Dermot Crowe: Red Hands win back status as serious All-Ireland contenders
'People talk loosely about the 'same-voice' syndrome and all this kind of thing, (that) you've been there too long.' - Mickey Harte, Autumn 2015
One more step, in the form of victory over Cavan at Clones this afternoon, will transport Tyrone back to an Ulster senior football final for the first time in six years. It used to be familiar ground. They'd come to expect it so much you will hear it said that the last presentation of the Anglo-Celt Cup to a Tyrone player in 2010 scarcely raised a roar worthy of the name.
They barely waved it in the air. The cheers were muted. That is the impression of how it was and they know now that were they to beat Cavan and go on to win Ulster this year, the scenes would be infinitely more euphoric and meaningful. Five years as provincial outcasts has been a lesson in humility.
Statistics can conceal as much as they reveal but in 2010 Tyrone were competing in their sixth Ulster final in 10 years, a level of success never previously experienced by the county. Their current absence from an Ulster final is the county's longest since the 1970s. The difference being that Tyrone have reached two All-Ireland semi-finals in the last three years. The difference also, and not least, being that the standard of Ulster football now is well ahead of 40 years ago, with Donegal winning the 2012 All-Ireland and narrowly losing the final two years later.
For Harte, his involvement is sufficiently lengthy to be a point of debate when things don't go entirely to plan. He has been with Tyrone teams in different capacities for 25 years, since becoming hitched to the county minors in 1991, and is the longest-serving senior inter-county football manager in the game. His opinions on 'same-voice' syndrome then are a response to those who might feel his word had started to lose its magic.
Speaking shortly after last year's All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Kerry, to the former Tyrone footballer Noel McGinn for the county GAA blog teamtalkmag.com, Harte refused to accept that his longevity might be hampering Tyrone's prospects. "Why would you have same-voice syndrome? Do you think you're stuck in a time warp or something? I am not stuck in a time warp. I realise now I thought I knew a lot when I started with the Tyrone minors in 1991. And looking back on it, I must have known very little. Because every year I see and learn more."
The performance against Kerry in last year's semi-final gave Harte plenty to be positive about, after the team suffered relegation from Division 1 earlier in the year. Even relegation, as Harte has said, didn't cause them undue alarm. They drew with Dublin, Derry and Kerry, won in Mayo, lost by a point to Cork. The margins were fine. "I said to the players endlessly all year, our performances were not reflected in the points picked up," stated Harte. "If you are relegated hopelessly you would be saying this was a bad place. I don't believe we are a Division 2 team, I believe we are a Division 1 team, even though we have to play our football in Division 2 next year."
True to his beliefs, Tyrone stormed out of Division 2 on the back of an unbeaten run, followed by a strong performance in the Division 2 final when they defeated Cavan. But Ulster, where they shared joint rule with Armagh in the last decade, has become the preserve of Donegal and Monaghan. In four of the last five years Tyrone have lost in Ulster to Donegal, the exception being 2014 when they lost to Monaghan. The qualifiers have given them a valuable lease of life, although two years ago they went out in the second round, losing to Armagh after defeating Louth.
Along the way the team has been evolving, the age profile falling, with a number of prominent retirements. Which is why Harte feels a lot more positive about Tyrone in the wake of an All-Ireland semi-final appearance in 2015 than he would have in 2013, when Mayo defeated them by six points.
Against Kerry, they drew level with seven minutes left and missed chances to go in front. There were also two good goal chances that went unconverted and several decisions which they felt were harsh. But the experience could not be bought. "The good thing is our players will know they are good enough to play at those levels," Harte said, citing the value of three games in Croke Park (the round four qualifier v Sligo and All-Ireland quarter final v Monaghan the other two). In 2014, they didn't play a single match there.
And now expectation and pressure mount. In 2013, people were talking of it being the end of something when they lost an All-Ireland semi-final; last year they were talking about the start of a new adventure. "The 2013 team, maybe it was a bit in bonus land," said Harte, "they were at the pin of their collar nearly to get where they got. I don't think that's the case with this group."
Pascal McConnell was in goal in the 2013 semi-final against Mayo and retired afterwards. Conor Gormley, Stephen O'Neill, Dermot Carlin and Martin Penrose have since retired too. Last year's All-Ireland under 21 win has helped accelerate that process of change. For the last two seasons Harte has also had a new backroom team, with Gavin Devlin and Peter Donnelly playing key roles. Donnelly's work with the team's strength and conditioning programmes is regarded as one of the main benefits change has brought.
"If they can get over Cavan, and secure a provincial title, then the sky is the limit," says McConnell. "Over the last few years Mickey certainly has a lot of ammunition to store, to say to the players, 'Look this is where we are at, this is what they think of us'. He certainly has a track record of bouncing back. Certainly within the county there would have been a lot of flak. The team has been going through transition and I think the transition phase is over now."
Bringing back Donnelly, who had worked in Cavan previously, has helped greatly, McConnell says. "I think it was a major coup getting him on board. I think when you look at some of the development of some of the Tyrone players, lads who were starting out when I retired, Connor McAliskey, Mark Bradley, they have shown evidence of that. And Gavin Devlin has brought that tactical nous which has come to the fore as well.
"Just to see - the freshness - of a player like Cathal McCarron. They look like absolute machines. Darren McCurry, who was a little whippet; now he is after putting on a bit of weight, he is able to shrug off tackles; before this he would have been swallowed up."
Ronan O'Neill's recent form, having played a minimal role last year, is another boost to Tyrone's potential resurgence. "But I think overall Tyrone's strength is their team ethic," says McConnell. I think the work ethic of this team is incredible."
Art McRory shares the general air of optimism following the team. "Mickey has blended a number of players very well, they certainly are playing a team game. If you like, their effectiveness is quite stunning as regards defence. They do have a number of very accurate forwards. They don't really need more than around 35 per cent of the play to win a game. We made strides last year that you would not even have dreamt of at the start of the year. Possibly a lot of this is down to this style of play that has been adopted that other teams find it hard to play against. How teams will adapt this year now that they are fully aware of it remains to be seen."
McRory isn't keen on modern styles and possession-based football and advocates a limit on handpassing to two consecutive transfers as a means of halting what he sees as the game's decline. "It has encouraged a style of football that demands a lot of fitness and a lot of stamina. Now, it is easy to make those demands on teams that are in the upper echelon, where the players see something at the end of the rainbow.
"It is not easy to make those demands on teams that know they are going out in the first or second round of the championship. As a result, players are not prepared to make the sacrifices. That is quite understandable. If the style of football was changed fitness would not be such a priority. You would be back to playing football, not basketball." He can't see Cavan beating Tyrone today, because they don't have the forwards to hurt them and their development, while employing a similar method of play, is not as advanced. McRory admits that Tyrone people have been impatient waiting and that even a manager like Harte, with three All-Ireland wins, isn't immune from criticism.
"If you are a football manager and you are not winning you are up for criticism and Mickey Harte is no different from anybody else. Jim Gavin would get the same. There would have been pressure. Certainly not effective pressure, in that nobody stood up in opposition to him."
Tyrone still find it hard to shake off controversy, with the diving antics of Tiernan McCann casting a shadow over their quarter-final win over Monaghan last year. In the semi-final Pádraig McNulty's claims for a penalty in the closing stages were dismissed by referee Maurice Deegan, who instead gave Kerry a free out and booked the Tyrone player for simulation. It was a point addressed by Harte in his interview last November.
"Well, I think that's no coincidence that that was the first yellow card issued for somebody diving. But even more than that, something to me that was more disturbing, when Aidan McCrory went down in the first half, and Donnchadh Walsh kicked it out of his hands as he was picking it up which is a free right away, number one, (and) secondly he fell over the top of him, I don't think he made a wild effort to miss him, I am not saying he deliberately went over the top of him but he didn't particularly try to get out of his way.
"Aidan was down. Aidan never goes down. Aidan McCrory has never been injured in the times I've been working with him in the last five or six years. Aidan McCrory was down injured. When the physio was in talking to him, the referee came over and said, come on, 'Up ye get, up ye get. No diving here, no diving here.' What a cheek to say (that), and what a liberty to take, to suggest that he was faking or feigning or whatever. Because this is obviously lodged in the sub-conscious.
"He had no business doing that. His business was to let the physio determine whether he was injured or not. And then after that make up his mind."
Noel McGinn, who was part of the Tyrone team beaten in the All-Ireland final by Kerry 30 years ago, sounds a note of warning about Cavan, lest Tyrone be getting ahead of themselves. "I am not in any way being disparaging towards Derry but it told us very little that we didn't already know about Tyrone," he says of their opening Ulster win. "It was the most disappointing Derry team I have seen. Those games are usually hard-hitting, a real cut to them, but there was none of that. Sunday will be a different kettle of fish. I think the four top teams are in the semi-finals and each of the four will fancy their chances of winning."
Back-to-back wins in Ulster, for the first time in six years, is the summit of Tyrone's ambitions for now.
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