Harte's old guard just the trick to halt 'same old' Down
TYRONE may now be just 70 minutes away from their first back-to-back Ulster titles in 14 years but, in these deeply recessionary times, you would hardly be risking the housekeeping on them.
The team who made 'blanket defence' an art-form were shockingly exposed by James McCartan's young Down side in the first quarter at West Belfast on Saturday.
Twenty minutes after throw-in Tyrone were in serious crisis and staring down the barrel of the qualifiers.
Scoring ace Stephen O'Neill had already gone off injured, they trailed 0-8 to 0-4 and 'Big Packie' McConnell had already needed to pull off a save from Benny Coulter.
Manager Mickey Harte has been criticised for not giving more youth its fling this summer but, had he wanted, he could have thumbed his nose at his critics afterwards.
His absolute faith in his veterans was well rewarded as they used, and needed, every ounce of their experience and doggedness to win a bizarre Ulster semi-final which was the quintessential 'game of two halves'.
Tyrone managed to claw their way back into it and lead 0-10 to 0-8 by half-time, and Harte was right when he said that was the winning of it.
He also deserved credit for the tactical switch, after 20 minutes, that turned the game, though some will question why he had Joe McMahon marking Coulter in the first place and had given his usual 'sweeper' role to Peter Harte.
McMahon struggled early on with Coulter's pace but his manager quickly took the right remedial action. Justin McMahon took over that vital man-marking job which released brother Joe to his favoured roaming role.
Within six minutes, Joe McMahon had galloped upfield to score a brilliant point that seemed to kick-start his team-mates out of their stupor.
"Joey's such a good footballer, we needed him further out the field and that point he scored was inspirational," Harte said, likening it to the critical one that Brian Dooher scored in the 2008 All-Ireland final.
As the reigning champions hit six unanswered points before half-time you could see the confidence drain from the Mourne men.
For 20 minutes they emphatically did to Tyrone what Tyrone usually do to everyone else; running at them, retaining possession, chasing in packs and shooting clinically, led brilliantly by returning midfield captain Ambrose Rogers.
But when the Ulster champions came back at them they panicked, lost their shape and never recovered.
Why they fell apart, manager James McCartan couldn't say but he accepted that the gulf between the sides' big-game experience proved critical.
"We put ourselves in a position to put them under pressure and then applied none," he admitted.
"I suppose it'll be the same old same old Down thing (criticism), that we showed a bit of flair in the forwards but when the pressure came on we couldn't cope with it and the game petered out unfortunately."
'Petered out' was a kind description. There were 18 scores in the first half and only six in the second; just two from Down despite taking over the big wind advantage.
And despite the glorious sunshine, the second half was like watching a pair of punch-drunk heavyweights unable to land a glove.
There were only three scores in the opening 28 minutes of the second period -- two for Tyrone and a Down free -- as both sides dropped men back and played ultra-defensively.
Down weren't helped either by the misfiring of Marty Clarke's free-taking.
In the second quarter alone, the returned AFL star missed two frees and a chance from play and Mark Poland, who had started very well, exacerbated that by dropping an easy 25-metre free short also just before half-time.
Down really should have been level, if not two ahead, by the break, not trailing by two.
Afterwards, even when they tried 'route one', they still couldn't find a foothold against such experienced ball-retainers.
Following their eighth point from Daniel Hughes, McCartan's men went a full 46 minutes without scoring from play. You could argue they still had chances, with six second-half wides.
McConnell was also called to make another great save from Hughes in the dying minutes when sub Paul McComiskey screwed the resulting rebound wide, but the game was well over by then.
The reality is that once Tyrone recovered their composure, they simply squeezed the life out of Down like a python suffocating its prey.
It's a fair analogy because, worryingly, Tyrone still seem to lack a killer bite this summer.
Yes, they held Coulter scoreless and Hughes to a point and upped their work-rate when needed but upfront, even allowing for the loss of O'Neill, they weren't at all clinical.
Dooher, as always, led by example, Martin Penrose did well and Brian McGuigan was excellent off the bench but Owen Mulligan and Sean Cavanagh wasted far too much ball and midfielders Colm Cavanagh and Kevin Hughes played second-fiddle to Rogers and Kalum King for far too long.
As Mickey Harte conceded: "If we were an inexperienced team there today, we'd be out of this competition."
Scorers -- Tyrone: M Penrose 0-5 (0-3f), S Cavanagh 0-3 (0-2f), B Dooher 0-2, D Carlin, C Cavanagh, Joe McMahon, O Mulligan 0-1 each. Down: M Clarke 0-3 (0-2f), A Rogers 0-2, M Poland 0-2 (0-1f), D Hughes, D Gordon 0-1 each, P McComiskey 0-1 (0-1f).
Tyrone -- P McConnell 8; M Swift 8, Justin McMahon 8, D Carlin 7; Joe McMahon 7, C Gormley 7, P Jordan 6; C Cavanagh 6, K Hughes 5; B Dooher 8, S Cavanagh 7, P Harte 6; M Penrose 9, Stephen O'Neill, O Mulligan 7. Subs:- B McGuigan 9 for O'Neill (inj, 14), Sean O'Neill 6 for Swift (42), T McGuigan 6 for P Harte (64), R Mellon for Dooher (69), C McCullagh for Mulligan (71).
Down -- B McVeigh 7; D Rafferty 7, B McArdle 5, D Rooney 6; K McKernan 6, C Garvey 6, J Colgan 5; A Rogers 8, K King 6; D Hughes 6, M Poland 7, M Clarke 6; C Maginn 5, D Gordon 7, B Coulter 7. Subs: P McComiskey 7 for Poland (half-time), D O'Hagan 6 for Garvey (54), P Fitzpatrick 6 for King (60), J Brown for Maginn (68).
Ref -- G O Conamha (Galway).