MICKEY HARTE heads for Belfast tomorrow and the launch of his eighth summer campaign as Tyrone's sideline commander. No matter what happens from here, the history books will enshrine his place among the pantheon of great modern-day managers.
We still haven't reached June and Harte has already exceeded his annual quota for grumbling -- with the Croke Park rule-makers and enforcers firmly fixed in his line of ire. A smokescreen to deflect from Tyrone's manifest league inadequacies? We don't think so -- here is one manager who has never shirked from expressing strong opinions in a forthright manner. Yet there is no escaping the (albeit early-season) conclusion that Tyrone are at a watershed.
There are inevitable questions concerning the team's ageing talismen and how much more they have to offer.
Tomorrow, Brian Dooher will take his battered body into inter-county combat for the first time since last August. Stephen O'Neill will start for the first time since January, hoping that his notorious injury problems are behind him.
Conor Gormley revealed signs of creaking -- last summer and again in spring -- and he's ruled out through injury tomorrow. Likewise there is no Enda McGinley (Mister Ultra-Consistent All Star in '08) to man the midfield.
For all that, only a misguided fool would write off the Red Hands before a ball has been kicked. After all, here is a team that has previously looked on its knees in late July (2005 and 2008) only to rise again to the All-Ireland summit.
For Tyrone to come again, they must relocate that voracious 'swarm defence' work ethic that has served them so well in the past.
During the league -- especially the last day against a rampant Dublin -- it was weird to witness a Harte team looking so defensively porous.
The great irony, of course, is that their only two league victories came against their two most likely challengers for All-Ireland honours -- Cork and Kerry. Yet both those Omagh victories were of the smash-and-grab variety and weren't enough to stave off their surprise relegation.
Tomorrow's opener is a repeat of last year's Ulster final, won on a 1-18 to 0-15 scoreline.
On that occasion, Tyrone exploded out of the traps and spent the rest of the afternoon keeping their brave challengers at arm's length.
This could well prove a more fraught 70 minutes for Tyrone, even though Antrim themselves seemed to lose some of their spring mojo when promotion was followed by a generally ineffectual display against Sligo in the Division Three final. Suffice to say, if O'Neill stays fit and Seán Cavanagh is on form, you can't look beyond the holders.
ODDS: Antrim 10/3, Draw 8/1, Tyrone 3/10
ANTRIM: J Finucane; C Brady, A Douglas, K O'Boyle; T Scullion, J Crozier, S Kelly; A Gallagher, B Herron; T O'Neill, K Niblock, J Loughrey; P Cunningham, M McCann, T McCann.
TYRONE: P McConnell; M Swift, Justin McMahon, D Carlin; D Harte, R McMenaminn, P Jordan; K Hughes, C Cavanagh; B Dooher, S Cavanagh, Joe McMahon; M Penrose, S O'Neill, O Mulligan.