Fresh voices can help Harte lift Hands

BACK in February, only days after his team had carved out a hard-earned win up in Armagh in the opening round of the league, Bernard Brogan was wheeled out at one of those sponsored media gigs to give his assessment about Dublin’s prospects for the season.

Although it was a full six months before his team would meet and rout Tyrone in Croke Park, it was obvious that the Blue Book this Dublin team was reading from was one essentially written by the Red Hands.

Brogan talked about how up until the last season or two, Dublin would have taken a “give it a lash” approach to a fixture like that; a win in the Athletics Ground would have been less of a target as a bonus. But if Dublin were to get back winning All-Irelands, they had to consistently win on the road and get back contesting league finals.

“We know that hard work works for us,” he said, “that’s why Kerry and Tyrone have won so many games over the past 10 years — they feel like they deserve to win and when it comes down to the wire the team that believes wins.”

It was Mickey Harte who first talked like that, thought like that. Before Harte, winning the league was viewed as a nuisance, an irrelevance, almost a curse. When Harte took the Tyrone job, he made it clear his team would be going all out to retain the league they had won under Art McRory. Sure enough, after Tyrone won the league and championship double that seminal year of 2003, Kerry, and after that again Cork, copped how spring success had a habit of translating into September glory.

It was Harte who popularised the idea of “deserving victory”, a term he picked up from the top pro and college basketball coach Rick Pitino. By outworking the opposition on the training ground and then on the battlefield, Pitino maintained, you’d eke out victory.

Is there a more common post-match term used by GAA managers than “work rate”? Yet how often did we hear it before the emergence of Harte? After shocking Cork, James Horan spoke about the importance of his team winning the breaking ball count. Before Harte, Kerry’s wing-forward was the ball-playing Aodan MacGearailt. After the arrival of Harte and his championing of Brian Dooher, the Kingdom responded with Paul Galvin.

Donegal have particularly modelled themselves on Tyrone and Armagh. Both those teams changed the lexicon of Gaelic games, not just Gaelic football. They changed and shaped how Gaelic games are played today.

Tyrone must now take a leaf out of their own book. Renovate and innovate. Of course, all teams lose. Of course, all teams age but you still sense Tyrone could have done more to fight their inevitable decline.

In the final pages of Kicking Down Heaven’s Door, his chronicles of the 2003 season, Harte wrote enthusiastically about Paddy Tally’s desire to have a ceremonial-like bonfire to discard so many of the motivational tools they had used in that breakthrough year. And for years Harte would repeatedly freshen the thing up, to the point of even discarding Tally himself and replacing him with Fergal McCann as trainer.

It’s all gone a little stale, a little too familiar though. Harte baulks at the idea of same voice syndrome, emboldened by the fact the same charge was levelled at him in 2008, but it’s three years on again and while his own voice still commands respect, it would be more effective if it was surrounded by a few new ones.

It would be a particularly good idea to bring in some of the people who have mentored recent successful Tyrone underage teams, or even recently-retired players.

In Kicking Down Heaven’s Door, Harte recalls a conversation with Ger Cavlan when he asks the talented but erratic half-forward what he hears most when he hears Harte talking to him. “Poor tackler,” Cavlan responded. That jolted Harte, reminding him to make Cavlan aware of how much he valued the player’s strengths too. Harte might get a similar jolt if he was to engage in that exercise with the younger players on his panel today. Recently one of them was privately asked what he hears most when he hears Harte and the player disappointedly confessed it was invariably another diatribe against the media.

It has been an unimaginably tough year on Harte and since a man as compassionate as him carries no malice against his daughter’s killers, it’s understandable his anger has been channelled in other ways.

In truth, it is a testament to the man that he was able to bring Tyrone to their eighth All-Ireland quarter-final under him.

But if Tyrone are to break that threshold with a new, fresh team he needs to go away and dream it all up again with a new, fresh backroom.

* Contact: kieranshannon@eircom.net

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