Harte's patient reinvention of Cavanagh yields sweeping change to Tyrone game-plan
Published 18/06/2016 | 02:30
A question came up in the pre-semi-final Tyrone press conference, concerning the future of players like Joe McMahon, given how pace rules in the modern game.
The unspoken implication was clearly that McMahon, who has been chasing fitness all season, might not have what is now termed 'the legs' to play summer football these days.
Mickey Harte grinned to himself before setting out a case for all experienced players. It went beyond a standard defence of a loyal foot soldier and two-time All-Ireland champion to reveal his coaching mind.
"(It) doesn't mean to say that you can't use a bit of guile or a bit of know-how as well," explains Harte. "I wouldn't be too concerned about Joe other than the fact he has missed a lot of training. That is his biggest challenge, not the modern game, but his personal challenge where he can offer his qualities to us."
It's almost forgotten now, but Harte had already devised a plan to prolong McMahon's career when he placed him as sweeper as they made it to the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final. His substitution that day for Ronan McNabb might ultimately have cost them the tie against Mayo.
In the seasons since, McMahon's increased career demands has meant stepping back from the panel during the winter months.
Harte had to go looking for another player to reinvent. It couldn't have worked out any better for both Harte and Colm Cavanagh.
"There are many things about him," begins Harte when asked for an assessment of Cavanagh's ability to play one of the most influential positions in a sport that is evolving like never before.
"He is a very intelligent player. He has a very physical presence. He is not afraid of a bit of rough and tumble if it happens to be presented in his way. Actually he is pacey, he is deceptively speedy. When he picks up the ball he can break at great pace as well and he is a good man to do a job that is asked of him. He doesn't defer or detract from that role, he sticks to the game-plan.
"The main thing is he is good in aerial contest and he reads the game well. There are not too many that have all those attributes and if we had two or three more of them I would love them. But they are not there at the moment."
Cavanagh's reading of the game has gone up a notch since the switch. His ball control was always a work in progress from making his championship debut in 2007, but it is now one of his finest assets. His ability to go from a standing start to top speed while remaining composed is crucial to Tyrone's counter-attacking.
McMahon's non-involvement has proved to be serendipitous as Cavanagh has transformed himself into Sweeper Version 2.0. What this shows is how Harte's talent for coaching endures, but also his patience in players of a certain character.
"I was never one of those that didn't think he was a good player. I felt I discovered that a lot earlier than other people," he says of Cavanagh's early, more awkward years.
"I suppose people might have been looking for another Sean or a player who played exactly like Sean, which isn't realistic. Everybody is their own man, they play their own way and Colm is a very different footballer than Sean, but valuable nonetheless."
To the point that most Tyrone followers would now acknowledge Colm as being more important to the team dynamic than Sean.
If this is the third Tyrone team that Harte has built, they are playing a style of football quite different from the 'full-court-press' of his early seasons. He sees the process as an evolution rather than re-invention.
"There have always been methods of play, teams have always played to the strength of their own players. We've been doing that for years. It mightn't have been as obvious in terms of the structure of your set-up and counter-attack, but that has always been the case," he explains.
"From the days of the early 2000s as well, Brian Dooher was always helping out his defence, Philip Jordan was always going back down the field. That mentality was there, you always had a hub with the midfielder who had defensive capabilities as well."
He continues: "There wasn't as much talk about systems then but essentially it was a system of play. It has just become the currency of the day to talk about systems.
"But there has to be flexibility within any system because if you are a slave to a system then it probably won't work you when you need it most.
"So you have to have the capacity to adapt and change little bits of it here and there and maybe entirely at times."
At one of those numerous Ulster Championship chat nights last week in the Belnaleck club in Fermanagh, Ryan McMenamin made the point to the audience that Harte always told his players if they felt the game wasn't going for them, to make the changes themselves on the field.
They weren't to wait for him or for half-time, he insisted. Pushed on which players were permitted to make the calls, McMenamin insisted it was anybody on the field, young or old.
If that was the benefit of a mature team stacked with vocal leaders in every line, then Tyrone appear to have reached that point again with the present generation, although the ultimate indication will be silverware.
Cavan stand in the way of making their first Ulster final in six years. Quite astonishing when you think of them making two All-Ireland semi-finals in the last three seasons.
Harte is still there, still ambitious as ever.
"I want to say that if we produce our best form then I expect to win the game. That's the challenge for us, can we produce our best form."
Still focused on the process, believing in the outcome.