It’s August in Croke Park, and once again Mickey Harte is back with a Tyrone team ready for a Quarter-Final tilt after a successful Qualifier run. The success of Tyrone though the back door (29 games played in the Qualifiers, 24 victories) is one of the true dependables of the last fifteen years. This team is different to its predecessors.
Mickey Harte’s record as a manager doesn’t need rehashing here. What is slightly up for debate is the narrative that Harte created Tyrone’s success out of nowhere. It’s undeniable that Harte was the man who coalesced the talent in the county and converted them into champions. However, Tyrone did win an Ulster title in 2001, and from the 2002 team that was beaten by Sligo in the Qualifiers, seven started the following year’s Final against Armagh, and another six on the bench.
Certainly, the move of the late Cormac McAnallen to full back was a master stroke, but ironically Harte’s own work at underage level with Tyrone meant that he, at that time, didn’t have to go hunting for footballers like Kevin Heffernan in Dublin before ’74 or Sean Boylan with Meath before ’87, counties that had spent up on a decade each in the wilderness.
Harte’s achievements most resemble Mick O’Dwyer, as both men harnessed an unbelievable selection of young stallions and rode them to glory. The county was overflowing with young talent, not counting the holdovers from the mid-‘90’s such as Peter Canavan and Brian Dooher that helped the Red Hand men get over the line.
It’s a rare GAA manager that can build two completely different teams to win an All-Ireland with one county. Kevin Heffernan did it in Dublin, with only two hold overs from 1977 taking part in 1983. Sean Boylan did in with Meath, the 1996 All-Ireland champions vastly different from the 1986-’90 team. Mick O’Dwyer couldn’t do it; his Kerry teams of the late ‘80s both beholden to the men who’d won so much and were unable to overcome the Cork team that reached four All-Irelands in a row.
It’s a devilishly difficult task. You need to be both nurturing to those who are coming up and ruthless to those who have the fat lady singing Time To Say Goodbye, as loud as possible, and neither can hear due to age-induced deafness or are wilfully ignoring due to sheer stubbornness.
Harte’s great strength was in creating the type of defensive system that Jim McGuinness took to its logical conclusion with Donegal. The danger of a system is when a manager becomes a slave to it. A system is only as good as the players within it. In recent years, the problem with Tyrone hasn’t been the system, but that the men who were manning it weren’t able to execute it absolutely clinically. The men who drove Tyrone to three All Irelands gradually succumbed to the ravages of time. A new generation of young Tyrone players have taken on the mantle. This year, they’ve been successful. Are they good enough to fill the shoes of their predecessors?
If one takes National League form at face value, the answer would have to be ‘no’. Relegation from Division One with one victory doesn’t scream of a team fit to dine at the top table. This year’s run through the back door was largely unimpressive, beating Limerick, Meath, Tipperary and Sligo along the way. Not the most impressive list of kills. Cecil the Lion they are not.
And yet, the League table was grossly unfair to Tyrone. While they won only one game, they drew another three, against Derry, Dublin and Kerry. Cork only beat them by a point, and the team they gained their sole victory against? Mayo. Tyrone were very, very competitive in Division One this year, and have to be favourites for immediate promotion back up to the big boys.
Whilst you never truly felt that they could beat Donegal in the first round of the Ulster Championship, it still took a superlative effort from Michael Murphy late on to fell the Red Hand men. They aren’t a bad team. Last Saturday against Sligo, they were nearly as comfortable as Mayo had been in their annihilation of the Yeats County. A seven-point margin of victory undersells how well they played in patches.
Players such as Darren McCurry are assuming leadership roles up front. Colm Cavanagh swept up ball with impunity last Saturday. Peter Harte is hugely influential. Sean Cavanagh is Sean Cavanagh. The talent is there. Tyrone have looked good in patches this year. The difficulty has been consistency. If this team can become the remorseless machine of old in terms of application and dedication to the task, week in, week out, that’s a very scary prospect.
So can they beat Monaghan? Certainly. This writer has strong doubts about this Monaghan team as true contenders, but he certainly hopes he is wrong, Lord knows the Championship is crying out for new blood.
One does worry about their ability to get scores if Tyrone go über-defensive and lock down Conor McManus. They only scored three points in the second half of the Ulster final. They kept Donegal scoreless for long stretches, but they themselves only created fifteen shots on target. A near 75% success rate is one that’s hard to sustain on such a low number of opportunities.
If Tyrone can cause them to miss more, and score with more regularity than Donegal managed in the wider spaces of Croke Park, then it may be that Mickey Harte has built Tyrone 2.0, and they may be beginning to fire up.