There was a sense in the immediate aftermath of their defeat to Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final last August that this was an era-defining moment where their pre-eminence in the modern game was finally being subjugated.
There has been very little evidence in the interim to suggest that Tyrone are in the business of regeneration but such is the esteem in which Mickey Harte and his crew are held that very few people are queuing up to bet against the 6/4 odds being offered on them retaining the Ulster title they won at a canter last summer.
Likewise, I don’t imagine there’s any great rush to back tomorrow’s opponents Antrim, who stand at 22/1 to win the Anglo Celt. What has been largely ignored in the debate on Tyrone’s perceived decline is that there’s a reason bookmakers usually drive bigger cars than the rest of us and there’s also a reason for people’s reluctance to write off Harte’s men.
Given their recent history, it is entirely understandable that Kerry people would be slow to consign this particular bunch of Tyrone footballers to the scrapheap but there is also a rational basis for every county in Ulster fearing and respecting the champions.
For starters, we must go back 12 years to find any team outside Tyrone and Armagh to have won the title. For all the talk about the Ulster championship being the most competitive of the provincial championships and despite the guff we hear every now and then about the attritional nature of the football up north, there are seven teams remaining in the race in Ulster this year who don’t believe as strongly as Tyrone do that they can actually win a provincial title.
Furthermore, if analysis is to be based on league form, very few panels have had to do without as many key players over the course of the spring as Tyrone have. How many teams would’ve been able to absorb the losses through injury and suspension at various stages throughout the league campaign of the likes of Pascal McConnell, Justin McMahon, Philip Jordan, Brian Dooher, Seán Cavanagh and Stephen O’Neill, who all start tomorrow?
The most compelling reason of all for suggesting that Tyrone can keep their grip on the Ulster title is the simple fact that they still have the best panel of players. The argument has been put forward in recent days that only Kerry could lose players like Ó Sé, Walsh, Murphy and Kennelly, suck it up and move on but Tyrone take the field tomorrow without Conor Gormley, Enda McGinley, Tommy McGuigan and perhaps most disappointingly — as he had been the beacon at midfield throughout the league— Aidan Cassidy. They still look a formidable side on paper with a decent sprinkling of heavily medalled players all over the pitch.
Harte spoke during the week of the sense of security he feels by having experienced players of very high technical quality in his squad but ironically enough, this has been viewed as his Achilles heel in some quarters. Where hardly anybody in Kerry called for Jack O’Connor to jettison Darragh Ó Sé or Diarmuid Murphy last year and certainly nobody objected to Michael McCarthy’s return, observers inside and outside Tyrone are saying that Harte has loyalty issues with a few of his tried and trusted lieutenants.
Even the greatest manager of them all, Mick O’Dwyer, has been accused of not addressing the dilemma he faced at the tail end of his tenure in Kerry.
O’Dwyer’s perceived failure to manage the change that was occurring over 20 years ago in Kerry football has been wrongly blamed for the 11-year ‘famine’ that ensued. The fact is all eras and dynasties in football come to a natural end.
One often finds that, while it is the elder statesmen who get exposed to criticism for hanging in there too long and not going gracefully, the reality is that the renewal and regeneration hasn’t been what it should have been due to slackness from the younger players.
This is not just a footballing phenomenon and I am reminded here of Dáibhí Ó Bruadair’s words for the children of Cúchonnacht Ó Dálaigh upon his demise in 1642: “Bereft of its great poets/our old world’s in darkness/the orphans of these masters/offer answers that lack sharpness.”
One of these days Harte is going to have to start an important championship match in Ulster with new faces that may include Kyle Coney, Niall McKenna, Raymond Mulgrew, Seán O Neill, Aidan Cassidy and Peter Harte. He may well find that these emerging stars will also offer answers that lack sharpness but for now he has decided that the changes are not going to be as radical as some would have wished for and that is his prerogative. Managers rise and fall on such decisions and Harte has obviously seen enough in recent weeks to inform his selection ahead of tomorrow’s clash in Casement Park.
Like the great democracies of Western Europe after the Second World War, everybody in Ireland today will appreciate that one can live with austerity for a certain period but only in the certainty that the leadership has a plan.
These have been a tough and austere nine months in Tyrone football and the question of Tyrone veterans’ hunger and desire won’t go away for now but we can be absolutely certain that the leadership has a plan!