Sparks will fly when two great minds go to war
Sideline battle between McGuinness and Harte holds the key to victory
IN years to come, the record books will present tomorrow's Ulster quarter-final exactly the same as the 18 previous Donegal-Tyrone championship clashes.
It will show the result, date and venue in simple numbers, all neatly packaged on one line. There will be no footnote, no context and not even the slightest indication that it was in any way different to other games between the counties.
Of course it's not the same. Never before in championship history have Tyrone played Donegal when the latter were All-Ireland champions and never before has a game between the counties generated as much intrigue as to how the sides will be set up for what is their third Ulster championship meeting in successive seasons.
At 4.0 tomorrow, attention will switch to the 30 players but, even then, spectators in MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey, and the extended TV audience will be conscious of the much wider dimension, involving rival managers Jim McGuinness and Mickey Harte.
Indeed, tomorrow's game is guaranteed to produce only one certainty which arises from the input by the managers. Irrespective of how the players perform, much of the post-match analysis will be narrowed down to the influence exerted by the specialist sideline strategists.
If Donegal win, it will be attributed to McGuinness' burgeoning expertise, complete with philosophical musings on how it has been enhanced by his role as performance consultant with Celtic. If Tyrone win, it will be put down to Harte, the old dog for the hard road, sinking his teeth into tender Donegal meat.
Neither scenario may be strictly true but since perceptions are such influential little devils nowadays, it's futile to even suggest that this game could be decided by anything as remotely simple as the quality of the teams or how individuals perform.
Donegal's surge in 2011-2012 had created an aura around McGuinness anyway, but once he was recruited by a professional club to unload his wisdom on emerging young soccer talent it sent his reputation zooming into the stratosphere.
Now, the Donegal public believe there's no puzzle too difficult, no tactical conundrum sufficiently tricky to occupy him for more than a few minutes. Many Donegal supporters suspect that this could be his last season in charge so they want to embrace everything it brings. An All-Ireland double is the target and everybody in the county reckons it's achievable because they have McGuinness to organise the success route.
As for Harte, he has already masterminded three All-Ireland wins and is empire-building again. Indeed, if it weren't for Donegal, Tyrone would be comfortable favourites to win the Ulster title after displaying an impressive rate of progress in the recent league.
Harte is heading out on his 11th championship campaign so everything should be very familiar to him.
Yet, in a strange way, this is brand new territory as he attempts to out-manoeuvre an opponent whose stock has risen so dramatically in two years.
McGuinness is only in his third season but, because the previous two were so successful, he seems to have been there a lot longer.
In the circumstances, it's fascinating to observe how the managers – and the players – have set out their stalls. McGuinness knew that pre-championship questioning would centre on the prospects of establishing a Donegal record by winning a third successive Ulster title and retaining the All-Ireland so he opted for the 'one match at a time' routine.
He claims that there isn't one Donegal player thinking about the All-Ireland final. It's the same with the Ulster championship. Their only pre-occupation is Tyrone.
"If we beat Tyrone, we move on to a semi-final. If we beat the opposition in the semi-final, then we have a chance to win an Ulster final. That's it. That is the bottom line," he said.
All wonderfully simple but somehow it's difficult to believe that players who have won 12 of their last 13 championship games haven't once allowed their minds to wander to the wider picture which summer/autumn offers.
Karl Lacey says that he has noticed subtle changes in the way McGuinness has conducted affairs this year. That may well be true but even if weren't, it still flashes out a warning to Tyrone that Donegal are drawing from a higher level of expertise than last year.
"We can't do the same things that we did last year. It has to change, which it did last year compared to the year before and it's going to change again this year. I don't know if he (McGuinness) has picked it up in Glasgow," said Lacey.
Meanwhile, Harte is no doubt reminding his players of 2004 when, as reigning All-Ireland champions, Tyrone were well beaten by Donegal in the Ulster semi-final.
Even before he left the pitch in Clones that day, Harte was offering a simple explanation for the defeat, one which he hopes will have a positive resonance for Tyrone tomorrow.
"Donegal were the hungrier side. They wanted to win more than we did," he said.
That hunger deserted Donegal in the Ulster final when they lost to Armagh by 13 points before being eliminated from the qualifiers by Fermanagh. It was a double whammy by Ulster opposition after Donegal had beaten what was supposedly the strongest of their provincial rivals.
A year earlier, Monaghan dumped Armagh, then the reigning All-Ireland champions, out of the Ulster championship, only to lose to Down in their next game. The moral of the story? Teams can sometimes raise their game to extraordinary levels against All-Ireland champions, only to drop back next time out.
There's also the question of how All-Ireland champions react to defending the title. Joe Kernan recalls how he once asked the late Eamonn Coleman, who managed Derry to All-Ireland glory in 1993, why they didn't do better in 1994.
"He said that when a team wins the All-Ireland, you never know until they are tasting the grass in the heat of battle the following year how they have reacted to being champions. It was something I always thought about," said Kernan.
Peter McGrath, who managed Down to All-Ireland wins in 1991 and 1994, echoed similar sentiments, pointing out that even when All-Ireland champions think things are going well going into the new campaign, they can't be sure if the signs are reliable.
"When you win an All-Ireland final, you're in a different zone," said McGrath. "You have worked so hard to get to the summit and now you're being asked to do it again. Everything can appear to be spot on in training but you can never be sure if it is until the real pressure comes on in a game.
"Jim McGuinness is well qualified to look for signs but even he won't be sure of the squad's exact mindset until the full heat comes on against Tyrone."
Harte has tossed a broadly similar line into the mix, presumably in an attempt to nourish little insecurities in the Donegal players' minds as they prepare for a different type of challenge to the ones they experienced on the way to the summit.
"They proved they're good enough to win the All-Ireland and there's a serious confidence that comes with that. The next challenge for them is, how do you handle being at the top of the tree?" said Harte.
"It's new territory for them because they haven't been there before. This group of players are on an upward spiral since they started out in 2011 and now they have to decide whether they can raise the bar again."
Back in Donegal, Lacey talks of the unbelievable focus in the camp, even taking a little jibe at Tyrone. "We want to lay down a marker now – step aside Tyrone, this is our time," he said.
At an individual level, the McGuinness-Harte rivalry has its own little twist. Harte wouldn't take kindly to having to congratulate McGuinness for a third successive year after losing to Donegal.
For McGuinness, it's about growing the legend ever taller. High stakes then for players, managers and the two brightest northern lights in the football firmament.