By Alan Rodgers
A VICTORY which within hours was being hailed as being among the greatest ever for Tyrone is now being gradually eased into the background as the countdown begins to their next big challenge.
One point separated the Red Hands from Kerry at the conclusion of 100 minutes of enthralling action at Croke Park. But even as the dust settled on that win, the focus was already switching to the All-Ireland Final against Mayo.
It will, of course, be an historic occasion when the two counties meet in what will be the first Ulster against Connacht clash since 2012 and just the fifth ever featuring teams from the two provinces. Statistics aside, though, the main talking point is on who will capture the Sam Maguire Cup for 2021.
Matthew Donnelly was captain when Tyrone last reached the final just three years ago and he is under no illusions about the decider, or the hard-earned nature of the victory against Kerry at Croke Park.
“The win on Saturday was always going to be hard-earned no matter when it was won, and the disruption of the past few weeks to the build-up as well,” said the Trillick clubman.
“We just circled the wagons and said we’d do as much as we could. We had full belief in the squad, and full belief in the cause from Killarney (in the one-sided National League semi-final in June) and were determined and knew that despite the narrative around the game that it was never going to be as one-sided as predicted.
“Everybody knew that this was going to be a big game for us and we had to take that step. It was a good test and challenge and thankfully we came out on the right side of it.
“This team has matured well, it’s a good stage of the life-cycle and there’s a massive two weeks ahead for us now. The intensity was like the championship in hurling and football this year in terms of how much chaos there has been in matches.
“All we can do is keep the workrate, intensity and honesty of our performance. There’s loads of mistakes and we have to tidy up on that. But it’s good to leave a game like that against Kerry with a lot to work on.”
The contrast between Saturday’s game and that league semi-final in June could hardly have been more stark. Tyrone conceded six goals in Killarney, but bounced back and hit three at Croker while also keeping a clean sheet at the other end.
Much of that will have been down to the sheer commitment displayed throughout the tie, and Mattie Donnelly was quick to praise the efforts of all the players in what will always be rated as a famous victory.
“We were quite prolific in the goal-scoring chances in that I think we took all three of our chances. There was always some unbelievable last-ditch defending as well,” he added.
“I think we were stung by how easy they got the goals in Killarney and the boys made some great reading in the defence. It’s some turnaround from conceding six to none and us scoring three and that massively influenced the game.
“There is no point in having the experience if you can’t relay it and I suppose the younger lads have a lot of football behind them as well. They are very intelligent footballers and that team generally has taken a lot of hard knocks and lessons.
“We 100 per-cent left it behind against Kerry in 2019 and I think this shows the maturity, the fact that the lads have been training together and there’s a better understanding of the game, especially in the key moments when there’s that experience to call upon.”
Now the preparations at the Tyrone GAA Centre in Garvaghey are beginning to gather pace. Mayo, of course, go into the final with seven decades of hurt spurring them on. But, when all is said and done, it’s the actions on the pitch which will count and not past history or the side-shows of punditry.
For most of the Red Hand panel, Saturday September 11 will represent their second All-Ireland senior final and suffice to say that they will be anxious to make the most of the opportunity.
“Mayo are going to be a real battle. If you chat about hard-work, intensity and commitment, those Mayo lads have been the standard-bearers of that side of the game during the past few years.
“They are going to be ravenous and obviously we are going to be raveneous as well. It’s going to take a massive effort for us to be competitive in that and it all makes for a good game.