Thursday 18 January 2018

It could get worse before it gets better for Tyrone

Mickey Harte's methods are being questioned but he will not be fazed

Mickey Harte
Mickey Harte

Damian Lawlor

LAST Saturday evening Mickey Harte led Tyrone into battle for the 227th time, extending one of the richest managerial legacies of the modern era.

Since first taking the reins 12 years ago, Harte has overseen an incredible 154 wins, memorably including three All-Ireland senior football titles. But his success has not been confined to winning All-Irelands. His holistic approach to the game has also reaped eight pre-season titles, four Ulster Championships and an NFL title too.

Yet, on the back of some disappointing seasons, he and his team are coming under increasing pressure. Last season saw their earliest exit from the championship since 2006 and they have a pretty gruesome draw to negotiate this summer. In the past seven years Tyrone have not beaten a grade one team from outside Ulster in championship football. The spotlight is shining firmly on them.

In the close season their talisman Seán Cavanagh bemoaned their lack of physicality and tendency to be thrown off the tackle too easily. Last Saturday evening's tanking against Monaghan, however, was a sign that they have not yet addressed that issue. It was only one game, just one defeat, and yet some maintain it is the nadir of Tyrone's time under their manager.

"There just seems to be a lack of a system at the moment but, as has been flagged in the past, the main thing seems to be that we can't compete in a physical game," says one former Tyrone player and All-Ireland winner. "I would say too that there are only two or three leaders in the team at the moment. There is a feeling around the county that some of the young lads just don't want it badly enough."

On RTé's League Sunday, analyst Kevin McStay was asked to rate their display. "I'd say I'm 13 years watching them but I would have to say that was the poorest I've seen Tyrone play," he said.

McStay had a point but, interestingly, when asked to address Kerry's slump to Mayo there was a 'no panic' attitude from the panel. It's only February was the consensus.

Tyrone, funnily enough, began the Monaghan game in full control, leading by five points at an early stage before failing to score from play for the next 52 minutes. It allowed Monaghan's confidence levels to surge - maybe it was that instant power rise which caused the floodlight failure. The break in play should have been a blessing for Tyrone but they were even poorer when the game restarted; they were dispossessed too easily in attack where the ball just never managed to stick. In defence, they looked vulnerable to quick, incoming ball. "They weren't up for it and didn't get stuck in," McStay added on TV.

With today's trip to Mayo hovering dangerously, another loss will see them fighting for their Division 1 lives. And relegation certainly wouldn't help the continuation of Gaelic football's longest-serving managerial reign.

They need to dig in immediately. Apart from Cavanagh, the only other player showing real leadership in the team is Mattie Donnelly so you have to believe that Joe McMahon's return, if it even happens, later in the season is vital to them.

Some people in Tyrone might like to see Harte move on, but his team is young. They still need time to develop and adapt. Yes, some are taking a bit longer than expected, but others are just in the door and need space to find their feet.

Darren McCurry is progressing well but there's much more to come. They are struggling to find a centre-forward and are trying Ronan O'Neill there, but the Omagh lad is surely more prolific at inside forward.

Peter Harte was a huge loss last Saturday. Seeing Colm Cavanagh and Mattie Donnelly leaving the pitch didn't help either. Dungannon's Pádraig McNulty really impressed in the McKenna Cup but he was anonymous on Saturday night. He needs a run of league games to try and settle in.

There are other fine players on the books and Harte would surely love to stay beyond this season. With that in mind his young guns need to start lighting sparks very soon. Traditionally, Harte has always received the offer of a new term after year two of his latest deal but as of yet that is not on the table.

Maybe it's worth bearing in mind once more what he has contributed to the county. And what he could well do again, given more time. Since 1991 he has been in charge of Tyrone at some grade - he took the minors that year - and is now in his 25th year of unbroken 'service'.

"Mickey will know better than anyone that the team is struggling for leaders and there's a lack of quality in some areas," the former players says. "So it's worrying times and it could get worse before it gets better."

Harte, while worried at the nature of their display last Saturday, will remain unfazed at the task at hand and will attempt to address the issues in that assured, calm manner of his. Just like he did last weekend.

"There's no excuses," the manager admitted last Saturday night. "Something happened that's difficult to describe but the end result is quite stark. Going to Mayo wouldn't have seemed easy before, but after this it seems an even bigger challenge. But it's one we have to face because if there's no points after two games then we all know what we'll be looking at - and it's not a pretty place."

The question is can they produce the necessary physicality against a stronger Mayo side today? Or can the forwards show enough aggression for them to compete properly for primary possession? Will their link-up play in attack be tighter? And is the confidence cultivated in the McKenna Cup campaign starting to wane again?

Although the Monaghan set-back was just one result - and allowing for the ways in which a season can fluctuate, especially at this time of year - these are questions that need answering now. There have been a raft of changes in the squad since last year - and last month - and those in possession of the shirt must steer the ship to calmer waters.

What was apparent last Saturday was how the team is still over-reliant on Seán Cavanagh. In an ideal world, they would leave him at 14 and hope to yield a goal and a few points from him. But he is still their go-to man further out the field, still defying sports science with his relentless running. Very few others have displayed the hunger that he still shows. He is the only link from the 2003 winning team and sadly his county are more dependent on him now than they were back then.

Two weeks ago, five players were let go from the squad, including three forwards. Addressing that cull, Harte said: "When you have a big panel of 35 and you can only play 15 and five or six subs, that's always a challenge for everybody. But if there is no challenge in picking it, then the thing is too comfortable for too many. It means people have to perform if they get a chance, but it also means you have to seize your chance. That's the atmosphere I hope to create."

Yet those departures didn't lift the air of lethargy from about the team last weekend - indeed, if he was watching, Kyle Coney, one of the quintet released, must have wondered how other team-mates avoided the chop.

Off the field, Tyrone are the envy of many. With a landmark Centre of Excellence and a healthy minor structure, they look well poised for the future. But so many players from the successful 2008 and 2010 underage teams still haven't progressed. Their rising star Conor McKenna signed for AFL club Essendon last winter as a Category B rookie and is a massive loss. When Conor Clarke returns from an ACL injury, he, at least, will be expected to have an impact. But you would expect the dividends from a decade of investment in youth to be more bountiful.

Harte will remain focused, however. He is doggedly determined to get the team back to where he wants to be. Having stripped back his support and managerial team, he is more visible and vocal on the training field.

Tactically, he is being questioned in some quarters which is unusual for a man not long ago deemed the best tactician in the game.

Maybe Tyrone are a little weary after their rigorous January exertions. If they are, they won't be helped by the fact that for the first time since the league reverted back to four straight divisions, there are four Ulster teams in the top flight. For a team struggling with physicality that doesn't bode well.

It is now going on seven years since the county enjoyed their third All-Ireland in 2008 and the chances are they won't end that run without being a Division 1 team.

Maybe it is time to reinvent the wheel again. The team can't defend man for man like they did against Dublin four years ago. They have tried to vary their attack, they have employed double sweepers, and they changed the traditional collective training methods that worked so well when he first took over.

Harte's long-time assistant Tony Donnelly and team trainer Fergal McCann have departed and Peter Donnelly, one of the main movers and shakers behind Cavan's emergence, has overhauled their conditioning programme. That will need time to show results.

Will the time be given? It depends on this year. If they can maintain their Division 1 status and reach an All-Ireland quarter-final, that would probably be seen as acceptable. If not, there will be calls for change. And with good coaches coming through the underage system, with the likes of Peter Canavan, Brian Dooher, Brian McGuigan and Ryan McMenamin all working in the county's under 21 and minor set-ups, options won't be scarce.

However, Mickey Harte will know better than anyone what's required to get his team back on track. A win on the road - or at the very least a vastly improved performance - against Mayo this afternoon would be a huge step in the right direction.

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