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Bad to curse Mayo had no 'Plan B' as James Horan's men bottled yet another All-Ireland final

Mayo were headless chickens but Tyrone proved a ‘Croke Park’ team

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A dejected Ryan O'Donoghue and Kevin McLoughlin of Mayo after the All-Ireland football final

A dejected Ryan O'Donoghue and Kevin McLoughlin of Mayo after the All-Ireland football final

A dejected Ryan O'Donoghue and Kevin McLoughlin of Mayo after the All-Ireland football final

In the immediate aftermath of the All-Ireland Football Final I felt very sad for the Mayo players, and found myself impressed by the job Tyrone had done.

With a full week to look back now, I see the analysis of the game falling two ways, people bigging up Mayo’s warrior spirit, or other people going after them as a bunch of losers in unfair and hurtful attacks.

As ever, the truth is lost in the whirl of words, but I’d be somewhere in between the two camps.

There is no point in sugar-coating it. What happened eight days ago was the worst Mayo performance in a final since Kerry beat them out the gate in 2006.

Yes, Mayo bottled it in a final, yet again.

The longer the game went on, Mayo’s composure and decision-making went from bad to worse.

And in the last ten minutes, when it was clear they needed a miracle, they became total headless chickens.

So why were Mayo so bad? Principally, because they came with a single plan, that their strong running game was going to pierce that strong Tyrone defensive wall.

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Conor Meyler created the goal for Cathal McShane with a fine lofted kick pass.

Conor Meyler created the goal for Cathal McShane with a fine lofted kick pass.

Conor Meyler created the goal for Cathal McShane with a fine lofted kick pass.

The plan never worked, as the support runners for the player taking on a Tyrone defender were never there.

No different than against Kerry in the semi-final, Tyrone’s defenders set traps and Mayo players were time and again tempted in – and then snared and stripped of the ball.

Too often Mayomen headed into blind alleys, usually out towards the corners of the pitch and were turned over all too easily.

Because they didn’t have the vision or guile to get out of those areas with the ball still in their hands.

And, unfortunately, then Mayo had no Plan B.

With Cillian O’Connor out injured, the poor quality of the Mayo forward line – when faced by good, dogged backs – was once again exposed.

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They scored no goal in the All-Ireland semi-final or final. Mayo got away with it the first day, not on the second occasion.

When I look at Mayo’s forward play, I see no plan, no coaching. And they butchered four goalscoring chances in the final.

There was no kicking game, just an obsession with running that, with every short pass, gave Tyrone the time and chance to get their defensive line back into shape.

The players are ultimately responsible for the defeat, but James Horan and co must also take their share of the blame.

Their game management was slow and poor, and they remain too loyal to certain lads who are now past their best.

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 Tyrone players Niall Morgan, Cathal McShane, Ronan McNamee, Frank Burns and Niall Kelly celebrate

Tyrone players Niall Morgan, Cathal McShane, Ronan McNamee, Frank Burns and Niall Kelly celebrate

Tyrone players Niall Morgan, Cathal McShane, Ronan McNamee, Frank Burns and Niall Kelly celebrate

They took Aidan O’Shea off in the semi-final against the Dubs.

It was a brave move then, but it should have happened last weekend too, because it was clear that O’Shea’s legs were gone with 20 minutes to go.

Tyrone deserved this All-Ireland and in winning it, they have given other counties hope.

Remember the Red Hands might well have been beaten by any of Donegal, Monaghan or Kerry this year. Only in their first match against Cavan, and the final, were they clearly the better team.

But there must be no sugar-coating for Tyrone either.

Tyrone pulled a stroke over Covid, they called the GAA’s bluff and the bosses at HQ blinked.

We still don’t know how many Tyrone players had Covid.

We still don’t know how they caught it.

And the fact that no one from Tyrone has answered either question tells me that Tyrone believe the GAA world would not be impressed if they gave the answers.

That’s the one negative I have on Tyrone. But they have proved over the last few weeks that they are a Croke Park team.

By that I mean they have pace, are skilful, and the players are so versatile at moving between defence and attack as the contest requires it.

They are all the qualities you need to win on the wide prairies of Croker.

Joint-managers Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan must take a lot of credit too for this Tyrone triumph. They were clever enough to keep on board many of Mickey Harte’s strategies.

But just to tweak them with a little bit of long-ball stuff.

Think of two examples from the final, Conor Meyler’s kick that led to Cathal McShane’s goal or Niall Morgan’s long-kicked clearance that should have led to a first-half goal for Darren McCurry.

The new-model Tyrone don’t sit back with double sweepers.

They press you out in the middle third of the pitch. That’s where they now engage you.

Something that has been in the Dooher-Logan game plan all year is making sure that the opposition’s top players – Michael Murphy (Donegal), Conor McManus and Karl O’Connell (Monaghan), Sean O’Shea and Paudie Clifford (Kerry), Tommy Conroy and Ryan O’Donoghue (Mayo) – don’t have big days out against Tyrone.

I also like their new midfield pairing of Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick, two big powerful men who can catch balls.

These are two men in the mould of Dublin’s Brian Fenton, who can play anywhere.

The old-style, lumbering, midfielder who could make great catches, but couldn’t run, is now as dead as the dodo on inter-county GAA teams.

Finally, Tyrone have football smarts. They are a very intelligent team. They play heads-up football, and take the right options more often than not.

I would agree with a lot of commentators that there is a great future in this team .

But don’t get ahead of yourselves. Dublin will be back next year, and certainly Kerry footballers would love to meet Tyrone at the business end of the 2022 Championship.

So enjoy the Sam success, and have a good winter. You’ve earned it, Tyrone.

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Conor McManus of Monaghan against James Morgan of Armagh.

Conor McManus of Monaghan against James Morgan of Armagh.

Conor McManus of Monaghan against James Morgan of Armagh.

So what was hot in GAA in 2021?

1. The two semi-finals were great entertainment and provided massive drama. The closing stages of both matches was edge-of-the-seat stuff.

2. The last four games of the Ulster Championship had winning margins of a point, two points, six points and one point. As ever, it was seriously competitive.

3. The best match of the year was Monaghan 4-17 to Armagh’s 2-21. That’s 44 scores – how did the reporters present even note all the scores.

4. Wexford’s performance against Dublin. They held the six-times champions to 15 points, didn’t concede a goal and four of the Dubs’ starting forwards didn’t score.

It was the first hint that not all was well with Dublin in 2021.

5. Rob Hennelly’s clutch 45 to draw the match with Dublin was one for the ages.

6. As was Niall Morgan’s booming 70-metre free for Tyrone in the first-half against Kerry.

7. And maybe the most important thing of all, 2021 was the year of the underdogs.

Tyrone won a first All-Ireland in 13 years. Tyrone and Mayo was a novel All-Ireland final pairing. Meath ladies won their first title and Meath minors won that competition for the first time since 1992.

Sligo won the Connacht minor crown for the first time since 1968. And Offaly and Roscommon was a cracking novel pairing in the Under-20 decider.

So Dublin’s population and money advantages didn’t help them to win anything this year. Let it be a challenge to other under-achieving counties out there. You can win if you do the work.

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Kerry’s final win over Cork was too easy.

Kerry’s final win over Cork was too easy.

Kerry’s final win over Cork was too easy.

...and what was not so hot?

1. The provincial championships were often poor this year. But Munster took the biscuit, it was truly abysmal with an average winning margin of 15 points across the five games. Kerry won the final against Cork by 22.

2. For the second year in a row, we had no back door or qualifiers.

We were told qualifiers would have taken up a further two weeks of the time now allocated to the club game.

Wasn’t it funny how two weeks were then found when they were needed by Tyrone?

3. I wrote earlier that the two semi-finals were thrillers. Thrillers, yes, but were they classics? Definitely not.

Here’s just a few of the crazy things that happened in Dublin-Mayo and Tyrone-Kerry.

Dublin turned over 60 per cent of their possessions in the semi-final, Mayo’s figure was 53.

So more than every second time either team got the ball in that game, they then gave it away again.

Dublin and Mayo both converted less than half their scoring chances.

Kerry converted 61 per cent of their scoring chances against Tyrone, but lost because Tyrone got goals. Three of them.

4. The blanket defence was not hot this year. Thanks be to God.

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