Harte laments key scores before breaking dignified salute to victors

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte

Vincent Hogan

Mickey Harte sits with that thin, inscrutable smile, reminding us of the perpetual grace that gets lost in the graffiti of stereotype.

No man loses a game of football better than the Tyrone manager. He is guarded, priest-like almost whenever the bad days fall. There is so much hard-wired into his football personality that remains unfathomable to us, but this much we know. Mickey Harte's dignity never wavers.

Mayo, he acknowledges, are the story now. They are the story because James Horan has made them different. Harte knows this because his team has just delivered the ultimate polygraph test.

This was the day any artificiality in the Connacht champions' make-up would be exposed. For half an hour, Tyrone challenged every statement made about this being a 'new Mayo'. They spooked them. Carrying the ball forward in tight, confident squadrons, Tyrone eased 0-7 to 0-3 ahead inside 32 minutes, stirring an eternity of old western ghosts in the Croke Park rafters.

Sean Cavanagh talked afterwards of seeing "the fear in their eyes" as Mayo flailed against a suspicion that their newness might transpire to be no more than empty marketing.

But little blessings fell their way either side of half-time and the ruthlessness with which Horan's men availed of them announced something in the Connacht champions that Harte could readily admire.

"They were able to keep themselves in the game," he sighed, "and that was a mark, I suppose, of the difference that there is with them. Then when they got the opportunity to stamp their authority on the game, they did that too. Maybe in the past, if they'd been under the cosh the way we had put them for 30 minutes they might not have had the resilience to come back and get that march on us just before half-time."

That "march" was, of course, a pivotal swing approaching half-time when Mayo, having failed to register a single score from play in the opening 32 minutes, mined three from there to the half-time whistle. "Those scores just before half-time were real blows to us," said Harte.

The way we talk of his team, you would think that the rest of football seeks its game plans in an artist's loft while Harte takes his search to a foundry. Tyrone are engineered coldly, it is true. They harry, they scrap, they bully. They are habitually attritional. They don't care for the comfort of accumulating friends because winning is their only thing.

So we curse them with our lust for stereotype. We talk of some kind of grim, relentless machine just laying waste to innocents. Football's black sheep almost. We mention the tragedies that traumatise their story without ever understanding quite how they managed to live through them. Maybe at our laziest, we depict them as people just driven by hurt and Six County resentments.

But Harte's genius is a gift to improvise, to take a disparate group and make them better than they, logically, should be. Tyrone's three All-Irelands have all been delivered through his wisdom, his acuity. He gets men to believe. Maybe no team in history ever pitched up in Croke Park feeling more islanded than this current group, yet they did so believing utterly that they would win.

Still, the early losses through injury of Peter Harte and Stephen O'Neill wounded them deeply. Then Maurice Deegan's 39th-minute award of a dubious Mayo penalty just steepened the gradient further. For Cavanagh, frustration built from a sense that the deities were conspiring against them.

"Petie and Stevie are massive leaders in our set-up," he sighed in the dressing-room tunnel. "Losing them, it was never going to be easy for us. And then, obviously, the penalty just deflated us, knocked the stuffing out of us. After that, they came at us in waves and, all of a sudden, you could see their players living off the confidence.

"No disrespect, coming into this game we knew they hadn't been tested. We knew they hadn't been put on the back foot and that we could shock them. Which is what we did in the first half. But we just couldn't see it through.

"It's massively disappointing because I think we know we have the quality in the squad. It's different to a couple of years ago we played Dublin down here and you were deflated because you just knew that you were beaten by a side that was much superior to our side that night. You just have to hold your hand up like that sometimes. But sitting there today you have regrets because you know that, if a couple of big calls or breaks could have gone our way, we could have come out of here winning this game."

To be fair, Mayo did not blink in the face of whatever good fortune fell their way. In that second half, they did to Tyrone something that is not often done. They set the physical agenda. The higher they pressed, the more threadbare Tyrone's hopes became. One image caught the half in microcosm. As Keith Higgins set off on one one of those familiar, loose-limbed runs towards the Hill end goal, just three players remained in the Mayo half. The wonder was we didn't see tumbleweed.

So Mayo won handsomely in the end and Harte serenely waved away all invitations to carp or agitate. "The referee does what he does and he makes decisions in live time," he shrugged with that gentle, enigmatic smile.

And soon he was gone, a great man football will never conquer.