The end of the Mickey Harte era for Tyrone couldn’t have been more removed from the days when 18,000 would file into Casement Park to watch them play in Dr McKenna Cup games or pack Croke Park for Ulster finals.
It was played out in a Ballybofey quagmire, players skating around the puddles in the cold November rain. The man putting the ball in the net was a Canavan, but Darragh now, not his father Peter.
With the game in the melting pot, Harte then took off Canavan, a nerveless finisher. The reporters were located in the main stand and the only others present were county board representatives and substitutes. The pained expressions and groans came as a surprise.
Even the inner sanctum voiced their frustration that Harte’s conservative side was trumping his spirit of adventure. Their best hope was walking off the pitch when others might have gone before him. Donegal squeezed over the line and Tyrone were gone in Harte’s only ever do-or-die Ulster Championship game.
A few weeks earlier at the same ground for their league meeting, Tyrone left Ballybofey defeated but secretly delighted. They felt that Donegal had definitely shown too much of their hand a fortnight out from the Championship.
In between times the possibilities of Conor McKenna — freshly returned from his career in the AFL with Essendon Bombers — and young Canavan was revealed as Tyrone hit Mayo for 3-14, relegating the Connacht side for the first time in 23 years.
In his first two games back, McKenna scored 3-4 and delivered the final pass or else won the free-kick for another 2-6. It totted up to 57% of their scoring total.
How different again would it have been if Harte had been able to call on Cathal McShane to complete an attacking trinity?
There is a belief out there with Harte gone, Tyrone can release the handbrake. That a glorious new chapter in their history will be written by the new joint management of Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher, who previously led the U21s to the 2015 All-Ireland title, to the background noise of shackles being thrown off.
“The one man who is key to the thing gelling together is Cathal McShane,” says former Tyrone creator, Brian McGuigan.
“You have Darragh Canavan, Lee Brennan, Mark Bradley, Darren McCurry, they are all sort of similar players and that’s who he had last year.
“But if you don’t have that focal point, the physical presence up front that Cathal McShane gives you…
Not only a physical presence but he is going to take a lot of attention away from those other players, and they can work off them. Cathal could make dummy runs, he could create space for those other players.
Right now, the Tyrone attack has the pick of the following; Niall Sludden, Peter Harte, Matthew Donnelly, Darragh Canavan, Cathal McShane, Conor McKenna, Connor McAliskey, Mark Bradley, Darren McCurry and Lee Brennan.
Others that have lined out in that sector include Logan and Dooher’s U21 captains Frank Burns and Kieran McGeary and another in Conor Meyler, a versatile operator.
With the interruption of Covid, how much first year bounce the new management get is debateable, but similar to McGuigan when Harte came in as manager, players have an incoming management that has put All-Ireland medals in their pockets.
“To be fair to Eugene (McKenna) and Art (McRory, the previous management), I would have no complaints about them at all.
“I am not saying it was inevitable what happened the following year when Mickey took us that extra wee yard.
We definitely would have been a force with Art and Eugene there as well as all the young players were coming to the right age and we had those one or two years’ experience of senior football over us.
“The fact it was Mickey coming in, we knew him so well, it just was a great mixture. There’s a mindset there too that a lot of players will have now. ‘These men took us to an All-Ireland before’.”
A suspicion will forever be held by those loyal to Harte that there was a complacency among the following about the job he was doing.
Change always seems like a good idea.
Discounting the final, Covid-hit season, Harte had guided Tyrone to two Ulster titles, an All-Ireland final and three All-Ireland semi-finals in 2017, 2018, and 2019. That period alone would make him Tyrone’s most successful manager ever without having to dip into the achievements of the decade previous.
Was he that negative, even?
A look through the last few years provides ample context and how they spent years devising the means to develop what used to be called the ‘Marquee forward’, before eventually converting Cathal McShane from his middle-third berth.
In 2015, they lost the All-Ireland semi-final to Kerry after a spin through the qualifiers, having lost their Ulster opener in Ballybofey. Their top scorer was Darren McCurry with 1-24 from seven games. He finished 10th on the top-scorers leaderboard. The next most prolific was Connor McAliskey with 0-23.
The chief scorer that year was Cillian O’Connor. His average score was 8.6 points per game.
In 2016, they refined a counterattacking game that was scintillating to watch on a dry day when each ball went to hand and everything stuck, such as the Ulster final when late points from Sean Cavanagh and Peter Harte went straight into the Hall of Fame.
They hit 3-14 against Derry. 5-18 in the Ulster semi-final replay against Cavan.
The difficulty came when they encountered teams blessed with tight markers. Against Donegal, they eked out 0-13.
In the All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Mayo, they were exposed. Playing Ronan O’Neill up top, Tyrone kicked three balls in his direction in the first quarter, bypassing Keith Higgins as sweeper. However, O’Neill’s marker Brendan Harrison beat him to each delivery.
Once Mayo observed this, they pushed Higgins further up to their own 45 metre line and Tyrone could neither break the defensive line, nor make anything stick inside.
That’s been the story ever since.
In the 2017 Championship, they defended Ulster, hitting 0-22 against Derry, a hugely impressive 1-21 against Donegal, 2-17 in the Ulster final against Down and 3-17 against Armagh in the quarter-final.
They were dismantled in the semi-final by Dublin, returning 0-11.
They reached the All-Ireland final the year after hitting a whopping 17-169 in eight games. But they had no Dean Rock, no Cillian O’Connor that was going to give them seven or eight scores in the game, or no focal point.
It was then that Stephen O’Neill began developing McShane. He finished the 2019 Championship the leading scorer with 3-49 from nine matches, an average of 6.3 points per game and an offer on the table from Adelaide Crows to bring the 24-year-old over to play AFL.
The fly in the ointment is the belief that McShane is still struggling from that horrific injury he picked up pre-lockdown against Galway in February 2020, that required another operation in August.
Without him, the attackers start to look a little similar.
“I don’t want to keep talking about the team that I played on, but if we were all the same, we wouldn’t have been the team we were.
“We had a good mix of different types of players,” notes McGuigan.
“We had Brian Dooher, a total workhorse, Ger Cavlan would have done the same job. Even Peter Canavan, Mugsy, and Stephen O’Neill were sharpshooters inside, but they were three different types of sharp shooters.”
At their unveiling in late November, Feargal Logan set out their stall, that they would be their own men when it came to selecting players.
“We have a deep respect for every Tyrone footballer and everyone who has represented the county,” Logan explained.
“But I do think we have to have a relatively fresh start. And that will mean there will be an opportunity for people to come along who have been there and for people who are coming along for their first or second time to show themselves in matches when we can get things going.”
Some notable calls were made. Ronan O’Neill and Kyle Coney didn’t make it onto the new squad. Neither did Conall McCann, who had been deployed in a number of roles.
Their problem is similar to the other new management teams. Limited time to develop a strategy, with the GAA breathing down their necks looking for a finalised panel of 32 for paying expenses.
McGuigan is even handed when he says; “It is unfair to judge Dooher and Feargal. Other teams have been doing a bit of training, but I know that there has been nothing with Tyrone, it has been Zoom sessions, telling boys what to do. They haven’t been meeting up at all.”
With no training to attend or games to play, the management will have spent months over-thinking things.
The obvious things jump out. Tyrone have not beaten a Mayo, Dublin, or Kerry in Championship football after beating them all in 2008. It can be reasonably argued that this is their best attack since.
There are areas to be addressed. For the last number of years, Mickey Harte insisted on making Peter Harte the fulcrum of his attack. In their Championship exits, his markers John Small (Dublin) and Tom O’Sullivan (Kerry) gave him a torrid time. Harte’s abilities are not in question, but when teams nullify his influence, Tyrone are half-cooked.
McGuigan believes we will see a different Peter Harte this year while others have suggested a role in the half-back line might suit him best.
They also need to figure out how to replace Colm Cavanagh, a man who won his two All-Stars in 2017 and 2018 had become their main leader.
Where does the likes of Conor Meyler, Kieran McGeary and Frank Burns play? What role is there for Brian Kennedy and Richie Donnelly?
How many forwards can they even pick? Are five recognised attackers too much in this era or just right?
Who are their man-markers? Do Tyrone suffer with having a fleet of really tidy ball-players for defence without a surplus of dogs of war? Take out Paudie Hampsey, Rory Brennan, and Ronan McNamee, and who gets the marking jobs for the opposition’s other attackers?
Look at the defence Tyrone had in 2003; Ciaran Gourley, Cormac McAnallen, Ryan McMenamin, Conor Gormley, Gavin Devlin and Philip Jordan, with Brian Dooher, Ger Cavlan and Enda McGinley filtering back to help out and Chris Lawn coming off the bench.
And yet it is the forward ranks of that vintage that is held in such esteem.
Perhaps something radical is required. You could conceivably take a Mickey Harte half-forward line of Peter Harte, Niall Sludden, and Kieran McGeary and transpose it to the half-back line. Keep Hampsey, Brennan, and McNamee in the full-back line for the marking jobs and use Conor Meyler as sweeper.
The Tyrone footballing public is a ravenous beast. Maybe not the animal of Kerry lore, but a demanding article all the same. A season capsized by coronavirus wasn’t enough to hold back the calls for change after last year’s Championship exit.
In turning to Logan and Dooher, the Tyrone County Board have gone for two dependable workhorses. There was plenty of craft to both as players — Dooher’s signal of intent with his long run and point at the start of the 2008 All-Ireland final being one of the most memorable plays of their history — but behind both was a dedication to the cause as pure as Boxer the loyal horse in Animal Farm with his maxim that ‘I must work harder.’
They have the forwards now, but they can only operate on a solid platform. How the new management blends the attack depends almost entirely on the job they can achieve with their defence.
The problems they face now are not that removed from Mickey Harte’s last few years in charge.
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