Tuesday 22 October 2019

'There's no point in saying we can't beat them – we'll be going to win this'

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte

Declan Bogue

JUST over 10 years ago now, a late Ryan McMenamin point rescued Tyrone against Derry in Clones. They had a replay in Casement Park. Joe Brolly's verdict? A minor side masquerading in senior football.

A change in attitude and tactics later, the world knew that this Tyrone team, and their new manager, the teacher and shopkeeper Mickey Harte, meant business.

So much has changed in the decade since as Harte takes his seat in Kelly's Inn, a Niall Morgan free-kick away from the new Garvaghy complex where Harte and his players are planning, plotting and preparing for this coming weekend.

"Our draw against Derry taught us a real good lesson," he recalls.

Owen Mulligan and Peter Canavan were a two-man full-forward line serviced with early ball, but Derry manager Mickey Moran was wise to it.

"Derry threw a cordon across that we couldn't get the direct ball to Canavan and Mulligan.


"We had to adjust. When we went to Casement Park for the replay we had to carry the ball and draw them out, or at least tempt them to come out. And if they came out you knew you still had the option of the ball in.

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"If they stayed in you had to shoot from the flanks – that's what served us well in the replay."

For all the sophisticated debate of Donegal's 'system', it's a remarkably similar puzzle facing Tyrone on Sunday.

"They were a different opponent in 2012 than they were in 2011, but they kept the core values of a tight defence," is Harte's assessment.

"They added a lot more offensive play to it and they will mix it up further this year. I expect that. But they will protect their own rearguard. I won't expect to see an awful lot of difference, probably the difference will be in how they transfer from defence to attack. I'm sure they will come up with ideas on that."

Harte says he hasn't lost any sleep over the All-Ireland champions, "but I use a lot of my waking time thinking about it! When I am driving along, going through videos and thinking back on previous games."

The air of mystery they project, he's aware of too, even if it's not for him personally. When Tyrone won their first All-Ireland in 2003, Harte brought out a brilliant season diary afterwards, entitled 'Kicking Down Heaven's Door'. He has always shared in the trade secrets at the end of a season, but Donegal? Not so keen.

"They portray that image that everything is tight within the circle that they talk about. To a degree that is true, you don't hear much about them.

"You hear bits and pieces, maybe get controlled leaks, maybe what you are supposed to hear, but you are not sure if it is exactly true. Maybe that's the mystique around them. They give you certain soundbites, but then there is an awful lot kept in-house.

"There will be controlled exposure, but certainly not complete."

On the day it won't matter. A football will be thrown in and war will break out. Tyrone are going there on a mission. There isn't a sliver of hesitancy in Harte when he says: "I believe we can beat them and if we play to our full potential we will win this game. They will be saying the same thing.

"There is no point in us saying that we cannot beat this team, that we are scared of them in some way. Absolutely not. We respect their capacity for delivering high-class performances, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't take that on. We will be going to win this game. Make no mistake about it."

This week has thrown up some odd statistics. In Harte's time over Tyrone, these sides have met four times in the Ulster championship, Donegal winning three times.

The overall record in the same period incorporating McKenna Cup, National League and championship is eight wins each and a draw.

If there was some deep-lying underestimation of Donegal in 2011 and even in 2012, it's not there now. The energy which Harte confessed to be missing last year has also returned. There is an overall vitality to the county team this season that has been marked absent for a couple of seasons.

"I think the energy is good and the way we finished the league this year, albeit we didn't win it.

"It was encouraging to see our performance. Compared to the Division 2 final last year, it was poles apart and that gives us a bit more standing going into this championship match."

In the past decade, Harte has seen off the late Páidí ó Sé, Jack O'Connor and Joe Kernan. None of those men beat him in two consecutive championship matches, but Jim McGuinness has.

They say it's the greatest challenge of his coaching career.

"We have been to many places that have been difficult to deal with and I don't think you could say this is the most serious challenge.

"Every challenge is a big one, when it's a competition that when you lose you are out of, that's a big issue. This is knockout mentality. I will not accept that the provincial championship does not matter. I see it as very serious stuff and I don't care who we are meeting on Sunday, what county we are preparing to play, we would put the same thought, the same time and effort into it."

He adds: "People should know that we aren't choosy with our challenges, every game is there to be won. I think it is a disservice to the public to have them come along to something you appear not to care about. You've got to care about it, got to care about every game. It's a major deal."

And now there's nothing more to say. On Joe McQuillan's command, unleash hell.

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