Kevin Madden: Playing the long game paid dividends for Tyrone

Brian Kennedy (centre) and Conn Kilpatrick were superb at midfield with both men crucial to Tyrone's victory Picture: Seamus Loughran.

2003, 2005, 2008 and now 2021. The fight for four is over and on reflection, it should never have been in doubt. One team turned up believing they might win, while the other played with a spirit and belief that no matter what happened, they just weren’t going to be denied.

Going into the final, they were concerns that midfield was one area of the pitch, where Tyrone might struggle. That Matthew Ruane and Conor Loftus would have too much mobility for big Brian Kennedy and too much footballing nous for Conn Kilpatrick. But Tyrone were superb at midfield with both men crucial to the victory.

Given the fact that Kennedy was on a yellow card after just three minutes, he rewarded the management’s loyalty t by giving a very disciplined and effective performance. I suppose aerially they knew they would have an advantage and by once again backing themselves with the long kickouts, they could bring that to the fore.

The McCurry goal started and ended in Edendork, but Kilpatrick’s part in it was perhaps the most impressive. In fairness, Conor McKenna’s contribution was also critical as the weight of his pass was inch perfect. I think it is fair to say, his ability to create those goal chances was the reason why he was still on the pitch, given he wasn’t having a good game against the brilliant Lee Keegan.

The Tyrone management were sure to have been torn on whether to start Cathal McShane or not. To give them credit, they knew by accommodating him, they would have to tweak their system of play which could come with a greater risk.

Once again the timing of the introductions of McShane and Darragh Canavan was spot on, as was the massive contributions they made. I thought Tyrone’s movement in attack was also superb as was the delivery of their kick-passes. McCurry’s looped runs to gain space on the inside of Padraig O’Hora was a joy to watch. McShane’s movement and Meyler’s pass for the goal was as brilliant as it was deliberate.

Niall Morgan’s first kickout of the game was a bit of a disaster but after that he barely put a foot wrong. It was interesting to see that on occasions he deliberately ignored the easy options of the shorts, if he saw an opportunity to hit a longer one to an area Tyrone had a big man positioned with a plus one. McKenna, Kilpatrick, and Kennedy were nearly always the target for these and it paid off.

It makes perfect sense to want to start your attack on the opposition 45 as opposed to your own 21. When it works, it increases the chances of getting an easier scoring chance and in the case of the McCurry goal, it sometimes can create an overlap that leads to a goal. Tyrone backed themselves with these long deliveries and it paid off on the day.

The old adage that ‘goals wins games’ was once again evident on Saturday just as it was two weeks previous against Kerry. Not many teams are lucky enough to win All-Irelands on scoring points alone. Kerry in 2015 and Cork in 2010 the only examples in the last decade or so. But there was a story behind all those Mayo misses.

The Conor Loftus follow up from Bryan Walsh effort looked like a tap-in, only for the brilliant effort of Niall Sludden it would have been. The penalty was a lifeline for Mayo which was passed up by Ryan O’Donoghue. His approach to stutter at the ball and try and make Morgan move first only served to distract him from making the right connection with the ball. Penalties to the top corner of the net are for the end of training and not All-Ireland finals.

Joanne Cantwell called it perfectly when her slip of the tongue unintentionally called out Aidan O’Shea’s performance for what is was. Once again the big Mayo man proved his critics right as his lack of appetite to influence the game became more obvious when they needed him most.

Laying the ball off and making no attempt to go and again and break a line or get into a scoring position was a galling to watch in the second half. His missed goal chance on 26 minutes was another big opportunity, but credit to Ronan McNamee for making a superb block. Tommy Conroy missed another. Tyrone had three clear cut goal chances and took two of them. Mayo had four and took none. Do the math.

Once again you could see the unity of purpose within this Tyrone performance. They brought unreal aggression and anarchy to Mayo in and out of possession.

Picking a man of the match on Saturday or settling on a Player of the Year is an onerous task. But perhaps this sums up the collective to Tyrone this year that it’s the sum of all those parts that made them great. Conor Meyler is the epitome of that. Obsessed by making himself and those around him better.

I remember having a casual chat with him just before things locked down in March 2020. He told me how he didn’t want to be just that workhorse who is only renowned for tagging the opposition dangerman, anymore.

He made no bones of the fact that he felt he wasn’t getting the credit for all that unseen work he goes through. He protested that he had much more to offer and wanted to be bringing his game on the front foot to the opposition.

Candidly, he then said to me, that he was going to make himself into ‘Allstar material.’ As much as Meyler was obsessed with winning an All-Ireland, his ‘why’ has always been to be the best version of himself.

Just as he told Paddy Tally, St Mary’s would win the Sigerson that year, he had made a commitment to himself that he would soon become an Allstar. Now he has surely delivered on that promise. He now has to be in with a real shout for Player of the Year, which would top off the perfect season, for the obsessive perfectionist.

You could actually pick another three or four Tyrone men who have been superbly consistent, also in with a good shout. Peter Harte, Kieran McGeary, Paudie Hampsey or Darren McCurry would all be he worthy winners, but for me Meyler might be the man.

Amidst a Covid outbreak and threatening to pull out of the Championship, who would have thought just a month later they would be crowned All-Ireland champions? So, the fight for four is complete and Mayo got killed in the end by a more confident, ruthless Red Hand machine. What an incredible achievement. A huge congratulations to all the players and management.

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