GAA Championship, Week Eleven: Tyrone’s Asterisk Year

by | Sep 19, 2021

It is normally satisfying, to neutral observers, when the best competitors win a sporting championship. And Tyrone were the best team in the 2021 All-Ireland Gaelic Football Championship. Especially in Saturday’s five-point win over supposedly cursed opposition Mayo.

And yet, a Covid cloud hangs over their win, an uncertainty as to whether they followed Covid protocols which seems destined to last unless/until the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) asks the same, legitimate, questions of Tyrone that pundits and fans have had for over a month, and should have had answered a month ago.

Nonetheless, Tyrone’s triumph was a remarkable recovery from their 16-point National League semi-final hammering by Kerry in Killarney on 12th June, in which they conceded goals as fast as England’s cricketers were simultaneously losing wickets in a trademark middle-order collapse. After Saturday’s match, Sky Sports pundit Jim McGuinness said 12th June was “probably the day that they won the All-Ireland,” citing his Donegal side’s 11-point, double-scores defeat to Kerry (“we got humiliated”) six months before they won the 2012 title.

And, in pure football terms, Tyrone’s triumph was a delight. Ever since winning their first-ever All-Ireland in 2003, they have had a reputation for squeezing the creativity out of opponents. Especially Kerry in 2003’s semi-final, footage of which should be viewed…never. They had brilliance, too. I said star forward Peter Canavan was a legitimate BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2005, when Tyrone won their second title by beating Kerry, rather more watchably, in the final. This was in response to a Daily Express newspaper article suggesting that ‘smaller’ sports were under-represented in the Beeb’s review.

But after winning their third final in 2008, against Guess-who, the balance between brilliance and brutality gradually shifted to brutality. Mickey Harte was manager throughout and when his reign ended last year, his and Tyrone’s reputation was not unlike Don Revie’s Leeds United, his achievement in keeping them among Gaelic football’s higher echelons overshadowed by the cynicism which misused the talent they had, especially from their younger players.

New management team, 2008 captain Brian Dooher and Feargal Lohan have re-adjusted the brilliance/brutality balance to entertaining and now title-winning effect, with five 2015 All-Ireland under-21 champions, including captain Padraig Hampsey and goalscorer Cathal McShane, playing on Saturday and their 2017 All-Ireland Under-17 champions increasingly populating the subs bench, most notably Darragh Canavan, son of now Sky Sports pundit Peter, or “Son of God” as Tyrone fans would have it.

Meanwhile, if you didn’t know any better, you’d say Mayo WERE cursed. It is 70 years since the tale emerged that Mayo would never win another All-Ireland until all the 1951 title-winners had passed away. Mayo have lost ten subsequent finals, now including six of the ten since 2012. Only six counties have reached more finals since the first final in 1887…and only five since 1951. One survivor remains, 94-year-old Paddy Prendergast, who reportedly believes the curse is a nonsense.

Of course, he would, wouldn’t he? However, in a far more secular Ireland than 1951, the curse story is generally accepted as fanciful. There’s no reports of Prendergast being under armed protection from over-zealous Mayo fans, even as a dark/sick joke. And Mayo’s hard luck stories have almost exclusively featured modern-day Dublin, their ‘curse’ being to be contemporaries of the greatest team ever to play the game. Against Donegal in 2012, Donegal were simply the better team. And there was little accursed on Saturday. Tyrone were simply the better team too.

The game was effectively won and lost in an odd third quarter. There were only three scores. And Mayo held Tyrone to one, having ended an excellent first half two points down. Yet when the teams broke for water, 19 minutes in, the All-Ireland title was Tyrone’s to lose. Mayo’s Tommy Conroy ran at Tyrone’s defence to open the scoring after 14 seconds. And, five minutes after half-time, he ran at it again (one of Mayo’s failings was that he didn’t get enough chances to do that) only to pull his shot horribly wide.

It mightn’t have mattered. Two minutes later, Ryan O’Donoghue horribly pulled a close-in free short and to the left. But it eventually landed so near the danger area that Frank Burns almost had to pick it off the ground, while he was sat on his arse a yard from goal. Penalty. A goal would have put Mayo one-up, which you’d have filed under ‘despite everything,’ given the manner of the match to that point. He hit the post in pushing his shot past on-rushing keeper Niall Morgan. And, yes, you read that right.

Morgan danced two yards off his line, which made a (the?) difference but was ignored by the umpires, whose job at that precise moment was to check that very issue. Also, two Tyrone forwards encroached, across the eye-line of linesman David Gough, 2018’s All-Ireland final referee, whose job at that precise moment was to check that very issue. “Peter Harte was that far ahead of him, he could’ve actually took the penalty himself,” said RTE pundit and not-at-all-bitter Armagh man Oisin McConville, on the “Saturday Game” highlights show. So, what did Gough imagine he was seeing? Maybe the GAA will investigate later…now that it’s too late.

Then, three minutes later, after Mayo pulled a point back and Tyrone’s 2021 supersub McShane entered the fray, Hampsey chucked in a floater to the edge of the square, where McShane had snuck in-between luminous-booted defender Oisin Mullen and keeper Rob Hennelly. And with Hennelly slower off his line than Morgan for the penalty, McShane had time to fist the ball to the net. Sloppy defending. But a skilful finish. From a potential one-point lead to a four-point deficit. A five-point turnaround in five minutes. Mayo’s losing margin.

They had started like…well…Tyrone, going two ahead before Tyrone started to play like Tyrone and hit the next three scores. Then, on 15 minutes, a two-for-one glorious goal offer for Mayo. Brian Walsh received O’Donoghue’s handpass in ludicrous space 13 yards from goal. His shot was blocked by Morgan, on-rushing even quicker than he did for the penalty (no, I’m NOT letting that go). But the loose ball rolled to Conor Loftus, who could have aimed for the half of the goal not covered athletically by a prostrate Niall Sludden but chose to aim for the half with Sludden in front of it, with inevitable results.

Tyrone led by a point at the first water break. But the game had been better than 0-4 to 0-3 suggested, bar floundering Mayo forward Aidan O’Shea, already on the way to a jaw-dropping seventh All-Ireland final without scoring. O’Shea’s woes reminded me of the old quiz question: “What’s taken to the FA Cup final every year but never used?” The answer is the losing team’s ribbons. But the story goes that one fan once answered “Malcolm MacDonald” after the striker’s two Wembley no-shows in the 1970s. For “FA Cup” read “All-Ireland.” For “Malcolm MacDonald” read “Aidan O’Shea.”

In fairness, O’Shea improved, only denied a goal by a brilliant Ronan McNamee block, with Morgan out of his goal. But not as much as Tyrone after the teams entered the last 13 minutes of the half at 0-5 each. Tyrone bagged a brace of points, with the ubiquitous Sludden’s outside-of-the-boot effort a joy (one of Tyrone’s successes what that you could have called many of their players ‘ubiquitous’). And they’d have been five ahead but for Hennelly getting a boot to Darren McCurry’s low drive after a sumptuous ball over the top by the, yes, ubiquitous Morgan, who pointed the resultant 45 in his quest to be a goalkeeping man-of-the-match while barely making a save.

Mayo might have been level at the break, though, when defender Padraig O’Hora’s lung-busting run was ended by Kieran McGeary’s near neck-busting tackle, as O’Hora flew into the penalty area (“*just* outside the square,” Michael Morrow typed in BBC Northern Ireland’s ‘as it happened’ text commentary, mindful of the inches involved and perhaps thinking ‘I’ve seen them given’). Of course, as we would soon discover, a Mayo penalty was no guarantee of a goal. And the incident will forever be a “what if…?”

Mayo recovered from their third quarter traumas, because that’s what they do, to leave the result in nominal doubt until stoppage-time. But their shooting accuracy under pressure was reprehensible. After the water-break, Kevin McLaughlin cut the gap to two when under pressure. But there were bad wides either side of it from Walsh and Loftus, the first-half goal chance butchers. And Tyrone timed their second goal as well as they timed all three semi-final goals against Kerry.

Just as RTE match co-commentator Tomas O Se declared that “Mayo are never gone,” they just about were. Conn Kilpatrick caught another Morgan bomb, off-loaded to Conor McKenna, who timed his pass to perfection, allowing McCurry to palm the ball into the again Hennelly-free net. Ten-and-a-bit seconds from keeper to net. Tyrone were five points clear, with 12 minutes left. And while Mayo reduced the lead to three, because that’s etc…, Tyrone were too good to let them in any closer.

There were probably too many mistakes for the match to be remembered as a classic, despite O Se’s irritating insistence on labelling everything of the remotest note “brilliant” or “huge.”. Mayo, like Cork in the hurling final, intermittently played well. And, though excellent, Tyrone were not like Limerick in the hurling final…how could they be? But the final’s story was slightly better than its actual football.

Thus, the final represented the year. (Yet) again (again), football’s quality and excitement lagged far behind hurling’s. The provincial championships were competitive wastelands, bar Ulster’s (which adds to the on-field justice of Tyrone’s national supremacy). And structural reboots are imperative. Two proposals have been on the proverbial table since July. One reimagines four provinces with eight counties each, and minor fiddling with current formats. The other, eminently more sensible, links league and championship, maintaining provincial championships as stand-alone pre-season affairs.

Both proposals face potential opposition for various reasons, all of them the provincial councils and their money. In researching this piece, I found footage of RTE’s 2008 All-Ireland final coverage, including current pundit Colm O’Rourke referencing “the ultimate demise of the provincial championships.” Yet 13 years on, O’Rourke and the provincial championships are un-demised.

Ultimately, I remain uneasy about 2021’s truncated, then infamously extended, championship. So many more Covid cases in Tyrone than anywhere else. Such great effort to accommodate them in the circumstances. So far, so little effort to discover their responsibility, or not, FOR those circumstances. Tyrone are clearly Ireland’s best inter-county football team, on-field, a fabulous achievement, in their joint-managers’ first season AS joint-managers, three months after Killarney. But whether they deserved the off-field accommodation which saved their season remains unclear.