Colm O'Rourke: Red Hand prospects hinging on Harte's crisis of faith
Published 21/03/2010 | 05:00
With three games to go in the league before clubs get to see their players again, the picture is becoming somewhat clearer. The momentum associated with new managers is evident with Armagh and Down, who will be formidable forces in Ulster this year.
On the other hand, Joe Kernan has found that his new life in Galway is something less than a bed of roses. And if Michael Meehan does not recover quickly, it could get a whole lot worse.
The argument continues then: does a manager make a good team or does a good team make a manager? The diplomatic answer, and probably the right one, is that it is a bit of both, although without a good management set-up, a group of players certainly won't make it -- however talented they may be.
The biggest problem any successful manager has is knowing when to jettison those who may have played a leading role in winning past titles. Mickey Harte is in that position now. He, like every one else in a similar situation, has a loyalty issue. Does he stick with the tried and trusted or is it time for the night of the long knives? Managers sometimes lie awake and wonder about teams that were picked and games that were lost, but there is nothing to compare with the decisions on getting rid of loyal warriors. A successful team is like a family. There are occasional rows but great sides do their housekeeping quietly. Yet nothing prepares a leading player for the time when the manager has to tell him, "thanks for everything but it is over".
To make it worse, most players don't see it coming. They are always the worst judges of their own decline. When the great Kerry team were on their last legs, literally, there was a telling shot of the Kingdom's subs bench in a Munster final which was full of multiple All-Ireland winners. All yearning for one more roar of the crowd. But the train had left the station. It took over a decade for another great side to emerge, but with Tommy Walsh, Darragh ó Sé, Michael McCarthy and others unavailable, Kerry will find it easier to rebuild, bringing in new players like David Moran, Anthony Maher, Kieran O'Leary and David O'Callaghan. With the team playing well and winning, the transition is smoother too.
Contrast that with Tyrone. All the old soldiers are on parade but even allowing for a win over Cork last weekend, there are cracks appearing. On closer examination, that win is not what it appears. There is sometimes a difference between the performance and the result. A really good performance usually gets a win and, vice versa, if you play badly you normally lose. Looking at last Saturday night's game there was a difference in this case between the performance and the result. On the long journey home, Cork must have wondered how they played so well for so long and still got mugged. They can live with that.
The chances are that they will still end up in the league final as they look like the best team in the country just now. A loss like this is a valuable lesson: when on top you have to be ruthless. Cork are not.
All Cork need is the ability to score a couple of goals when controlling a game to turn possession into a rout. Cork had plenty of the ball but left Tyrone hanging on long enough for the dying sting. Old heads never lose the ability to smash and grab.
Yet the dilemma for Mickey Harte remains. Will he whisper in the ear of Ryan McMenamin, Conor Gormley, Owen Mulligan, Ryan Mellon, Davy Harte, Philip Jordan or Kevin Hughes? Men
who have served with him for half a lifetime. Or maybe he thinks that for these men it will be like the bad dress rehearsal that turns out alright on the night and they will still lead the charge.
The greatest test of management is managing change. That is why I find managing at colleges level relatively easy. Change comes every year and there are few really hard decisions. One group leaves school to be replaced by another.
Mickey Harte, who does not go around taking bites out of stone walls, has no such luxury. Soon he has to start a championship match with some or all of Kyle Coney, Niall McKenna, Sean O'Neill, Raymond Mulgrew, Aidan Cassidy and Colm Cavanagh. And there are probably a lot of other successful minors waiting in the wings as well. The present squad may not be old but players age in different ways and footballers don't grow old gracefully. They just get exposed.
So by far the most fascinating study in management this year will be Tyrone. A lot of hungry young players who care nothing for reputations are banging on the door. For Mickey Harte, getting by without Peter Canavan was fairly straightforward compared with deciding the right time to move on some of his greatest servants. And there is no nice way to tell them when that time comes.