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all-ireland final Nobody – and, I mean, nobody – predicted this pairing at the start of the summer

Picking a winner is like tossing a coin, but hunger matters, so it’s Mayo for me

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Darragh Canavan (left) netted Tyrone’s second goal in their 3-14 to 1-19 win over Mayo in the league last year despite being tracked by Oisín Mullin (right).

Darragh Canavan (left) netted Tyrone’s second goal in their 3-14 to 1-19 win over Mayo in the league last year despite being tracked by Oisín Mullin (right).

Darragh Canavan (left) netted Tyrone’s second goal in their 3-14 to 1-19 win over Mayo in the league last year despite being tracked by Oisín Mullin (right).

A first-ever All-Ireland final showdown between Mayo and Tyrone represents a welcome change to the pecking order in football. But spare me all this ‘I told you so’ nonsense. Nobody – and, I mean, nobody – predicted this pairing at the start of the summer.

Their semi-final wins were achieved in similar fashion, beating raging-hot favourites after extra-time. Each county believed they could win, got stuck in, created chaos, took the contest to their much-vaunted opponents and played the game on their terms.

It is the most difficult All-Ireland final to call since the famous 2011 showdown between Kerry and Dublin. Here’s my take on both teams.

TYRONE:

No county is better at creating a siege mentality or playing for a cause than Tyrone.

Even though Kerry facilitated them by agreeing to the semi-final being postponed on two occasions, they created the myth that the Kingdom were using it as some sort of ‘dummy’ run for the big day itself.

I cannot think of any particular grievance they have against Mayo, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they managed to come up with something in the next six days.

I noticed that renowned Gael Ronan O’Gara had a pop at me for suggesting that Tyrone wanted to win more than Kerry.

He suggested both teams wanted to win. However, it was blindingly obvious that Tyrone had the greater hunger – they made things happen.

From the moment Frank Burns sent Dara Moynihan skidding over the sideline with his shoulder charge in the very first minute, the tone was set.

Think, for a second, of all the unselfish tracking runs they made back to their defence; their hard runs out of defence; their entire full-back line getting forward to score points, and the sight of Michael O’Neill and Peter Harte putting their bodies on the line to stop shots from Seán O’Shea and Killian Spillane.

You can quote all the buzz words you want from coaching, Ronan, but even though it is old-fashioned, it still holds true: hunger matters.

The pre-match routines told a story. The Kerry players did a lot of stretching and practiced intricate passing movements and drills, while Tyrone were involved in high-intensity tackling drills. It summed up the way the teams played.

There is so much to admire about Tyrone. For starters, they have a squad of athletic, skilful and pacey footballers. They play a front-foot, counter-attacking, running game.

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Their defensive play is superb, too – evident in the fact that they have conceded just one goal in their four championship games.

Adept

And it’s not just all about having bodies back behind the ball, their management are particularly adept at getting their match-ups spot on.

Granted, Ronan McNamee had a difficult time with David Clifford – but, otherwise, they won all the key duels eight days ago.

Michael McKernan v Paul Geaney, Pádraig Hampsey v Seán O’Shea and Conor Meyler v Paudie Clifford, the Red Hands came out ahead in all of them.

Their ability to turnover teams in possession is second to none.

Tyrone turned Kerry over 35 times – 30 times in the middle third of the pitch, and scored 2-9 of their 3-14 from these turnovers.

There are other positives about their defensive play, such as the way they track runners; Burns’ role in their rotating sweeper system and their controlled aggression – evident in the fact they conceded 10 fewer frees than Kerry.

The bulwark of their defensive system is the roadblock they set up in the middle third of the field.

Kerry duly ran into it repeatedly, which is why they lost possession so often.

Add in the fact they have been road-tested in this championship – they have beaten three Division 1 teams – and their fitness levels are unbelievable; they played 20 minutes last weekend with 14 men, and still got through extra time.

Furthermore, substitutes Cathal McShane and Darragh Canavan are class forwards to call on, and the squad have clearly gelled with the new management team, but they are far from unbeatable.

For starters, they faced a very naive Kerry team. I can’t imagine Mayo falling into the same trap. Forewarned is forearmed.

For example, Kerry persisted with short kick-outs of their own, even though they were winning most of keeper Niall Morgan’s long restarts. This is an area Mayo can exploit, both from their own kick-outs and from Morgan’s long restarts.

Two of the three Tyrone goals were fortunate, and their forwards failed to score a point from play in the first half against Kerry.

Overall, the team only managed 11 points in normal time.

They also struggled to put away 14-man Donegal in the Ulster semi-final, and only scored 0-5 in the second half against Monaghan – recording only two points from play – and, basically, fell over the winning line in that Ulster final.

What has been overlooked about the semi-final is that Kerry scored 0-12 from Tyrone turnovers.

Finally, there is no guarantee that they can replicate the same degree of ferocity against Mayo that they managed against Kerry.

MAYO:

Sorry Ronan, but I’m back to my old hobby horse, hunger. Well, if Mayo are not ravenous, then help me God!

It’s 70 years since their last All-Ireland triumph. Since then, they have lost 10 finals – two after replays. Half of those losses have come since 2012. Do I need to write more?

They are similar to Tyrone in what they will bring to the table: they bring physicality, athleticism and a running game. And I believe they do this better than Tyrone, because, physically, they possess more powerful players.

In terms of strength and conditioning, Mayo are second to none. Don’t forget, they haven’t lost a competitive match since the 2020 All-Ireland final, although we must remember they played in Division 2 this spring.

In Matthew Ruane, a potential player of the year, and Conor Loftus, they have a more mobile midfield partnership, and the pair carry a bigger scoring threat than the Tyrone duo of Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick.

Mayo are disciplined but they are ferocious in the tackle – they turned over 60 per cent of Dublin’s possession and scored 0-12 from it.

Up front, Ryan O’Donoghue and Tommy Conroy have come of age – they are pacey and direct.

Throw in James Horan, who has proved an even shrewder and, dare we say it, more ruthless manager in his second coming.

Replacing team captain Aidan O’Shea, when the Dublin game was in the melting pot, demonstrated that he is not afraid to make the big calls – the big question is whether Mayo can bring their ‘A’ game from the start.

They were awful in the first half against Dublin. Recall that none of their forwards scored from play, and they hit a miserly 0-4 in total.

They cannot rely on another heroic second-half comeback, because Tyrone won’t collapse the way Dublin did.

I’m not sure the four-week break up to the final has done Mayo any favours either. I imagine they spent the first two weeks of the four thinking about the challenge they would face against Kerry.

Struggled

Ominously, they struggled to break down Westmeath in the league in Mullingar earlier this season – and the Lake County are the only team they have faced that used the kind of blanket defence Tyrone have perfected.

Also, one wonders how they will react within sight of the finish line. They haven’t a good record in this department.

There have been big matches of late, including finals, where Mayo footballers allowed their emotions get the better of them and blew chances of winning matches.

And their biggest conundrum is where to play Aidan O’Shea.

For me, it is imperative that he lines out on the edge of the square and stays there, for two reasons.

Firstly, Mayo will need a target man in order to play the ball over the Tyrone blanket.

Secondly, if Aidan moves out the field, he will be repeatedly targeted by Tyrone players when in possession, given his habit of soloing the ball and carrying it into traffic.

It should be some match.

  • Mayo v Tyrone, All-Ireland SFC Final, next Saturday, 3.30pm RTE2, Sky

PAT’S PREDICTION

As to the outcome, it is a toss of a coin.

I thought about consulting Paul, the famous octopus who correctly predicted that Spain would beat Holland in the 2010 World Cup final.

But I opted for a clairvoyant with local knowledge.

In Old Moore’s Almanac, Mayo are tipped to win the All-Ireland this year.

That’s good enough for me – but I won’t be putting any money on it.

Verdict: Mayo.

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