criticism that had enveloped the group since last weekend’s disappointing home defeat to Monaghan by going back to basics, adopting an ultra-defensive approach to engineer a crucial away victory that gets their Allianz League campaign off the ground.
Makeshift Mayo had few answers to Tyrone’s tactic of defending en masse, lacking the physical fitness or conditioning to punch holes in Tyrone’s defensive screen, while 15 wides took their toll too.
The loss of Aidan O’Shea to a black card on 49 minutes didn’t help their cause either; the midfielder was adjudged to have deliberately collided with Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan as he cleared a ball and his departure robbed Mayo of a key ‘line breaker’.
“We can only look at our own performance and the way Tyrone set up. We didn’t overcome it and it’s something we’ll have to look at,” said Mayo joint manager Pat Holmes afterwards.
“It’s probably the first time that we have been faced with such a defensive system when there was probably at times, 15 men behind the ball. But it’s up to us to deal with and we didn’t deal with it today.”
Tyrone’s commitment to their game-plan stood them in good stead with, at times, their entire team packed into their own half.
It was a collective effort that won the day for the Red Hands, but Justin McMahon justified his recall with a man-of-the-match performance while Ronan McNabb, Colm Cavanagh, Sean Cavanagh and Darren McCurry all played leading roles.
The winners restricted Mayo to just 1-2 from open play over the course of more than 70 frustrating minutes for the home side.
They were 0-10 to 0-5 down 15 minutes into the second half, and struggling to make any inroads into Tyrone’s advantage, when a lifeline arrived in the shape of a goal from substitute Cillian O’Connor.
The goal, strongly disputed by Tyrone who felt goalkeeper Niall Morgan had been fouled in the build-up, was only allowed after referee Eddie Kinsella had consulted with his umpires.
The large partisan home support roared their approval as the gap had been sliced back to a more manageable two points.
It was at this stage though that a timely intervention from Sean Cavanagh tilted the scales back in Tyrone’s favour again as he delivered a defence-splitting pass that set up Peter Harte for a 57th-minute goal that ended the argument.
PJ Lavery’s role in the score shouldn’t be underestimated either, the substitute taking Cavanagh’s pass in his stride before unselfishly playing in Harte for a simple finish past the despairing David Clarke.
Tyrone had Mayo right where they wanted them again, and they proceeded to shut up shop impressively.
All Mayo could muster by way of scores in the last 20 minutes were a couple of frees from Cillian O’Connor, while Tyrone could afford the luxury of only tagging on one more score themselves in the last quarter from Darren McCurry.
Tyrone had led at the end of an uneventful first half by 0-8 to 0-4.
They sprinted from the blocks to lead by 0-4 to 0-1 as their game plan started to take shape, with Darren McCurry, Cathal McShane, Mattie Donnelly and Sean Cavanagh all on target.
Mayo replied with points from Mark Ronaldson and Mickey Conroy but that was as good as it got for the out-of-sorts locals.
Tyrone were intent on finishing what they started.
Scorers for Mayo: C O’Connor (1-2, 2fs), J Doherty (0-2, 2fs), M Ronaldson (0-1), M Conroy (0-1), K McLoughlin (0-1, 1f).
Scorers for Tyrone: D McCurry (0-4, 2f), P Harte (1-0), M Donnelly (0-2), S Cavanagh (0-1, 1f), N Morgan (0-2, 2f), C McShane (0-1), T McCann (0-1).
Mayo subs: C O’Connor for Ronaldson (45); P Durcan for Boyle (46); G Cafferkey for Keegan (50); B Moran for A O’Shea (black card, 50m); M Sweeney for Freeman (51); A Dillon for D O’Connor (66).
Tyrone subs: PJ Lavery for McShane (45m); C McCann for McNulty (61); P Tierney for T McCann (61);
Referee: E Kinsella (Laois)
Despite masterminding a victory most observers felt would be beyond them in Castlebar yesterday, Mickey Harte described his Tyrone outfit as “an average team”.
Speaking after his 224th game in charge of the Red Hands, the longest-serving manager in Gaelic football said he was basing his opinion on Tyrone’s last two displays.
“Today was a good day for us,” admitted Harte. “We weren’t happy with what happened last week [losing to Monaghan] and we’re very happy with what happened today. I really do believe we weren’t as bad as we appeared to be last week, and I don’t think that [performance] makes us world-beaters either.
“If you take the two performances across the two weeks, we’re an average team. I’d say that’s what we are at the moment.”
Harte’s decision to go back to basics yesterday, reverting to an ultra-defensive approach when Tyrone didn’t have possession, stifled Mayo’s running game and the Connacht champions were unable to build up a head of steam.
Harte admitted Tyrone’s defeat to the Westerners in the 2013 All-Ireland SFC semi-final had informed his thinking.
“We had to do that, we know they’re very good at running from deep,” he explained. “Their half-backs beat us in Croke Park in 2013 with their surging runs through and kicking the scores.
“We had to put a bit of blockade in there.”
Meanwhile, Mayo joint manager Pat Holmes maintained he hadn’t seen anything like Tyrone’s defensive set-up since Donegal broke the mould against Dublin in the 2011 All-Ireland SFC semi-final.
“You might see 13 men behind the ball but there were 15 men behind the ball for large parts of the game today, and it was up to us to come and try and break that down.
“We didn’t do that.”