Mickey Harte braced for biggest Red Hand challenge
Manner of defeat to Monaghan puts early pressure on Tyrone manager
Mickey Harte has probably never known a more miserable afternoon or evening on a sideline in charge of a Tyrone team than Killarney last March when James O'Donoghue rammed in three goals to serve notice of his, and ultimately, Kerry's future intent.
Harte's rage in the aftermath of that performance was unprecedented. He spoke of devastation, an erosion of the respect as a football force earned over the previous 10 or 12 years and how it would be a "long, hard road and hill" to regain that respect.
It wasn't, said the game's longest serving manager, "what you expect from players in a Tyrone jersey."
"In all my time dealing with Tyrone teams, I've never, ever had a second half like that. In fact, that's the biggest defeat they've ever had, since minors, U-21s or anything else," he said of a 15 point (3-15 to 0-9) reversal.
Things did improve subsequently. They beat Westmeath, drew with Cork and lost narrowly to a late Diarmuid Connolly point in Omagh to just miss out on a league semi-final place.
But by summer they were losing altitude again, knocked out of the Ulster championship by Monaghan and then by Armagh in the qualifiers.
As manager it was Harte's second earliest exit from a championship, just two days later than their 2006 defeat as All-Ireland champions to Mick O'Dwyer's Laois.
His assessment was more benign after Saturday night's defeat to Monaghan but, given that it was at home, they had held a five-point lead at one stage and were coming off the back of a successful McKenna Cup campaign, was it any better than Killarney 11 months earlier?
This wasn't what you expected from a player in a Tyrone jersey either.
There were contributing factors: Sean Cavanagh's head injury, Mattie Donnelly's black card and Colm Cavanagh's red card all conspiring to compound their troubles as a progressive Monaghan underlined why they are firmly established now as one of the top two in Ulster.
And this being the first league match of the season, there are always grounds for a performance like this.
Except not for Tyrone, who needed to hit the ground running. And certainly not in a week where five prominent players were released from the squad, giving the clear impression and there is sufficient talent to take their place. On this evidence there isn't.
Which leads us to Kyle Coney. Undoubtedly one of the finest underage talents to emerge from the county, he was one of the quintet to clear out their lockers early last week.
Coney just hasn't cut it at senior level, a combination of cruciate ligament and groin injuries not helping his case. But in Tyrone he is not alone in that regard. Ronan O'Neill, star of the 2010 All-Ireland winning minor team, has also had cruciate trouble and has yet to make a real mark at senior level.
Many others from those 2008 and 2010 teams just haven't progressed. John McCullagh, with O'Neill the other mainstay of the 2010 team, is a case in point, while Conan Grugan, after showing some early promise last year, has since left the squad.
Ironically Darren McCurry, a substitute on that minor team, has developed well at senior level.
Conor Clarke will add something when he returns from a cruciate rupture but from the 2008 team, the bounty hasn't been nearly what was anticipated. Coney's departure only serves to crystallise that.
There is a growing consensus that Tyrone have become 'soft' in recent years. Kevin McStay's comment that Tyrone "weren't up for it and didn't get stuck in" on Sunday night has become a common theme.
A similar chord was struck by Sean Cavanagh on the All Star tour to Boston when he noted how "physicality" was something they were lacking against Armagh in that qualifier defeat, saying: "I'm not sure why that is. That's what annoyed me, that guys were getting thrown around in the tackle a wee bit. It was annoying that the talent that they have wasn't coming to the fore."
On Saturday night's evidence Cavanagh's hope for greater steel associated with Tyrone teams of the past didn't materialise. They needed to lay down a firm marker against the team that has displaced them in the top tier of Ulster football but they didn't.
Their dependency on their captain is greater than it ever has been and when he took a blow to his head towards the end of the first quarter his impact waned and Tyrone were never the same team. New leaders just haven't emerged in the way that they threatened over the last five to seven years.
In the past Harte been able to find a way out of these trouble spots but does he have the quality and quantity in personnel now? And if he has, is it the right quality and quantity that he has settled upon?
His latest arrangement with the Tyrone County Board takes him up to the end of this year. For the first time in a long time he doesn't have the relative 'safety net' of additional years to fall back on.
This didn't concern him last November when he was pressed on the matter, suggesting it wasn't unusual and he had made no firm commitment to the future himself.
One defeat isn't a crisis for Harte but the manner of it does lay the foundation for what is shaping to be the biggest challenge of his hugely successful managerial career.