Harte facing biggest test to put punch back into Red Hand
Crunch time as relaunched Tyrone bid to prove they can match big boys' firepower
Tyrone's defeat by Mayo in last year's All-Ireland semi-final left Mickey Harte ankle-deep in frustration.
The game had turned on Alan Freeman's goal from the penalty spot early in the second half on a day where Tyrone's durability was presenting Mayo with a completely different challenge to anything they had experienced in their breeze through the Connacht championship, followed by an All-Ireland quarter-final where Donegal imploded.
The penalty should never have been awarded. It was borderline whether Dermot Carlin even fouled Colm Boyle but, if he did, it was outside the square. Referee Maurice Deegan adjudged otherwise and Freeman fired in a goal which set Mayo on their way.
"The referee does what he does and he makes decisions in real time," said Harte afterwards with the air of a man who accepted the futility of raging against officials. It was equally pointless to challenge the gods on why they chose to rob Tyrone of such important influences as Peter Harte and Stephen O'Neill after six and 26 minutes respectively.
Strike out the dubious penalty, leave Harte and O'Neill in the action for the full game and consider how differently the day might have run.
Harte articulated his frustration in general terms, pointing out that a combination of small but crucial breaks, as opposed to a total systems failure, had proved decisive.
"It's different to a couple of years ago when we played Dublin (2011 All-Ireland quarter-final) and you were deflated because you just knew that you were beaten by a side that was much superior. You just have to hold your hand up like that sometimes. Sitting here today, you have regrets because you know that if a couple of big calls or breaks had gone our way, we could have come out of here winning this game," he said.
August evenings in Croke Park are a lonely environment for beaten teams – the following season is so far in the distance as to be virtually invisible, while all that remains are regrets and disappointments.
Almost nine months on from the semi-final setback, Harte takes Tyrone on a new championship adventure in much-changed circumstances. Only eight – Ciarán McGinley, Peter Harte, Conor Clarke, Colm and Seán Cavanagh, Matthew Donnelly, Darren McCurry and Kyle Coney – of the 20 who played against Mayo last August start tomorrow.
That's quite a turnover and suggests that this is another new beginning for Harte as he leads Tyrone into the championship for a 12th season.
Loyalty to players who win All-Ireland titles is an understandable trait among managers, especially when the challengers aren't sufficiently assertive to displace the older guard. It was an issue in Tyrone post-2008 but as the bright lights of the third All-Ireland win receded ever further in the rear view mirror, a key question arose: was the emerging talent up to the task of replacing the high-achievers whose race was run?
Seán Cavanagh will be the only starter tomorrow from the 2008 All-Ireland line-up, so it's almost as if Harte is back where he started in 2003, trying to build a squad that can challenge for major honours.
Harte and Joe Kernan were the trend-setters back then, structuring their teams in a specific way. They trusted their systems implicitly and while they drew some unfair criticism from around the country, it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that jealousy lay at the heart of the objections to the full-on style used by Tyrone and Armagh.
Kernan departed Armagh at the end of 2007, by which stage Tyrone were in between their second ('05) and third ('08) All-Ireland titles. Kerry were also racking up All-Ireland titles but since they had been doing that throughout championship history, it was taken for granted.
Counties that were trying to make the breakthrough didn't look to Kerry for inspiration because they felt they were in totally different orbits. Not so with Tyrone, who had built an empire from scratch, setting an example which others believed they could follow.
It's six years since Tyrone's last All-Ireland triumph, a period which has seen much change, especially over the last three seasons. Donegal, complete with their new, if controversial approach, enjoyed a glory period and now Dublin are the market leaders.
As for Tyrone, they have presented Harte with possibly his biggest test of his managerial career. He inherited an excellent squad in 2003 and with the talent carousel carrying lots of emerging talent onto the senior scene, they were well placed for a powerful surge over subsequent seasons.
First though, they had to break the psychological barrier facing all counties who haven't won an All-Ireland title, a challenge which Harte enthusiastically embraced. Having done that, the next task was to build stability, which he did most successfully. It delivered two more All-Ireland titles.
The next few years were mixed but with the memory of three All-Ireland wins in six seasons still fresh in Tyrone minds, there was always a belief that further glory could arrive at any time. It didn't.
More worrying still, Donegal supplanted Tyrone as Ulster's dominant force. As if to rub it in, Jim McGuinness masterminded three successive wins over Tyrone in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
That would have hurt Harte deeply. After all, it wasn't that Donegal was bristling with new talent. Essentially, it was most of the same squad that had failed pre-2011 but once they started doing things differently under McGuinness, they prospered in a manner nobody could have foreseen.
Tyrone couldn't quicken to Donegal's pace; nor could they exploit the back door in the manner which brought them All-Ireland titles in '05 and '08. Cork, Dublin and Mayo all moved ahead of Tyrone, beating them in Croke Park in All-Ireland quarter/semi-finals in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013.
Indeed, Tyrone failed to score a single goal against Dublin (twice), Cork and Mayo in August showdowns in Croke Park. That too would have bothered Harte.
Preventing goals was one of the cornerstones of his philosophy when he first took over, pointing out that "teams might get a big points score but goals really nail you."
If keeping clean sheets is so important to him, it stands to reason that he would not be happy to see the opposition defence unbreached.
Tyrone go into this year's championship as fifth All-Ireland favourites behind Dublin, Cork, Mayo and Kerry, which is a broadly similar ranking to the last few seasons. They do with a much-changed team from last year, with Harte trusting his instincts as he undertakes another relaunch.
In many ways, he is facing the biggest test of his managerial career. The Tyrone public always rely on him to devise something innovative, especially after a period when the team has been quite predictable, while the wider GAA world looks on curiously to see what he next comes up with.
Cork (2009), Dublin (2010 and 2011), Donegal (2011, 2012 and 2013), Kerry (2012) and Mayo (2013) have all beaten Tyrone in the championship over the last five years, proof that the Red Hand no longer packed the hard punch which floored so much opposition from 2003-08.
Restoring it will have occupied most of Harte's energies over recent months. The first fruits of that labour will emerge tomorrow at the start of a summer which could define Tyrone for quite some time to come.