Friday 24 May 2019

Make or break for sideline stalwarts

Hold The Back Page

Malachy O’Rourke and Mickey Harte have both had to regroup after setbacks earlier this summer and today their teams go head-to-head, with a place in the All-Ireland final on the line. Photo: Sportsfile
Malachy O’Rourke and Mickey Harte have both had to regroup after setbacks earlier this summer and today their teams go head-to-head, with a place in the All-Ireland final on the line. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

One way of looking at today's semi-final between Tyrone and Monaghan is as a play-off for Gaelic football's Manager of the Year title. To get this far, both Mickey Harte and Malachy O'Rourke have had to recover from morale-sapping defeats, overcome the odds away from home in the Super 8, defy harsh criticism which questioned their whole footballing philosophy and make extremely judicious use of the players available to them. Making it to the semis under these circumstances has been a fine achievement. Reaching the final would be a remarkable one.

At this stage last year everything looked pretty rosy for Harte. The veteran manager appeared to have finally built a Tyrone side with a chance of emulating his great team of the noughties. They arrived in the semi-final with an average winning margin of almost 12 points per game. Tyrone might not have been fancied to beat Dublin but they were expected to provide the All-Ireland champions with a rigorous examination

Seventy minutes later, it all laid in ruins. Tyrone had been outclassed to an extent not fully reflected in their 12-point margin of defeat. They might have taken some consolation from the post-match consensus that Dublin had just taken Gaelic football to a new level. But the narrowness of Mayo's defeat in the final made Tyrone's performance look shabbier still.

Worst of all for Harte was that Dublin had made his game plan, based on blanket defence and swift counter attack, look absurdly old-fashioned. He'd also been slow to react when a flurry of early Dublin scores rendered Tyrone's safety-first strategy entirely redundant. Tyrone's most successful manager was portrayed as a man out of time who was hindering rather than helping the development of his team and living off the memory of past glories.

When Tyrone began the 2018 championship by losing at home to Monaghan, the criticism grew louder still. A fortunate extra-time qualifier victory over Meath did little to silence the doubters. Then Tyrone began to gather momentum. Cork were dismissed by 16 points and Roscommon by 18 before Tyrone gave Dublin the kind of test they'd been expected to in last year's semi-final.

Donegal were still fancied to knock Tyrone out seven days ago. Playing at a ground where they hadn't won a championship game since 1973, the visitors found themselves three points down at half-time after gifting a goal to Michael Murphy. Tyrone didn't just come through, they did so with a confidence epitomised when, instead of playing keep-ball, they went the length of the field in injury-time for a Declan McClure goal which put seven points between the teams.

There was a remorselessness about that second-half performance which brought to mind the 2008 campaign that also began with a defeat in Ulster and halting qualifier performances before ending with an All-Ireland victory. It suggested that for competitive rigour, calmness of nerve and physical fitness, Tyrone may be second only to Dublin at the moment.

Mickey Harte deserves credit for that but he's not getting much. He never has. Even the great Tyrone teams were largely portrayed as barbarians rending asunder the sacred fabric of the game when they actually played immensely attractive football most of the time. The 2005 attack containing Canavan, O'Neill, Mulligan and McGuigan was as good a forward unit as any since the heyday of O'Dwyer's Kerry. The final they won against the Kingdom that year was probably the outstanding decider of modern times.

How could anyone begrudge Mickey Harte more success with Tyrone? Here is a man who lost a beloved daughter in the most horrible circumstances and must have endured a level of emotional pain few of us will ever experience. The effort required to keep soldiering on has to be immense. It's remarkable that, at a time when showy displays of sympathy are all the rage in the GAA and elsewhere, Harte has been the subject of as much opprobrium as understanding. For some people, his religious conservatism makes him a bete noir to be mocked whenever possible.

My views on social issues are very different from Harte's but the man has every right to stand up for what he believes in. He did so, after all, when carrying the coffin of murdered PSNI officer Ronan Kerr seven years ago in one of the most powerful gestures ever made by a GAA manager. When Harte finally does leave the stage, football will be poorer for his absence.

Malachy O'Rourke has received plenty of praise for his achievements with Monaghan. But some of the county's followers think it's the wrong kind of praise. They find it condescending that Monaghan are forever praised for punching above their weight with mention of the county's small population never far away.

But at a time when Cork invoke their dual status as an excuse for dire football displays and everyone bemoans Dublin's numerical advantage, it is genuinely remarkable to see the fourth least populous county proving that demography is not destiny.

Monaghan under O'Rourke emerged as a power with their upset victory over Donegal in the 2013 Ulster final, but their subsequent All-Ireland quarter-final defeat by Tyrone seemed to set a pattern. There was another Ulster championship two years later and another loss to Tyrone in the last eight. In 2015 and 2017 they also made the quarters before being heavily defeated by Dublin.

The impression was of a good team which lacked the quality to challenge for honours. This year's victory in Omagh suggested Monaghan might have moved up a notch, but the Ulster semi-final loss to Fermanagh led to many people dismissing the team altogether. Taking the gap between ability and performance into account, it may have been the most disappointing display by any team this year. When Donegal exposed Fermanagh's shortcomings in the final, it became clear just how badly Monaghan had played.

Yet the Fermanagh loss has in many ways been the making of them. The constipation and timidity evident that day has been replaced by a more adventurous outlook. Monaghan's performance against Kerry in Clones was probably the best in this year's championship. That's if you exclude the last five minutes when the underdogs threw away an historic victory. Having picked the team up off the floor after the Ulster semi-final, O'Rourke now had to revive them again.

Like Tyrone, Monaghan went into last weekend's final round of Super 8 games as outsiders. Yet it was evident from early on that they would score a famous victory in Pearse Stadium. Galway's pedantic systems football was no match for the drive and energy of the visitors.

To a certain extent, Monaghan have taken over the mantle of rescuers of the championship from Mayo. Their game with Kerry almost justified the Super 8 on its own. The on-pitch celebrations after the win in Galway were stirring old-school stuff. Were Monaghan to reach a first All-Ireland final in 88 years today, it would give the football championship the kind of emotional punch it's lacked this year. O'Rourke would make the jump from football's most underrated manager to national sporting figure. We'd all start claiming connections in Castleblayney, Clontibret and Carrickmacross.

Though both managers have enhanced their reputation this year, today's semi-final is still something of a make-or-break game for them. Tyrone are favourites and after two losing semis in the last three years another failure would be very hard to swallow. The journey Monaghan began in Clones five years ago seems to have been leading towards today. This is their big chance to make the final. Today's losers will find it hard to regroup.

That's another reason why this is the most intriguing clash of the championship so far, by some distance. There will be no shortage of excellent players on show. Monaghan can boast the best goalkeeper (Rory Beggan), defender (Karl O'Connell) and forward (Conor McManus) of the championship. For Tyrone, Mattie Donnelly, Colm Cavanagh, Tiernan McCann, Frank Burns and Niall Sludden have looked worthy heirs to the stars of a decade ago.

Yet it's hard not to think that the decisive battle will be that between two of the craftiest managers in the game. This year nobody has used the bench to such telling effect as Harte. O'Rourke has been unmatched in getting the most out of his players. Both men richly deserve a crack at the biggest game of all.

Whoever wins, you'd have to be delighted for them. How often can you say that about a big match?

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