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Determined Tyrone aim to put bogey side Mayo to the sword once and for all

Tyrone v Mayo, Allianz Football League Division 1: Healy Park, Sunday, 3.00 pm

By Declan Bogue

There are bogey teams, and then there are bogey teams that lord it over you with delight.

If Tyrone have a few of them, most notably Donegal after last weekend, then their dealings with Mayo over the last decade have caused considerable anguish.

It's not that Tyrone are unable to beat the Connact side - they regularly achieve that in the National League - but when it really counts in the Championship, Mayo have had their number for the last two meetings.

On both occasions - the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final and last year's quarter-final - it was Mayo's physical nature that set the house rules. It stings Tyrone that they failed to match that fire.

In 2013, it was an early monstrous hit on Peter Harte by Tom Cunniffe that sent the Errigal Ciaran man into his shell for the rest of the game.

Last year, Lee Keegan took advantage of that utterly bizarre ruling that referees work off that if there is a wrestling match, then both sides are equally culpable, earning Sean Cavanagh his first of two yellow cards from David Gough that day, the second coming 10 minutes from the end.

It's not by accident but by design that Mayo equip themselves in this way.

Asked prior to facing Donegal in the 2015 Ulster Championship if they were the hardest-hitting team in inter-county football, Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney retorted: "No. Definitely not. I would put Kerry and Dublin way above them in terms of physical contact.

"In terms of actual physicality, you are on about bigger men and harder hitters. In fairness, Mayo have stepped up too in the last couple of years in terms of the size of the men they have and the way they hit."

Tomorrow's encounter may not be a Championship match, but for Tyrone it has a one-off Championship feel.

"If we don't beat Mayo, I think we can kiss goodbye to our chances of making a League final, so it is very important that way," said Mickey Harte.

"People can point to recent encounters with Mayo and we don't do particularly well across the spectrum of the games that we have played against them, they have always proved to be a difficult challenge for us. So we have to look at that as well, to see if we can do something about that."

He continued: "We are within touching distance of them, even the days we lost to them, so the challenge is there for us to see if we can get two points from this.

"No doubt, they will fight for them very much as well, because they are in a different position at this point in time, it is mathematically possible for them to be passed out and that is an extra incentive for them.

"It will be a very interesting game for many, many reasons."

Not least, of course, to see if the Cavanagh-Keegan marking job is resumed. Games within games.

Mayo's tendency to try Keegan in the half-forward line is one of those rare periods of brief experiment that the League used to be primarily for, but with League points so precious now, that sort of thing is rare.

Tyrone have been doing a little of it too, mind, with Sean Cavanagh and Mattie Donnelly in a full-forward line. Signs of its success have been hard to detect, especially against Donegal on a wet Ballybofey night.

Asked to put his finger on the exact reason that Mayo have been able to dominate Tyrone in summer football, and Harte admits it's like trying to hold water in your hands.

"I think there is a degree of unpredictability about the way they play the game. They very much play off the cuff at times, I am not saying they are not structured. They have a structure, by all means, every team has that now but they lean more towards playing a very expansive game that fits well for them and that has always been the position," he said.

"You could study Mayo quite a bit and still not be sure how they are going to turn up on any given day and play you , and that is something you have to think about quite a bit when you play them."

In the last year of his current arrangement, Harte knows the importance of progression on a number of fronts. Having already secured the Dr McKenna Cup, a second League title under his watch would be very welcome indeed.

Attitudes to the competition since they won it in his first season have altered beyond recognition. The phrase 'It's only the League' is not uttered by any self-respecting county player or manager any more.

"I remember back in 2003 when we last won the League, a lot of the bigger teams of that era didn't particularly take the League seriously," said Harte.

"The League was to be played for, of course, but when the Championship comes along, we can turn on the Championship button.

"Over the last decade or more, that has not been the case and I suppose it has been the emergence of that mentality that (means) Dublin have won the last four Leagues in a row, and have been very successful in the All-Ireland as well.

"People used to think if you do well in the League, you mightn't necessarily be a big shot in the Championship. But it has turned full circle, it has become very important to be doing well in the League to give yourself a chance of doing well in the Championship."

It may be the tail end of March. But with the buds back on the branches and the hour going forward, it feels like the Championship is just round the corner.

It's time to get serious.

Belfast Telegraph


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