Wednesday 13 December 2017

Surprises kept to a minimum for Tyrone


'As you think, so shall you be.'

IT WAS standing room only in Kelly's Inn in Garvaghey on Thursday night.

About 250 members of Club Tyrone, the county's fundraising arm, were present and being ferried up and down by bus to the site of the county's multi-million pound training centre development.

As is traditional, Mickey Harte popped over straight from training and revealed to them his starting 15 to face Antrim.

The big surprise was that there wasn't any. Question marks have hung over the Master of Reinvention and the GAA's 'Mr Motivator' all season.

Harte may have led Tyrone to three All-Ireland senior titles since 2003 but, on foot of a disastrous league campaign, where they suffered relegation for the first time in over a decade, the naysayers have been asking hard questions.

Would Harte stay loyal to those who have soldiered in the trenches with him from the 1998 All-Ireland minor winners or would he opt for new blood?

They got their answer.

After using 34 players during the league he picked 11 of the team that started against Cork in last year's All-Ireland semi-final. Sean Cavanagh would have started that game if he hadn't, surprisingly, declared himself not ready. If Conor Gormley wasn't injured he too would start so Harte has, essentially, gone for 13 of his old guard.

The only one of the county's 2004 All-Ireland winning minors to start is Colm Cavanagh, though midfielder Aidan Cassidy, one of their few stand-outs during the league, is only out through injury.

Tommy McGuigan started at corner-forward in all but one of their league games, was Tyrone's second highest scorer on 1-24 (19f), yet still doesn't start. Corner-back Martin Swift is the only significant newcomer.

During the league, four of their 2008 All-Ireland winning minors -- Kyle Coney, Peter Harte, Ronan McNabb and Niall McKenna were tried. Coney saw most game-time, starting four games, but none start tomorrow.

Sticking with his tried and tested may yet be Harte's greatest gamble in his 20th year managing county teams.

During that league it was clear that even his great veterans were not tracking back and putting in the same effort that their manager's football philosophy and tactics usually demand.

Were Tyrone deliberately not trying?

With so much mileage on the clocks, was Harte lightening up to allow them re-charge the batteries for the summer?

That seems unlikely to anyone who has read either of Harte's two recent books in which he repeatedly declares that he hates losing any game and hates conceding goals.

Since he took over in 2003 the most league goals Tyrone ever conceded were six. In 2003 and 2008, two of their All-Ireland winning seasons, they conceded just two. Yet in this year's NFL they conceded seven. Whatever truth there is in the theory that Tyrone sacrificed the league to experiment and reinvent, the reality is that, personnel-wise, Harte has gone back to his old reliables.


After several critical outbursts during the league he has been unusually quiet in the build-up to this rematch of last year's Ulster final but that's no surprise as Tyrone weren't involved in the late stages of the league.

Their long-time sponsors Rocwell were replaced recently by Target Express.

New sponsors so late in the season meant they actually launched a new jersey last Monday yet that barely raised a whisper. Harte has faced crises before with this team, most noticeably at the end of 2006 and especially 2007, after the Ulster champions had lost an All-Ireland quarter-final to Meath.

Back then he brought in a performance coach to improve communications with the players and a new strength and conditioning coach to work alongside trainer Fergal McCann and, by year's end, they were champions again. In his biography Harte said he wasn't happy with their set-plays last season and that their kick-out strategies, over the years "have returned mixed results".

He indicated players would be given more detailed feedback on their performances and specific roles. 'Accountability' would be their motto this season.

He suggested they needed to focus more on set plays in training, even if it wasn't as enjoyable. "Tending the mechanics of your game is never as fun as pressing on the accelerator and hearing the engine roar," he noted.

He has always had a talent for pulling rabbits out of the hat; turning the late Cormac McAnallen into a full-back, Sean Cavanagh into a full-forward, starting, taking off then reintroducing 'Peter The Great' in two All-Ireland finals.

That bag also includes a huge armoury of motivational tricks.

To break stereotypes Harte taught his players to sing a word-perfect Amhran na bhFiann. They change their jerseys at half-time because every second half is 'a new game'.

They travel with a new philosophy every summer which is often stitched into their jerseys. In 2003 it was a circle with a T in the middle. After their first All-Ireland win their motto became 'Once is Never Enough'.

Their brand new retro-style jersey is likely to have this year's philosophy hidden on it somewhere.

But most telling of all in Harte's biography was the revelation that his own football philosophy is guided by seven words from a famous self-help advocate: 'As you think, so shall you be'.

Only the next few months will reveal whether or not Tyrone are still a force but they will definitely see tomorrow as the start of another season and will attack it like tigers.

Irish Independent

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