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No alarm in the red hand ranks

WHERE has it all gone wrong for Tyrone? Three defeats from three, staring relegation directly in its pug-ugly face, a ravenous Cork team coming to Omagh on Saturday -- it's all a little bleak looking, even for this time of year.

Or is it? Isn't Mickey Harte a grandmaster of revitalising his county's charges? Aren't they without a cluster of their most proven and effective performers? And anyway, when did anyone ever jump to such a gloomy conclusion at the start of March?

All legitimate questions of course, but given that most punters fancied them to hit the league at a quicker tempo than that of their rivals, Tyrone's form leaves them with a little explaining to do.


"They're ravaged with injuries at the moment to key players," offers former Tyrone manager, Art McCrory. "You can't afford to take the likes of Seán Cavanagh and Stephen O'Neill out of any team. Not only are they missing, but Brian Dooher is also gone. These are people who will be back and will be available at the business end of the season. We're not unduly panicking in Tyrone."

Which is fair enough, and it must be noted that Tyrone have some previous with early spring inertia but they've tended to be in the years of their All-Ireland title defence and, therefore, easily explainable. Each time though, they've rallied late-season and achieved safety.

A defeat on Saturday and they'll begin to look like relegation fodder, and their opposition -- Cork -- possess not only momentum and form, they have last August's All-Ireland semi-final victory over Tyrone to call on for guidance.

Of all the failed attempts to retain Sam Maguire which have separated their glory years, last year's was, in many Tyrone eyes, the most disappointing. The All-Ireland losses to Mayo and Meath ('04 and '07) were just careless. The low point of Harte's reign -- their '06 exit to Laois -- came at a time when they had more All-Ireland medallists on the treatment table than on the pitch.

But the manner in which a 14-man Cork team kept a near full-strength Tyrone outfit at arms' length last August was -- to some Red Hand observers so accustomed to watching them over-run such teams in that all-action way of theirs -- shocking.

The players were beaten on the pitch; Harte was beaten on the line. It was the definition of a comprehensive victory, even if the five-point margin scarcely reflected the Rebels dominance in its entirety.

"Don't underestimate the turmoil that the Seán Cavanagh incident caused among the squad before the match," says McCrory of the withdrawal of their then Footballer of the Year on the morning of the match. "Everybody knew the Cork match was going to be a huge game and then to lose one of your key players in the circumstances that we did.

"It wasn't as if it was an injury. This flu thing was in the background and probably in a lot of players' heads, and then Seán Cavanagh is out and then he's not out and then he's back out. Just, the heads weren't too good going into that Cork match.

"They did control Tyrone very well last year, though. They laid back on their laurels to a certain extent after establishing an early lead.

"But Tyrone did not play well. And whatever way you analyse the game, you have to take into account the Seán Cavanagh thing, which disrupted the situation for Tyrone.

"Had they not had that, I think Tyrone would have won."


Yet there were signs of erosion of the master class of '08 throughout the year. An Ulster title won with surprising ease did little to test the longevity of some of their stalwarts and, against a monstrous Cork outfit, they were physically exposed.

Conor Gormley, the unshakable linchpin of the Tyrone defence, was replaced. Their engine, Brian Dooher, started to look his age, while the eternal question over whether Brian McGuigan can ever re-scale the heights of 2003 is still being asked.

"Pace, maybe, is starting to catch him out," reckons McCrory of Gormley. "Last week they would have won the game (against Monaghan) but for a mistake from Conor Gormley. Tommy Freeman took a ball off him and put it on the back of the net, though I'm not too sure that there are too many other players who could do that.

"But it's difficult for players like him to get up to that level at this time of year. It's not terribly difficult for them to get up to that level during the summer."

When, though, does the need to actually win a game become the priority? Dublin, for instance, are edging towards a league final on the back of desperately scrappy wins. Conversely, Tyrone are playing some decent football but getting pipped at the whistle.

Harte has stated that staying in Division 1 is not just an aim, it's attainable.

They won't be looking too safe if a fourth successive defeat comes their way on Saturday night, but the importance of spring results in Tyrone is debatable.

"It's important for most teams but I'm not sure it's important for this Tyrone team," reckons McCrory.

"I don't think confidence is going to be a problem with Tyrone.

"They know that when they get everyone together and get focused they're going to be a pretty formidable outfit. The fact is that Tyrone have lost two of the matches by just a point. We've had a look at a number of fringe players. Some of the lads are coming through nicely. Aidan Cassidy has booked his place for the summer. Martin Penrose has really come of age and is one of our key players," he adds. "It's not all doom and gloom."

That said, four losses from four games coming, as they do, after last year's All-Ireland semi-final disappointment will represent the worst run of Harte's tenure and the impatient hordes who were whispering for his resignation in '08 prior to Tyrone's All-Ireland quarter-final explosion against Dublin will have some decent ammunition with which to begin reloading.

"I do think that Cork, the way that they're going, would have to be favourites to beat Tyrone on Saturday," McCrory concedes.

"Having said that, Cork don't travel into Ulster particularly well.

"They never have done. But maybe this present Cork team is a different animal."