Sunday 21 January 2018

Something old and plenty new as Harte feels heat like never before

Tyrone supremo targeting return to top tier in bid to silence growing number of critics ahead of 14th Championship campaign

Mickey Harte is once again in the middle of rebuilding the Tyrone team (SPORTSFILE)
Mickey Harte is once again in the middle of rebuilding the Tyrone team (SPORTSFILE)
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Mickey Harte posed the questions for which, presumably, he had emphatic answers.

"How open are you to new ideas? How much can you draw on what's happened in the past? Are you a slave to it or do you have some way of making things different? Life changes all the time and so does sport," he said.

He was speaking in January last year at the start of his 13th season as Tyrone manager, a time when the county's supporters were becoming increasingly restless over the failure to land any significant silverware in the previous four years.

More than a year on, the wait continues - only now the attempt is being launched from largely infertile territory in an All-Ireland title context. Not since Armagh in 2002 has a county won the All-Ireland from Division 2.

Precedent is, of course, no more than that and if anybody were to mastermind an All-Ireland win from Division 2, there's every chance that it would be Harte.

Anyway, the margins between relegation and survival in Division 1 are tiny.

Tyrone's relegation last spring came off the tightest of margins, squeezed out after drawing with Kerry in the final game when a win would have saved them. Tyrone were one of five teams that lost three games (Derry lost five), but dropped points with three draws which ultimately proved fatal.

Their subsequent Championship campaign which took them all the way to the All-Ireland semi-final, via the qualifiers, showed that they really are a Division 1 team. They have already won their first two games in Division 2 this season as they attempt to make a quick return to the elite group.


For all that, there are some in Tyrone who would have supported a change of manager last year. And when Harte's re-appointment dragged on much longer than usual, it inevitably fuelled speculation that something was amiss.

It may have all been part of a process and, after the extended wait, he was ratified for a further two seasons. Frankly, it couldn't have been otherwise as removing a man who has achieved so much for Tyrone would have been unthinkable.

Nonetheless, Harte has his critics. Not long after his re-appointment, a description of him as a "great man" who had done an "unbelievable" amount for Tyrone was followed by a stinging rebuke on Twitter from a disaffected player.

"Do you know what you're great at...DESTROYING A PLAYER'S CONFIDENCE."

The charge came from a member of one of Tyrone's best known footballing families. Shay McGuigan, who had left the Tyrone panel with four others after last year's League, was reacting to comments by Harte about their departure.

"There is something about the people who stay and bide their time and have patience. They are probably the people who are going to serve you best in the long run anyway," said Harte.

"The people who feel they're not getting as much game-time as they want, they tend to be a bit of a drain on the energy on the group."

McGuigan responded angrily, stating the comments made "my blood boil". He insisted that he had never complained but had become increasingly disillusioned over not getting game-time while "the same men week in, week out got their chance."

It was certainly unusual for five players to leave a panel just before the Championship. However, many saw it as petulance and not in keeping with the one-for-all philosophy.

Still, it showed how times have changed. Suddenly, a group of players were prepared to make a stand against the most successful manager that Tyrone has ever had.

It wasn't the first time that a player had publicly questioned Harte's decisions. In 2013, Owen Mulligan claimed that if he had been playing in the Allianz League final, Tyrone would have beaten Dublin.

Mulligan hadn't taken his omission from the panel well, writing in his autobiography that "all the other lads I played with so long left on their own terms," whereas he was simply omitted from the panel.

"If you worked for a company for 15 years and they told you they were replacing you with a younger employee, the least you would expect would be a thank you and a handshake. That's all I wanted - a bit of respect," wrote Mulligan.

That a former star performer (Mulligan) and an ambitious 21-year-old (McGuigan) would fire critical arrows in Harte's direction proves that not even bringing unprecedented success guarantees immunity from reproach.

But then Tyrone were spoiled between 2002 and 2010 - a period when they won three All-Irelands, four Ulster and two Allianz League titles. With the exception of the 2002 League (Art McRory/Eugene McKenna), all were presided over by Harte.

When the flow of titles dried up, it was inevitable that his reign would come under scrutiny. Reaching All-Ireland semi-finals, which Tyrone did in 2013 and 2015, no longer comes close to satisfying a very demanding county.

If Tyrone had won Ulster titles, losing All-Ireland semi-finals might have been more palatable. However, supporters can't accept being third in Ulster behind Donegal and Monaghan for five successive seasons. Tyrone beat Monaghan in two All-Ireland quarter-finals and could arguably claim to be the top Ulster team in those seasons but that counts for little without the glint of silverware.

In fairness to Harte and Tyrone, the Ulster draw has been very unkind, handing them a trip to Ballybofey to play Donegal in two of the last three years. Contrast that with the much easier starts enjoyed by other top All-Ireland contenders - Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Cork - none of whom would fancy MacCumhaill Park for their opening shot.

Donegal have been a real bogey side for Harte, who has only one win (2007) to show from six Championship clashes against them. Presumably then, he will have been delighted that this year's Ulster draw placed Donegal and Tyrone on opposite sides.

Still, it wasn't exactly gentle on Tyrone either, matching them with Derry in Celtic Park. That's nearly three months away and, in the meantime, there are foundations to be put in place - starting with tomorrow's Division 2 clash against Laois in O'Moore Park, where Tyrone will bid to enhance their position as hot favourites for promotion.

Shortly after his re-appointment, Harte said that the progress made in the second half of last season would be "no good unless we can build on it next year". The veteran supremo didn't specify the required targets to make that happen but winning the Ulster title is certainly one of them, just as it was back in his first season at the helm 13 years ago.

Tomorrow, he will lead Tyrone for the 181st time in League and Championship and while the process of getting out of Division 2 has to be managed carefully, the bigger picture is always in the background as he winds up for a 14th campaign.

"It would seem strange to be managed by anyone else," said Seán Cavanagh after Harte's latest reappointment.

On the question of the manager's obsession for success, Cavanagh has no doubts.


"He showed this year (2015) that he still has the hunger and adaptability," said the team captain.

Cavanagh, who makes his 215th county appearance tomorrow, has been with Harte on every step of a journey which has stopped off at some very exotic locations. Yet, for both, it's as if there's a sense of unfinished business as the desire to regain the All-Ireland title gather momentum.

Division 2 is an inconvenient interruption, one which has to be negotiated, before the real action begins in what Tyrone regard as their natural habitat at the elite end of the market.

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