The accepted wisdom was that this was a side in decline, one that Harte was stubbornly allowing to grow old since the last of their three September successes in 2008, but there were clear signs of regeneration in the midlands.
The Tyrone manager made five changes to his stated line-up, only two of them due to injuries. The men ushered in were no babes in the woods but they were new enough and young enough to suggest a break with tradition.
Out went Stephen O’Neill, Brian Dooher, Kevin Hughes, Davy Harte and Martin Swift. In their place came Kyle Coney, Colm Cavanagh, Aidan Cassidy and more established faces in the shape of Dermot Carlin and Justin McMahon.
Older types like Joe McMahon and Sean Cavanagh impressed but the team leaders two days ago emerged mostly from the younger brigade which, if built upon, could be the breath of fresh air needed to establish a heave towards the championship’s latter stages.
Peter Harte top scored, Colm Cavanagh and Cassidy cleaned up in midfield and Mark Donnelly provided the tip to the attacking spear from full-forward where he scored one goal and could have had two.
“You look at the bench, with Stephen O’Neill and Kevin Hughes not being called upon tonight, Brian McGuigan went off but you can bring on Dooher,” said Sean Cavanagh.
“You’ve the Hartes and the Coneys so if you look at the average age of the starting team there, it would probably compare with most other teams.
“People seem to latch on to these myths and seem to think that we’re all done but you see the likes of Philly Jordan driving up there at 32 years of age, Ryan and Conor being fit as anything despite being around the block. Certainly we don’t buy into any of those myths and hopefully we can prove that in the next few weeks.”
This was a good start.
Longford stuck to their coat-tails from start to finish and only when Peter Harte and Tommy McGuigan landed two injury-time points were the visitors finally offered the space to breathe.
It was a superb game, littered with superb scores and unblemished by negativity, as the sides went at it tit-for-tat for 65 minutes. The difference between them was Tyrone’s five-minute burst after the break.
They hit an unanswered 1-3 with Donnelly claiming the goal and Damien Sheridan’s second superb save denying the same player a second. Longford, in contrast, never threatened a green flag.
“Everyone said how tough it was going to be coming here and it’s difficult to prepare yourself for that intensity,” said Cavanagh. “Donegal never brought that intensity to us in the Ulster championship. It was tough in the first-half and the crowd were getting behind the home team. They pushed us all the way in the first-half.
“We had a bit of a breeze coming out and we knew we had to silence the crowd. We knew they dumped an awful lot of energy in the first-half and we needed a few scores quickly. Luckily, Mark got on the end of a move and I think that goal gave us that bit of breathing space and we could go toe-to-toe until the end of the game.”
It is a result that leaves Tyrone in a good place. Mickey Harte intimated later that the pre-game changes were motivated in part by the possibility of a heavy work load in the weeks to come. The competition for places should be fierce from here on in.
Their new route could well prove to be a blessing. Five of the last six All-Ireland champions have taken the longer one before clambering up the steps of the Hogan Stand and Cavanagh, for one, has no qualms about where their summer has taken them.
“When Donegal beat us, I was quite optimistic coming into these games. In the qualifiers you know what you’re going to get. You need to perform every day. It really hardens you and adds that ruthlessness to your game which maybe we were missing over the last couple of years.
“Maybe we were half-strolling through Ulster finals and getting sucker punched on All-Ireland quarter-final day. We know where we are now. Every day we have to perform and that’s not a bad place to be, particularly when you have a talented bunch of players.”
Scorers for Tyrone: P Harte 0-7 (1f), M Donnelly 1-2, C Cavanagh, M Penrose (1f), S Cavanagh (2fs) 0-2 each, K Coney, T McGuigan 0-1 each.
Scorers for Longford: S McCormack 0-6 (2fs), F McGee, B Kavanagh 0-3 each, N Farrell, P Barden, D McElligott 0-1 each.
Substitutes for Tyrone: B Dooher for B McGuigan (35), Sean O’Neill for Gormley (53), O Mulligan for Penrose (57), T McGuigan for Coney (68).
Substitutes for Longford: N Mulligan for McElligott (53), CP Smith for Diffley (60), J McGivney for McElvaney (65).
Referee: P McEnaney (Monaghan).