To understand this Tyrone team, you must understand the depths from which they came.
These past nine months, Sean Cavanagh has provided the most compelling narrative of their rise from the doldrums. After losing to Armagh in last year’s qualifiers, the captain was in “tears for hours”.
In front of their own, Tyrone were, as he says, “getting thrown around in the tackle a wee bit”.
It couldn’t have been more embarrassing.
The recruitment of Cavanagh’s former team-mate Peter Donnelly as strength and conditioning coach last autumn was the type of response the players were looking for from management. Cavanagh predicted last December that a new Tyrone would be seen this year.
“There’s just an awful lot more energy and feel-good factor and I have no doubt that people will see a more physical Tyrone in 2015 because of that. Hopefully, that will help us overcome those difficulties we’ve had with strong defensive systems because 2015’s not going to be any different.”
It soon became apparent that Mickey Harte had to devise a style suited to his more bulked-up team. First day out in the league, Monaghan beat them by seven points in Healy Park. Tyrone’s problem? Monaghan could think on their feet but essentially Tyrone were exposed. Again.
Eight days later and they looked a different team in Castlebar. Parking bus, Buick, and Bentley, they frustrated the hell out of Mayo as they did Dublin in Croke Park a couple of rounds later.
Having seen his side tormented, Jim Gavin was asked if he would consider following Tyrone’s example. “No,” was his firm reply.
Tyrone hadn’t yet mastered this soak-and-squeeze style. The introduction of Donncha O’Connor was the winning of the game for Cork in Omagh in mid-March. Brian Cuthbert brought him on along with a triumvirate of forwards and, with the benefit of the wind, they prospered.
Afterwards Cavanagh could only smile at another failure to claim two points at home. Turning his attention to Donegal in Ballybofey the following week, he said: “It’s away from home so I’d say we’ve probably a good chance to win.”
But Tyrone didn’t and completed a miserable league campaign with a draw to Kerry in Omagh, confirming relegation to Division 2. Wins over Limerick and Meath in Healy Park this summer have since improved their home record but they have won just three of their last 12 league matches there.
An operation meant Harte missed that share of the spoils with Kerry but he returned to the sideline for the Ulster opener in Ballybofey. Given he entered this year for the first time without an extension already confirmed, a fourth consecutive defeat to Donegal in five seasons was regarded as the beginning of the end for the manager now in his 13th season at the helm. Justin McMahon may have kept Michael Murphy silent until the closing stages but Tyrone had once again fallen short.
Harte certainly wasn’t promising an All-Ireland quarter-final spot as he did after they lost in MacCumhaill Park two years previous.
But there was defiance: “I have been very confident in the quality of this team for a long time and particularly this year. I have no doubt that when these men get their head around the fact that they have to go through the qualifiers, if we get a favourable draw at all, I think we will be a match for many in that department.”
Cavanagh wasn’t too despondent either. “It’s something I’ve been harping on for a couple of years. I can see the quality in the county in terms of ability and certain individuals who didn’t even play to the top of their ability (against Donegal).
“I know there’s a serious amount of talent within the county at the moment. Just trying to get that get into the jigsaw puzzle that will allow all those talents to come at one time.”
Gavin Devlin’s eight-week sideline ban was another low as they headed into the qualifiers but there, outside Ulster, and as they did in 2008 and ’13 they discovered themselves. Reverting to a more defensive structure, the conservatism even against the likes of Limerick and Meath served well a team who had been rocked too many times. To evolve, Tyrone had to devolve a little.
Each of their wins has told a similar story: Keep it tight initially and as the clock grows, slowly unwind. Excluding the Sligo game, the half-time margin has been a point on three occasions and two on another.
Their scoring in the second halves across the five matches — a total of 2-47 — dwarfs their combined scoring in the first halves — 0-35. Goals are rare but as Harte said after the league draw with Dublin: “Anybody who is going to Gaelic football to see goals only, maybe they should go to another game.”
It must be considered too that Tyrone have reached this point while haemorrhaging players. Just before the start of the league, six were dropped from the panel, former minor starlet Kyle Coney being one of them. Joe McMahon was reported to be on a study break but he was also surplus to requirements until he was returned.
Dermot Carlin also suffered the axe before coming back only to remove himself from the panel after a lack of action this summer. PJ Lavery left the panel at the end of the league a week after Paddy McNeice, Dwayne Quinn, Emmet McKenna, and Shay McGuigan exited due to a dearth of game time.
This isn’t even the best panel Tyrone can muster. But they’ll never be accused of slacking on the job.
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