Tyrone are far from being out on their own in pursuit of Dublin
In the aftermath of the All-Ireland final in September 2017, Mayo manager Stephen Rochford said ‘sport can be cruel’.
Little did he know that 12 months later he would be out of a job and grasping for positive things to say about his tenure as Mayo manager.
His reign was akin to a rollercoaster ride; there were surprising losses, inspiring comebacks and two narrow final defeats.
Mayo attract massive support wherever they go. They are humble people, warm and engaging. Their travelling supporters are arguably the finest in Ireland.
Rochford’s team hold a special place in every Gael’s heart and will always be remembered as one of the best teams to never win an All-Ireland title.
The fault-finders point to three years in charge with no provincial or national level medal to show for his efforts.
Earning a place at the table of the ‘nearly-made-its’ alongside the Roscommon team of the late ’70s or that fine Kildare team of the late ’90s provides little comfort.
Ultimately, Rochford (right) was appointed to win an All-Ireland with an ageing team. Time to carve out a new team capable of winning honours was not part of his brief, therefore, he was always a manager under pressure.
As is often the case, he might not be missed until he is gone. His successor might well be taking on a poison chalice. They may have won the U21 championship in 2016 but an isolated win such as this rarely translates into senior success, yet the high expectations stubbornly remain.
Sunday provided another illustration of the cruelty of sport. These Tyrone players prioritised football over everything in their lives, they obeyed the every word of their trainer Peter Donnelly and subscribed to Mickey Harte’s every murmur in pursuit of their ultimate goal, and then fell disappointingly short.
The neutral observer like myself applauds and admires this team, witnessing the pain they’ve endured. I’ve been that soldier so I know how it feels.
This week is the most difficult week of their lives. They have to face the public and accept the stinging claps on the back and the perceived hollow congratulations knowing they lost an All-Ireland final by the largest margin in 11 years.
Some will recover and return more determined, some will fall away never to be seen again.
As they return to their clubs they will seek solace in dark, quiet places which are hard to find even in a large, rural county such as Tyrone.
Eventually these emotions will give way to the fond memories which were created over the past 10 months of competition and soon they will turn their attention to a hectic club schedule.
They are not psychologically ready for that but the professionalism within them will support them through this period until winter sets in and Mickey comes calling again.
Men crave the company of other men. They also crave the guidance of a strong manager at county level because football is their life. This company and this leadership keep them on a level path, fulfilling a competitive desire which is unrivalled in any other part of their lives.
Only when this flame peters out will they be able to rationalise the insanity of county football and actually prioritise what is most important in life.
So has Mickey Harte anything to learn from Rochford’s departure? I would think not.
On the contrary, Rochford ought to have played the role of student to one of the enduring managers of our time. Perhaps he appeared indecisive or soft. The Brian Codys or Mickey Hartes of this world are assured and obstinate when necessary. They are excellent communicators and retain a strong loyalty from their players even if they do not find favour with him.
Crucially, they’ve also been very successful and have earned the right to demand patience from supporters and committees. While progress has been made by Tyrone, I would assert that it is minimal progress.
The Super 8 group was favourable and a semi-final appearance against Monaghan was their ideal pairing.
Avoiding Galway and Kerry on route to the final, who are many people’s second and third best team, and the fizzling out of Mayo’s challenge was a blessing for them.
So if Tyrone are to repeat the relative achievement of 2018 next year they must develop. One should not assume that they are the closest team to defeating Dublin merely because of what they’ve achieved this year.
They continue to lack quality inter-county forwards to win matches, players who have composure, who are clinical and who are ruthless.
Owen Mulligan, a former great, was interviewed after the game and his frustration and disappointment was emblazoned across his face.
If asked for his opinion off-camera, he would not have been so contained.
Perhaps it is too soon after the tragedy of the final to inject a dose of realism into this story, but if sport can be cruel, so too can honest assessment.