Who will blink first in clash of qualifier kingpins?
Harte and McGeeney put back-door records and long-terms plans on line in Newbridge
SOMETHING has to give when the two managers with the highest strike-rate in the All-Ireland football qualifiers go head-to-head in Newbridge on Saturday evening.
It's a season-defining occasion for Tyrone and Kildare and also holds a deep personal significance for rival bosses Mickey Harte and Kieran McGeeney.
Harte holds the distinction of being the highest managerial achiever via the back door route, having taken Tyrone to All-Ireland glory in 2005 and 2008 and presided over 14 qualifier victories. It puts him ahead of Kerry's Jack O'Connor (two All-Irelands and seven qualifier wins).
However, in terms of qualifier victories, neither can match McGeeney, who has led Kildare to an unbeaten run of 17 games in the period 2008-2013. The only slight blemish was a draw after extra-time with Antrim in Newbridge in 2010, which was put right with a nine-point win in Casement Park a week later.
Harte has also been in charge of Tyrone for 17 qualifier games, winning 14, drawing one (v Louth 2006) and losing two (v Laois 2006 and Kerry 2012).
Kildare's qualifier record under McGeeney is in marked contrast to their dismal return over the previous seven seasons, when they won just twice, beating Donegal in 2001 and Cavan in 2006. All changed under McGeeney, with the Lilywhites learning to enthusiastically embrace the second chance.
Now, the scene is set for a Harte v McGeeney showdown, a decade after it began as manager v player, when the former led Tyrone into the 2003 All-Ireland final against an Armagh team captained by McGeeney.
Armagh were defending champions but lost by three points to a Tyrone team that launched the county into its most successful era in championship history.
In 2005, Tyrone thwarted Armagh again in the All-Ireland semi-final and, while McGeeney extended his lengthy career for a further two years, the glory days were well and truly over for the Orchard men.
McGeeney went straight into management with Kildare at the end of 2007 and while no championship titles have come their way since then, they reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals for each of the last five seasons, a feat matched only by Cork, Dublin and Kerry.
However, Kildare lost four of the five quarter-finals, leaving them as a consistent top-eight side that has been good enough to push into the top four only once (2010). That has fuelled impatience among supporters, who have questioned whether McGeeney is the right man to continue the drive towards the next level.
Alternatively, there is a view that he has done an excellent job in steering them to the top eight on such a consistent basis and that it represents the limit of their capabilities.
It would be easier to sell what looks like a reasonable argument if Kildare did better in the Leinster championship under McGeeney. Coming second to Dublin, the dominant force in the province, for all but one of the last nine championships might be accepted, however reluctantly, in Lilywhite land, but the facts show that Kildare have also lost to Wicklow, Louth and Meath in the McGeeney years.
The latest Leinster defeat – a 16-point trimming by Dublin in the Leinster semi-final – went down badly in Kildare, piling the pressure back on McGeeney to mastermind another salvage operation through the qualifiers.
It started well against Louth but as Kildare supporters listened to the Round 3 draw on RTE radio on Monday morning, the last opposition they wanted was Tyrone, although getting home advantage was a plus.
Kildare would have been Tyrone's last choice of opponents too, even if the Red Hands beat the Lilies twice in this year's National League, one a very easy win in Newbridge in March. Nonetheless, Harte knows that the intensely partisan atmosphere that the Kildare support will generate in St Conleth's Park must be worth a few points to the team.
Nor will he need reminding of a somewhat similar situation in 2006, when Tyrone drew Laois in a qualifier tie in Portlaoise. As with Kildare this year, Laois were coming off a big defeat by Dublin in the Leinster semi-final but they managed to put it behind them to beat Tyrone by three points. Mick O'Dwyer, who was managing Laois, later acknowledged that the big home support played a crucial role in creating an atmosphere which inspired the players.
While McGeeney's future with Kildare will be up for discussion if they lose on Saturday, Harte is guaranteed to be in charge of Tyrone until at least 2015, following an extension last year of an arrangement which has been in place since late 2002.
However, dropping out of the championship in mid-July for a second successive year would be a major setback to the rebuilding programme Harte is undertaking.
It went very well in the league but with the behemoths of Donegal awaiting them in the first round of the Ulster championship, the qualifiers were always likely to be the more fertile ground to prolong their All-Ireland adventure.
They would have hoped for a more accommodating third-round game than a meeting with the only other Division 1 team but they will be encouraged by the manner in which they overwhelmed Kildare in their league clash in Newbridge.
For McGeeney, who has led Kildare successfully through Round 3 for the past five seasons, it's a test which could have a big bearing on whether he extends his tenure into a seventh season next year.
A qualifier success – how the records compare
The details below show how this weekend's Round 3 counties have fared in the qualifiers over 13 seasons. Figures do not include All-Ireland quarter/semi-final/final results where counties reached the last eight through the back door.
County P W D L Per cent success
Tyrone 21 17 1 3 83
Kildare 26 18 1 7 71
Derry 29 20 0 9 69
Laois 23 15 0 8 65
Armagh 18 11 1 6 64
Galway 13 6 0 7 46
Wexford 20 7 2 11 40
Cavan 19 6 1 12 34