Tuesday 16 July 2019

Two of a kind: Their teams playing contrasting styles, but Gavin and Harte have more similarities than first appears

21 July 2018; Dublin manager Jim Gavin and Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, left, following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final Group 2 Phase 2 match between Tyrone and Dublin at Healy Park in Omagh, Tyrone. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
21 July 2018; Dublin manager Jim Gavin and Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, left, following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final Group 2 Phase 2 match between Tyrone and Dublin at Healy Park in Omagh, Tyrone. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

A simple caricature might capture next weekend’s All-Ireland clash in starkly monochromatic terms.

The contrast of black and white, light and shade.

Tyrone, all but hinting at winter’s gloom, armed with their all-too-gleefully derided tactics, already this week being encouraged in debate to become even more despairing.

Dublin, representative of endlessly sparkling summer sunshine, constantly chasing perfection and aesthetic beauty.

The apparent difference in sporting philosophies are naturally translated to the manager’s who pursue them.

On one side, Mickey Harte, who initially rose to prominence when ascending to glory by stifling a Kerry side who wanted to play football the way purists insisted it was meant to be played, and the way they were born to play.

But instead the Kingdom were cut down by a side for whom destruction, not creation, was the modus operandi.

A few yards down the sideline, Jim Gavin, on whose behalf the pursuit of success in itself is not supposed to be compromised by any ability to achieve it unless it can be done through the pure expression of open, positive football.

GAA Newsletter

Expert GAA analysis straight to your inbox.

This philosophical battle retains its intriguing context for many who anticipate next week’s showdown, depending on one’s perspective.

Should Harte’s Tyrone prevail, presumably, as once again encouraged by one of his coaching soul-mates Jim McGuinness this week, with an emphasis on defence over attack, many will call it a victory for cynicism.

On the other hand, a Dublin triumph will continue to consummate the emergence of the most complete football collective of all time, one that aims to rescue a seemingly doom-laden code from cannibalising itself thanks to their enterprise and expression.

"Football the way it was meant to be played," as Jim Gavin espoused shortly before hoovering up his first national title in 2013 when their victims were Tyrone.

Since then, Dublin – and Gavin – have streaked away from their northern rivals in both bald statistical terms and also the more nuanced, nebulous narrative that decrees the metropolitans have harvested their titles in the 'right' manner.

Some might argue, justifiably, that the manner in which Gavin’s Dublin have galloped away from Tyrone’s decade of supremacy at the start of the millennium franks that opinion.

Locked on three All-Ireland wins apiece, until last year’s seemingly seminal submission of Harte’s men in an embarrassingly one-sided All-Ireland semi-final, Gavin overtook the 2003, 2005 and 2008 winning boss when he led his side to a fourth Sam Maguire against Mayo.

Few expect anything other than a comprehensive re-telling of last summer’s story when the managers engage for only the second time in championship combat next Sunday.

The simple caricature, it seems, demands an equally uncomplicated outcome and recent trends would appear to back up the thesis, notwithstanding any leading impressions of improvements in Tyrone’s attacking game and fractures in that of Dublin.

Until last summer, the sides’ only meetings had been in the league.

Five meetings had produced two draws and three victories for Dublin, albeit all three by just the minimum margin, including the outlier, a veritable display of mutual extravagance in the 2014, 3-10 to 1-15 blitzkrieg when Diarmuid Connolly’s late point thieved victory in Omagh.

When the sides met in Croke Park on a sparkling spring evening, March 2015, few of us knew then that Dublin would propel themselves upon their record-breaking unbeaten streak.

What we did understand a bit more clearly were the stark contrasts in each man’s approach to the game.

And that despite their contrasting opinions, they shared equally a passion in presenting their case to the public.

After a dog of a game which ended, unsurprisingly, in a stalemate, Harte was pressed to respond to the generally underwhelming nature of the night’s entertainment.

His response was suitably splenetic.

"Who ever said goals was what makes the game?" charged Harte in the aftermath to anyone who may have the temerity to demand a little something more from their national game.

"Who ever said that people only come to see goals? Anybody who is going to Gaelic football to see goals only, maybe they should go to another game.

"Supporters want to see good football, however that may be portrayed. People see different qualities in what they’re looking at. I wouldn’t think that there is any one script, 'This is how the game should be played'."

Gavin, in contrast, sang from a different hymn sheet.

"The managers are playing within the rules," was his initially coy response to the now familiar stylistic debate. Pressed as to whether neutrals would be enthused, he pointedly continued: "I wouldn’t think so, no.

"We see it in other sports at the elite level where it can be very strategic and tactical and it’s about holding onto possession and not conceding territory. Gaelic football has evolved that way. It might come back the other way."

Two years later, nothing had changed in his mind after another dour draw in the league.

"That is the style of football they play, they play it really well and they have won so much playing that style of football.

"But if that is the way they want the game to be played, we don’t. We want to play an attacking brand of football."

Three years on, and particularly within the context of an enthralling, expansive hurling championship, the debate still rages.

"The game will be played as it needs to be played," according to Harte’s perennial gospel. "If people like that, they’ll come along; if they don’t they’ll vote with their feet and won’t be there."

This summer that prophecy has been fulfilled.

So too, perhaps, Gavin’s determined declaration that, "Whether it is pretty on the eye, the All-Ireland champions don’t really mind. The counties who win All-Irelands are just happy with victory."

Even Dublin have had to adapt their beliefs to match their insatiable desire to establish their lore.

Back then, Dublin were still reeling from the 2014 shock defeat to Donegal, which forced Gavin to admit that even his philosophy needed to be tweaked; some of his borrowings were even gleaned from the pages of the Mickey Harte play-book.

Tyrone and Harte, whose attempt to effect a defensive approach was undone by an opening onslaught in last year’s semi-final, have also had to cast envious, covetous glances at Dublin’s game-plan.

Such subtle nods of respectful deference might indicate that, for all the apparent differences between their teams, the two men have much more in common than might at first seem apparent.

And they don’t necessarily begin and end with their seemingly rigid devotion to their differing styles of football.

Ultimately, both are driven to succeed and, if one digs deeper than the lustre of Dublin’s array of attacking talent, the resolution that has driven them since the Donegal defeat four years ago has unveiled itself in a ruthless – or cynical, depending on one’s persuasion – defensive defiance.

And, for all that Tyrone are painted as the depressing antidote of expansive football, their ability to produce scores – bountiful numbers of them, and from all lines of their team – betrays their negative stereotype.

Whether through scoring corner-backs, the re-location of firebrand forwards to defensive roles or the promotion of the roaming modern midfielder, both men are tied to the idea that individual jersey numbers don’t matter, collective ethos count.

Both men can be stubborn too; witness their respective stand-offs with chief rights’ holders RTE.

Harte has not spoken to them for seven years; within the past twelve months, Gavin has withdrawn his co-operation with them on two separate occasions.

Neither man suffers fools gladly and they are ruthless in evicting those from the panel who refuse to engage with their methods. Those outside the camp remain there.

As such, their loyalty to their squad is unwavering and, from disciplinary matters to stylistic debates, rigorously myopic.

It must be, for both men, ultimately are proven champions. And on Sunday they will be re-united by one common desire. The business of winning.

Indo Sport

The Throw-In: Kerry back to their best, Connolly’s return and Cork’s baffling inconsistency

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport