Tuesday 15 October 2019

300 not out: Mickey Harte reaches milestone as Tyrone look to dump Dubs out of Allianz League race

Mickey Harte spoke during the week of the need for opposition to believe that they can beat Dublin. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Mickey Harte spoke during the week of the need for opposition to believe that they can beat Dublin. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Five attempts, two wins, three defeats. It's a higher than usual strike rate by Dublin's opponents, but with two rounds remaining Jim Gavin knows that his side's Allianz League fate remains firmly in their own hands.

Victories tonight against Tyrone and Cavan tomorrow week would, barring wins for Mayo and Galway by improbably large margins in their last two games, leave Dublin in the league final for a seventh successive year, something never previously achieved by any county.

However, if Tyrone beat Dublin and Galway, only Mayo could stop them reaching the final and that would depend on James Horan's men taking at least three points against Kerry and Roscommon.

So while Mickey Harte made no mention of targeting a first league final appearance for six years in interviews this week, he will have done the maths and knows the potential prize for a win in tonight in what will be 300th game as Tyrone manager. It's quite a landmark and what better way to mark it than by beating Dublin in Croke Park.

There isn't much he hasn't experienced in his 17 seasons as Red Hand manager, including some great days against Dublin. However, they all came a long time ago before Gavin's empire-building gathered full momentum.

Dublin lost to Tyrone in the group league game in Gavin's first season (2013), but that was the last time he has had to congratulate Harte after losing a game.

Like the rest of the contenders, Tyrone have been repeatedly smacked down by Dublin, both in Croke Park and Omagh.

It happened three times last year by a combined margin of 14 points, enough to suggest that a significant power swing wasn't going to happen any time soon.

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Still, all three performances were much advanced on Tyrone's awful display in the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final when they humiliated. Harte insists that despite the many setbacks endured against Dublin, Tyrone aren't carrying psychological scars.

"We just try to learn from them (defeats). It's a process of trying to be better than the last time and that's always within people's grasp to do," he said.

As for the two championship defeats by Dublin last year ('Super 8s' and All-Ireland final), he was encouraged by some aspects and believes that "we added value to our performance."

That's a common view shared by other teams who avoided big defeats by Dublin in recent years, but deep down they all know it doesn't mean very much.

The fact remains that since Gavin took over, Dublin have won 10 of the 12 national titles on offer, the 2014 All-Ireland and 2017 league being the only missing links.

It's an unprecedented level of dominance and despite losing two of their first four league games this year, Dublin are back on track.

Still, wins over the Dubs by Monaghan and Kerry offered openings to others, which they failed to take. Galway and Mayo came to Croke Park with high hopes of making big statements, only to find themselves tongue-tied. They lost by a combined total of 19 points and headed back west with lots to think about.

Both would be regarded among the relatively small band who have any chance of unseating Dublin, although they didn't show much evidence on those particular Saturday nights.

In fairness, both were well below full-strength but, at the same time, would have been expected to offer greater resistance. Besides, Dublin weren't dealing from a full hand either.

There were times when both Galway and Mayo looked as if they didn't really believe they could beat Dublin and switched off. Even teams that are primed to the maximum find it difficult to cope with Dublin, but if self-doubt is allowed into the dressing-room, it becomes a hopeless task.

Now, it's Tyrone's turn to take the Croke Park test again, knowing that the eyes of their peers in other counties are very much on them.

Anything that troubles Dublin is in everyone else's interest, so when Monaghan beat them on the opening weekend of the league, it was seen by the rest as the best possible launch to the new season.

The fact that Monaghan have since lost all four games suggests that the win over Dublin was down more to the champions' early-season sluggishness than a sign that something dramatic was on the way.

Merit

The true merit of Kerry's win over Dublin is difficult to assess. It was certainly a good performance by Peter Keane's new-look side, but as shown in all their games so far, they appear to have a fitness advantage over most rivals.

Keane correctly judged that Kerry needed to start well this year. That, in turn, demanded they hit the season with high fitness levels, the benefits of which have been obvious in their five successive wins. It's only when their rivals begin to match them on that front that the real power of the new Kingdom model will be fully tested.

Perhaps significantly too, Kerry beat Dublin in Tralee rather than Croke Park.

Kerry and Tyrone always contend they like playing Dublin in Croke Park, but then they have to hold the line on that one. They would never betray a sign of weakness by conceding that playing at HQ is an advantage for Dublin, even if the facts point to it being very much the case.

Harte spoke during the week of the need for opposition to believe that they can beat Dublin and insisted that was very much the Tyrone approach every time they play them.

However, they haven't managed it in their last eight attempts, which gives tonight's game a sharper edger that would normally be the case for a league clash.

It's a chance to not only break Dublin's dominance over the, but also nudge ahead in the race for a league final place.

Harte began his managerial reign in Tyrone in 2003 by winning the league title in what was a clear statement of intent. A similar success would be hugely important this year, especially if they eliminated Dublin on their way to the final.

There are those who claim that Dublin are focusing solely on the All-Ireland five-in-a-row this year and aren't all that bothered about retaining the league.

Where's the evidence for that? And why should they deviate from a routine which has proven so successful for the Gavin regime? With the Leinster Championship little more than three training spins for Dublin nowadays, Gavin has the luxury of timing their championship training to peak from July on.

Concentration

That's more than three months after the completion of the league, so there's no reason whatsoever why Dublin can't give it their full concentration as they have done for the past six seasons.

At the same time, they should be more vulnerable at this time of year. They return to training later than other squads (Gavin referred to them as 'just getting into pre-season' mode after the win over Galway on February 2) and, in theory at least, are coming up against opposition who should be bursting with determination to beat them.

Tyrone will be very much in that category tonight. After winning the Dr McKenna Cup, they made a surprisingly slow start to the league, scoring the low combined total of 0-17 when losing their first two games to Kerry and Mayo by four and nine points respectively.

They were lucky to draw with Roscommon in Round 3, but have since enjoyed easy wins over Monaghan and Cavan.

Of course, those two are currently filling the relegation places, which has to be taken into account when assessing where Tyrone stand.

They are heading for very different territory tonight against opposition who know how to figure out problems as they arise.

Tyrone experienced that in last year's All-Ireland final when, after running into an early lead, they were pegged back quite quickly.

Harte claims that his side have learned a lot from that experience and also from the Super 8s game in Omagh six weeks earlier.

"It (beating Dublin tonight) would be worth its wait in gold just as a stand-alone result. And if it puts you in a position to go better, then that's another bonus possibility," he said.

It's a bonus that Galway and Mayo could also benefit from as they pursue a place in the league final.

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