The 2021 All-Ireland Final has an unfamiliar feel to it. For the first time since 2014, Dublin will not be a part of it and no player taking to the field has an All Ireland winner’s medal. The fact there is little between the team makes it hard to predict the outcome; however, it adds to the excitement and overall buzz around the game.

Weeks like these don’t come around too often. Weeks like these with a county riding the emotion, with nearly everyone you meet interested in the match are what you are striving for. Weeks like these with every paper analysing the game and all the radio stations and podcasts debating the talking points. The cliche says that as a player you should enjoy every moment. They tell you to take it all in, savour it all.  In my experience, the way to enjoy an All Ireland final is to block it all out.

This is something that might have to be learned. It takes time and experience to realise that emotion is an enemy. Even the good emotions, even the feelgood stuff, can take you away from what you need to be doing and bring you closer to a world of dreaming, a world of imagining what it would be like to win. Then it’s not far from there to worrying about what it would be like to lose.

When Jim Gavin arrived in Dublin, it was like he’d always been talking about the process and it was something we seemed to embrace straight away.

The way other people talked about it, it was as if Dublin had invented the concept when it was common among lots of sportspeople, common among lots of people.

The Process

Have you ever downloaded a mediation app? Have you ever heard them talking about returning to the breath, focusing on the breath? Well, that’s what we learned to do. If you’re kicking the ball, focus on the kick, not on scoring the point. It’s a practice, though, like mediation is a practice and it is easy to be distracted. And do you know how a meditation app might tell you to let the thoughts pass by like the sound of the cars going by outside? Well, the week of an All Ireland is like trying to meditate on the side of a six-lane motorway with somebody shouting at you. You can focus on the moment, but it takes a lot of practice not to be distracted by the noise.

There is a fanfare around All Ireland finals that can be easy distractions for a player’s preparation. Media engagements, open training sessions and then tickets, tickets, tickets.

There are some more nuanced ones like team selections, injury management and individual players thinking about all-star contenders. Pick up a paper or turn on the radio and you can lose yourself in this speculation. What you learn with experience is that they don’t know the things you know. They are speculating. And if a player lets it get in it can be exhausting.

For my first All Ireland final in 2011, I suppose you could say I savoured every minute of the experience. For my second, I made sure I did the exact opposite.

In 2011, I remember watching a video put out by FM104 which touched on the emotion if Dublin won. I was wrapped up in it all and it affected my performance.

All of this noise can play on individual players’ minds and burn the needed energy for the game, especially players – like those on Tyrone and Mayo – who have yet to experience what it takes to get over the line.

These outside elements may not be significant contributors to an individual’s performance. Still, they are unwelcome distractions layered onto a player’s preparation for a game that players want to bring their best performance.

Emotion can derail the tactical plans and when I look at the two sides, I see a Tyrone side that very seldom succumb to any emotion. Mayo, on the other hand, have often ridden that wave which means it’s harder to anticipate which side will turn up.

Tyrone joint-manager Brian Dooher speaks to his players after the Ulster final against Monaghan held this year at Croke Park. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

But this is a different test for Tyrone as well. Tactically Mayo will be harder to nullify. Tyrone gave a masterclass in zonal press with their defensive structure versus Kerry. Their set-up reverted more to what we would have seen in recent years, and they look comfortable in the set defence with a blend of man markers, zonal press on the ball and a sweeper. Their intelligent management duo has set their team up for the opposition they will face, and I admire this approach.

They will need to make a subtle but significant change to this defensive set-up in preparation for Mayo and that’s the positioning of their sweeper. The threat versus Kerry was in the full-forward line where they didn’t want to leave any defender isolated with David Clifford. This requires the sweeper to sit back in front of the full-back line, cut out primary ball – if needed be a second tackler – and block off goal-scoring opportunities.

Tyrone’s threat

The threat from Mayo is different. It will primarily come from with runners like Matthew Ruane, Lee Keegan, Oisin Mullin and Paddy Durcan creating overlaps and getting themselves or others around them into scoring positions. This requires the sweeper to be adaptable and press the runners closer to the 45 if overlaps are created. Otherwise Mayo will take their scores from inside the 45 and minimise the impact of the sweeper. If Tyrone get this wrong, Mayo will exploit this. If Tyrone get this right, I am struggling to see where the Mayo scores will come from.

Against Dublin, I felt they would miss the free-scoring ability of Cillian O Connor, and I think his absence could be a factor again. Tyrone are a physical side that will give up frees if Mayo run hard and ask questions of the Tyrone man on man defending. Tyrone will have identified that while Rob Hennelly scores from distance were incredibly impressive, they are low percentage options. And while Ryan O’ Donoghue has got better with every game, he missed some easy frees versus Dublin. These are the margins that can swing these tight games.

When we look at the kick-out strategy of both teams, there were contrasting styles in the semi-finals. It was the only flaw in Tyrone’s performance versus Kerry. Kerry played an aggressive press with two banks of four forwards, shutting out the short kick-out options and forcing Niall Morgan long. We can expect a similar press from Mayo. One of Morgan’s go-to kick-outs, which he didn’t deploy versus Kerry, is wide to a halfback or cornerback making a run along the sideline towards the opposition goal. Morgan can kick it to the space to the onrushing runner.

Evan Comerford executed this kick out twice in the first half against Mayo, leading to a quick transition and a score for Dublin. If Morgan can exploit these small pockets between the zonal press of Mayo, it will cause similar problems.

Staying alive

Tyrone cannot relinquish so much possession from their kick out. This is a key area of the game because when Mayo have played to their best this season, it has been built on their high press on oppositions kick-outs. They thrive off this phase of the game, and it gives them energy and momentum. Their primary goal is to win the opposition kick-out, but if they lose it, they don’t surrender, instead they come to life. They continue to press the ball and pin the opposition inside their half. Like Kerry, Mayo have no problem going man-to-man in their full-back line to allow them fully commit to this style of press. We witnessed this against Dublin. But what Mayo do differently to Kerry is they have an insatiable appetite for working back, tackling, disrupting and denying time and space on the ball which, if executed effectively, will make the Tyrone transitions from defence to attack difficult.

On Mayo’s kick out it will be interesting to see if Tyrone concede or if they challenge. If they decide to concede, I think Mayo will have a plan. I don’t think kicking it long for a contest is the answer, however. Rob Hennelly has a go-to kick out to his wing-back positions to a half-forward, midfielder or a wing-back making a lateral run across the pitch. I think this kick out will be a useful asset because Tyrone half forwards or midfielders will have to honour the runs. If Mayo win the kick out, it allows them to transition the ball quicker, and it will disrupt Tyrone’s ability to make their defensive set-up function. If Mayo opt to go short to the full-back, they may fall into the same trap as Kerry and afford the time to Tyrone to get set up.

This game will come down to the fine margins. The tactical areas will prove to be important, but this is a day when teams need to cash in on the preparation they invested in throughout the season. The physical conditioning in the gym, on the pitch and the sharpening of the skills. The hours spent analysing the opposition and the walkthroughs ensuring clarity on their game plan. All of these are important. But, more often than not, the most important area to be prepared for in games like this is psychological preparation.

In 2011, I made a common mistake for inexperienced players who haven’t won an All Ireland final when my focus shifted. This is a danger for Tyrone but I would say it is even more of a threat to Mayo that they can move away from process goals and onto outcome goals.

The outcome is all that matters there and it’s all that has mattered for a long time. 

Looking back I can see the difference in me between 2011 and 2013. For inexperienced players, they start thinking about winning the game and forget about focusing on the performance.

In 2013, I was able to block it out. Mayo have experience in their side but the experience can bring its own pressure too when you have been part of a side that has been so close and has wanted it so badly.

Again, desire is something you can have too much of if you start thinking about winning – and losing.

This can creep into game day, and a team can begin thinking about the future outcome and not staying focused on the present. I found it refreshing, for example, to hear the golfer, Patrick Cantlay refer to this in his post Fed Ex Cup win on Sunday, where he emphasised his focus remained on the present, which was getting his set up right and executing a good strike. He used this technique to prevent him thinking about the potential outcome of winning and the distraction of the €15 million prize.

All high performing athletes crave that game when they are in the zone. To get in the zone you have to stay in the present and you have to focus on your process goals. This mindset is so important for both sets of players this weekend. They need to keep their focus on play by play all the way to the final whistle. In such a tight encounter where it is near impossible to call who will come out on top, there are tiny things that will make the difference.  I feel these were what helped the Dublin teams I was involved with get through many close battles with Mayo.

I feel there is less that can go wrong for this Tyrone side than for Mayo. Tyrone are less likely to be drained, less likely to be aware of the occasion and what it means for every person in the county. I worry that if Mayo haven’t focused their intention on this in their preparation for this weekend, Tyrone may prolong their agonising wait for glory. 

Paul Flynn won six All-Irelands with Dublin and four consecutive All-Stars. He is a former CEO of the Gaelic Players Association