COLM COOPER: Tyrone and the challenge of timing a steady run to September

Hard to believe it is almost 10 years since Tyrone won the last of their three All-Irelands, writes Colm Cooper.

There have been ebbs and flows in the meantime for Mickey Harte, seasons when I thought they were the anyone-but-them rivals, and other season when they looked like a spent force.

Harte enjoyed last Sunday. He said he saw that smooth, sharp performance against Donegal coming from a long way out. But he had to do it in the shop window with the curtains pulled back. Everybody else saw it too.

The main contenders for September got a good look at what Tyrone are about in 2017 — and they’ll get another peek into Mickey’s lab on July 16 against Monaghan.

Of all the disadvantages of playing football in the Ulster championship, that’s the biggest one of all: It’s very hard to take your foot off the gas and freewheel.

Maybe the cat’s out of the bag for Tyrone, but Mickey had no choice. Tyrone needed to do that for themselves. So that they can believe Mickey when he says ‘we can do this. We can put up the 1-20s with the best of them, we have the artillery down the business end of the field.’

If anyone can get a team right against the odds, it’s Harte. He’s taking a defiant pride in this resurgence. Few outside the county mentioned them as top-four material for the All-Ireland.

People threw their eyes to heaven even when Owen Mulligan said it after Sunday’s win in Clones. What I read into that was: Tyrone have a bit of belief about them again. They know Mickey’s cooking something special, something the rest of us didn’t see till last Sunday.

Advertising their prospects was a price Tyrone had to pay. The problem for an Ulster contender like Mickey Harte is that he needed to peak for last weekend, which Tyrone did. They’ll need to peak again to beat Monaghan. And then they are still only in the quarter-final.

Dublin don’t need to be at their peak in Leinster, Kerry arguably the same — though we’ll get a better sense of that next week in Killarney.

They certainly weren’t at the peak of their powers in Clare. Those two counties, in particular, have the luxury of management building in room for improvement to their training regime. Periodisation is easier. They don’t have their kick-out strategy advertised and nailed to the wall in June.

They don’t have to have the team completely settled. Ulster is so difficult to navigate, with half the Allianz League Division 1 teams this year residing in the province.

As a team, it’s a lovely bit of breathing space to have: Knowing you are going well in the summer but nobody’s really seen it yet. And you are going to unleash it in Croke Park in August. In my experience, Kerry might win a Munster championship, be muck in a quarter-final, and have people questioning us a little.

Then we crank it up a notch for the semi. Mickey Harte is right to point out the value of high-intensity games, but can any county in Ulster keep that going from June to the middle of September?

I watched Dara Ó Cinnéide’s GAA Nua show on Monday night. In the world of inter-county analysis now, a lot of information is available to players on their laptops and phone, be it their own stats, or clips of opposition.

The top-tier managements will have seen Tyrone on three or four occasions by the time the All-Ireland gets down to brass tacks. They will have a good idea of their real strengths.

A good manager will pick out big areas and deconstruct them, whether it’s kick-outs, the defensive unit, or the movement of their half backs and half forwards. As brilliant as Tyrone were last Sunday, they gave Monaghan/Down plenty to be working on for July 16.

From the evidence of what we saw during the league in 2016 and 2017, Tyrone were playing within a very confined system, like they weren’t encouraged to think outside the box. Driving from Kerry last Sunday, I was playing out all the chess moves in my head but Tyrone bossed the board from the first few minutes. Donegal had no answers. Chewed up and spat out.

I’m always intrigued by the Peter Harte role. He wears No7, but I still don’t know what position he played on Sunday.

On occasions, he was dispossessing Donegal players in his half-back line, the next he was the furthest Tyrone player forward. He demands more pre-game planning by opposition managers than most players. Do you go man-to-man on him, knowing that an amount of Tyrone’s good stuff will go through him?

And how does that disrupt the shape of the team facing him? Even on the bad days for Tyrone, he’s been a beacon.

Tiernan McCann gets 1-1, I don’t know have I ever seen Colm Cavanagh play as well or as constructively. Tyrone’s entire game seemed to be evolving. The shackles are not completely off by any means. If they meet Dublin later in the summer, they won’t come out dancing the Macarena.

But they have another string or two to their bow now.

Niall Sludden, four points from centre forward. I had seen him, but I hadn’t seen that in him. Seeing and finding the pass. Elusive.

I hadn’t seen that in Tyrone, either. Because it is supposedly Sean Cavanagh’s last season, it’s like Vegas: All the chips are in here, shoulders to the wheel, whatever it takes to win.

Harte knows as good as anybody in the game that there are many different ways to win an All-Ireland. In 2009, a year after Tyrone beat us, Kerry were a team not playing well and all over the place from a system point of view.

We were going out and playing on the basis of the individual quality we had. Paul Galvin was footballer of the year that season. We were barely getting by with him and a few others, but that’s all we were doing.

We were getting a lot of stick at that time, like Cork are now.

There had to be something wrong in the camp, we were told. Dr Crokes fellas weren’t talking to the South Kerry fellas, South Kerry fellas weren’t talking to the Gaeltacht lads. None of it was any bit true, but there had to be something wrong.

Nobody mentioned we’d been in five finals in a row. Hunger drains without you realising it. You’d meet a reporter and he’d say ‘is the hunger there’, and sure, of course it is, why wouldn’t it be? But that’s not a measurement.

The measurement is on the pitch with 10 minutes to go and you’re in a big hole and the other crowd are kicking lumps out of you.

Dublin in the quarter-final was the carrot we needed that season. It was the one time that season we raised it to the limit. Even the semi-final win over Meath and Cork in the final were workmanlike at best. Tyrone will have to produce two big displays just to leave their own province as champions.

And maybe they might ride the momentum they’d pick up from an Ulster title and be too hot for anyone to handle when they hit Croke Park. In my experience, the temporal rhythms of the Road to Croker increase gradually.

I used to find Kerry might win the Munster championship, but there was always 15% to find afterwards. Management wouldn’t push that. Step 1 was winning Munster, Step 2 was finding that 10%-15% that would get you to September.

That’s where smart managers in Kerry or Dublin can take a calculated gamble to time their run.

Even in my mid-20s, I had come around to thinking it was August and September I needed to peak for. You didn’t slack for spring and summer, but the body clock changes after the provincial series, and everything goes up a level.

It might be only 2% or 3%. Kerry have been quite lucky with quarter-final draws because after the Munster final, you’d gamble with a bout of really hard training. You’d attack that knowing how strong you’d feel heading to Croke Park.

No game for four weeks was a bit of a balls, but it gave me a great training base to be ready for the business end of the season.

There are peaks and troughs. As you get older as a player, you understand the body can’t do it all the time so you make the best estimate to have it ready to go at a certain place and at a certain time. That’s August and September.

The big thing in that is trust. I had to trust myself that I had the work done, that I was exactly where I needed to be. That razor sharpness in training. People would say they saw it in me more than I did myself because I trusted it all the time.

Selectors would say ‘we see the change, you’re on the money here now’. And you know, you are different gravy than four or five weeks ago. That’s an exhilarating feeling, it drives so much positive energy through you and your game. You’d try a lot more things as a result.

I look at Cork at the moment, and the fear that’s hampering how they play. The safe option is the only option because there is very little positive energy. Imagination is curbed. Whereas when confidence is up, you see a pass and you’ll make that pass. It’s done without thinking.

Tyrone aren’t there yet, but for good or ill, they’re the summer’s first talking horse after the demolition of Donegal.


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