Declan Bogue: 'Tyrone still trying to find the right balance after reversion to counter-attacking style'
Defeat to Donegal saw Mickey Harte revert to his old ways, writes Declan Bogue. But will that be good enough against the big guns?
It wasn't until the dying days of February that Tyrone finally steadied themselves up for 2019.
Monaghan made the short trip to Omagh for the fourth round of the National League. Tyrone had lost their two opening games and but for some rash indiscipline from Roscommon, would have been beaten in the third - a game they eventually drew.
Cathal McShane was in his second game as an out and out full-forward, offering himself, attracting fouls and kicking a few frees.
Behind the scenes, things were disjointed. The team holiday to Thailand had some players reporting privately that it had set them back six weeks in their physical preparation when they tested their times and targets.
Their first game produced a dreadful tally of 0-7 away to Kerry. Only Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte scoring a single point from play.
A home tie with Mayo brought a 2-13 to 0-10 stuffing.
Peter Harte mustered two points from play, Lee Brennan and Conan Grugan chipped in with one apiece, along with goalkeeper Niall Morgan.
Against Roscommon, McShane found the net, but again their attack was blunt - full-back Ronan McNamee, goalkeeper Morgan and Darren McCurry got a point each.
For some reason against Monaghan, it clicked. Eight Tyrone players scored as they won 1-16 to 0-12. McShane was at full-forward but at various stages Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly drifted inside in support.
It wasn't so much a shift in philosophy, but a tweak. Exactly the kind of thing Stephen O'Neill was supposed to bring after his appointment in what is loosely referred to as 'forwards coach'.
"For Stevie to feel as if he is having an impact, they had to try to be more offensive," says O'Neill's playmaker-in-chief from their time together, Brian McGuigan.
"I was behind the goal for a league game there watching Cathal McShane at full-forward and I have to say, his movement is unreal. He is relentless in his movement."
Having the offensive mark rule in place during the league was a help. They retained the method to beat Cavan, Dublin and Galway in an irresistible finish to the league.
Derry and Antrim were taken care of in Ulster, but the wheels came off against Donegal in the Ulster semi-final.
As Peter Harte was black carded, Mattie Donnelly spent most of the match inside. Donegal put up a huge defensive screen with midfielder Hugh McFadden lying deep to cut out the high ball into McShane.
While Niall Morgan failed to find a Tyrone man from his first six restarts, Donegal goalkeeper Shaun Patton was immense with 23 of his 24 kick-outs successful.
That statistic caused consternation for Tyrone manager Mickey Harte who, on returning to training the night after the defeat, informed the players they would be going back to a counter-attacking style. Some felt that the strategy was sound but the effort was lacking in terms of pushing up properly on Patton's restarts. But there is only one vote that matters in Tyrone.
What's the difference in this edition from the 2018 side that reached the All-Ireland final? McShane has been a direct swap with the much smaller Mark Bradley.
It is an upgrade of sorts, believes McGuigan. "Cathal is making wee five and ten-yard runs, he is not getting it, he is back in and making another.
"Whereas Mark was making a run of 30 yards and keeping going. And by the time he got it, sure he was on the sideline.
"You look at the Tyrone team yourself and you think they have to play two up. They really are only playing Cathal McShane up front. He is the only one playing in the full-forward line.
"I'm thinking, 'right, that's a start, Cathal McShane there, great movement. What he needs now is a Mark Bradley or a Ronan O'Neill beside him'. But they are getting away with it, with not having one of them.
"I know Darren McCurry is playing, but he is not really playing up there with him. That last day against Cavan he was linking play, getting on the end of balls and scored a few points. But he is not playing with Cathal McShane up there and linking with him. Cathal is up there on his own and he is doing an enormous amount of work.
"My problem would be that when you come up against the better teams and they nullify Cathal McShane, what are they going to do?
"You talk about last year. Mark Bradley was crying out for Cathal McShane to be up with him. Now he is there, and Mark Bradley is not there."
So far, the cautious approach was enough to get over Longford, Kildare, Cavan and Roscommon. Mattie Donnelly's role has reverted to being a middle-eight player. Against Roscommon he had 38 possessions, kicking two points in the second half.
It seems certain it will be enough to see off Cork in Croke Park this evening.
But is it enough to win it all? "I believe that question is yet to be answered," concludes McGuigan.