Harte faith in tried and trusted facing huge test in Ulster
"Nobody fears Tyrone anymore and we have to take notice of that. Anybody who plays us now expects to beat us"
WHEN Mickey Harte made that post-match pronouncement after Tyrone lost to Donegal, in Omagh, in the second round of this year's Allianz Football League, there were two polar reactions.
Some felt it was just a line from the Tyrone manager's legendary motivational playbook. Others felt Harte had finally verbalised what they'd long suspected -- that his remarkable team had finally run out of road.
They had just lost to two Ulster teams (Derry/Donegal) and the manner of their capitulation to Donegal was shocking; scoring a mere six points, just two from play.
Even allowing for where Tyrone were injury-wise and emotionally (following the unspeakably tragic death of Harte's daughter Michaela), it was a low moment.
Yet they turned it around, winning five league games on the trot and drawing with Meath last time out in Navan to secure fourth place in the Division 2 table.
And now, they are again fancied by many to retain their Ulster title, starting with tomorrow's clash with Monaghan.
If they do, they will certainly be defying Father Time and the popular notion that Gaelic football is now largely a game for the young.
The difference in age profiles between Tyrone and tomorrow's opponents is startling. Monaghan, in deep transition, have six championship debutants. They field a 19-year-old corner-forward (Daniel McKenna), two 20-year-old defenders (Kieran Duffy and Colin Walsh) and another wing-back (Conor Galligan) is just 21.
Tyrone have a 33-year-old corner-back (Ryan McMenamin), three more 30+ defenders and another who is 29.
Meath football has its boxers in a twist wondering if a 38-year-old can still cut it at inter-county level, but Mickey Harte has no qualms about starting Brian Dooher (35) and Brian McGuigan (31) in attack.
Dooher has made only one previous appearance this year, 15 minutes in their penultimate league game against Kildare. And just when he got back fully fit he picked up a suspension in a club match which has left him short of competitive football.
He has reportedly been flying in training and his long period of inactivity will probably have helped conserve his energies, but can the veteran really continue to be the Benjamin Button of Gaelic football?
Harte also persuaded Philip Jordan -- who picked up his fourth All Star last year aged 30 -- to give it one more go when he had all but retired at the end of the league.
His undying faith in his old guard has now become a huge stick with which to beat him and the blows will rain down on Harte if Tyrone fail to do anything this summer.
They begin with eight of the team that started the 2009 All-Ireland semi-final against Cork and that would be 11 if Sean Cavanagh had been fit three years ago and the McMahon boys, Joe (27) and Justin (25), were not injured now.
Justin McMahon's place at full-back goes to Cathal McCarron and their only relatively new name is Carrickmore corner-forward Mark Donnelly, who is making his championship debut at 24.
Only two of Tyrone's recent All-Ireland winning minors -- Aidan Cassidy (2004) and Peter Harte (2008) -- have made the grade.
Harte believes in the maxim of 'finishing a game with your best team,' so he will use his bench liberally, but that too still features relative veterans like Owen Mulligan (29), Kevin Hughes (31) and Colm Cavanagh (25).
With the mileage so many of his players have clocked up and the emotional turmoil they've suffered with the deaths of former team-mates Cormac McAnallen and Paul McGirr, their legendary intensity has inevitably waned.
The heartbreaking loss of Michaela McAreavey once again made football look very trivial this year yet, not for the first time, the game probably also gave many of his team, and their manager, a sanctuary in their desolate hours.
Given their age profile, they have to take the direct route to have any hope of another All-Ireland, but the dates on many of their passports, suggest winning a 14th Ulster title would still be quite an achievement.