Saturday 24 March 2018

Tommy Conlon: Diamonds still being polished in Tyrone's quest to shine again

'If anyone can improvise a solution, it is Harte.' Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile
'If anyone can improvise a solution, it is Harte.' Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

He hasn't been idle during the lost years, it's just that we haven't seen as much of Mickey Harte since the turn of the decade. Instead he's been obliged to spend more time in the workshop with his jeweller's loupe jammed to his eye, inspecting the stones in the gravel for signs of diamond potential.

He's had to discard a lot of them, including some gems that already looked polished and ready for the championship market. But he saw flaws in the raw material and continued sifting the landfill. He is a severe judge. He has had to be patient. The supply has dwindled after the decade of plenty that was the 2000s.

Meanwhile, Jim McGuinness's new model army took over in Ulster. Donegal smacked them about the place; Harte's stock dwindled with his team; his relevance in the overall narrative receded. So he went back to his workshop and continued the search.

Last year there were signs of a revival through a sustained run in the qualifiers. This year those signs are aggregating into hard evidence. And all of a sudden there was Harte on the sideline again in Clones last Sunday, this time projecting more of the aura from his all-conquering years.

This is of course a subjective perception, but when Tyrone were losing big games in recent seasons, Harte's demeanour seemed merely stoical, almost sanguine. He hasn't changed his trademark sideline stance this season. But with his squad starting to click, the manager seems not so much to be standing there passively, as looming with that old familiar intent: owlish, rigorous and cunning.

After a long wait he finally has the makings of another high-class team. The project is picking up speed. The parts are falling into place. The design is starting to look strong and slick. The master builder is assembling a vessel that looks made for cruising in Croke Park.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. He will first have to see if it is robust enough to survive in Clones next Sunday. Because if Tyrone are rising again, Donegal are staying. They were supposed to be gone by now, their time long expired, four years after winning the All-Ireland. But the ageing force has found fresh legs this season. There is a renewal in energy and optimism.

The Ulster final will tell us whether this is a temporary stay of execution or a more sustainable reinvention. It's why this game has something of an era-defining significance hanging over its outcome. When Donegal despatched Tyrone in the 2011 Ulster semi-final it was a definitive changing of the guard. Harte's great team was now in irrevocable decline; the McGuinness takeover had officially begun. Should Tyrone prevail next Sunday, the balance of power in the province will shift again.

Harte's team has rampant running power. There is pace all over. Their support play is metronomic. The carrying player always has one colleague riding shotgun, and usually more. The manager has prioritised athletic capacity; pure footballers like Darren McCurry and Mark Bradley are being left on the bench. Many of the players look like interchangeable cogs in the machine; sleek, generic runners who can cover the ground going forward and dropping back.

But they bear another Harte hallmark: they make good decisions. They are intelligent, thinking footballers. They generally make the right pass at the right time. These are primary reasons why the team functioned so smoothly against Cavan last weekend. The support runner was always on hand to keep a move going; the decision-making was usually logical and well-executed.

These qualities shone in particular on the counterattack. Four of their five goals were engineered at pace on the counter, and finished with the clarity of players who knew how to exploit the opportunity. They finished with a monstrous 5-18 on the board.

Back in his workshop, Harte of course will be fixated on the 2-17 they conceded. He will hardly dismiss the 2-7 they coughed up in garbage time, when the contest was long over. Even in the first half, Cavan made a number of incisions through their packed rearguard by simply running through and around them. The 2-7 late on was confirmation of that earlier pattern. Tyrone stripped the ball from opponents several times around their own 45m line, which was usually well-stocked with white shirts when Cavan came calling. But on other occasions they were surprisingly porous when faced with running ball-carriers.

This is not a locked-down defence and it could be a crucial frailty, if and when they get to Croke Park in particular. It doesn't have the stalwart presence of the Gormley/Jordan/McMenamin defensive axis that offered such a forbidding obstacle in the noughties. It's a defence that currently lacks the all-important dog of war or two.

And they continue to have an ongoing issue with frees. They have yet to nail down the role of dedicated free-taker. Four different players were assigned the job at different times last weekend. It didn't cost them, but the absence of a dead-ball specialist usually does at some stage.

If anyone can improvise a solution, it is Harte. It was his 252nd game in charge of Tyrone last Sunday, his 80th championship match. He knows a good diamond when he sees one. They don't all have to be expensive. They just have to fit somewhere in the gilded chain. The reconstruction continues, the guru is haunting sidelines again.

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