Tyrone were the itch that Kerry could never scratch in the noughties, but Mickey Harte has stressed that the sides recent mutual history in HQ will account for next to nothing come Sunday.
Much has changed since the counties circled each other like primed gladiators for the bones of the last decade, but Harte remains at the apex of the rivalry and one which he admits brings “added value” to the first of the All-Ireland semi-finals this weekend.
For him at least, this isn’t completely virgin territory.
It is easy to forget now that Tyrone would have been strong underdogs a dozen years ago when the counties met in that famous/infamous — take your pick as you see fit — All-Ireland semi-final when they all but squeezed the pips from Kerry in a 0-13 to 0-6 win.
“Underdog to a degree,” said Harte of that tag in those memorable encounters of yore. “In ’05 and ’08, maybe not as big underdogs as we are just now. We probably were in ’03 because there was probably a bit of a surprise element to what we were coming with then.
“That surprise element evaporated in ’05 and ’08. They’d have still been favourites, but we were closer to the mark, but I do believe we are out there as a bit of an underdog again and we have to see if we can cope with that.”
The benefit of hindsight allows us to appreciate even more what Tyrone offered at the time. To think that they came from virtually nowhere to claim Sam Maguire thrice is one thing: To remember they beat Kerry each time along the way in doing so is all the more remarkable.
Harte, however, doesn’t sound like he will be leaning on any of that for comfort this week.
The 2003 win he ascribes to catching Kerry “on the hop a bit”, 2005 to “the rub of the green” and the same in 2008.
“Any of the days we won, we could have lost,” he explained. “I won’t be getting too carried away by that.”
He is hardly alone in predicting his current side will need to be operating at close to maximum capacity to have a fighting chance this time, but it is a testament to his managerial ability and his perseverance that both he and his team find themselves 70 minutes from another decider.
Just three years have passed since the 10-point All-Ireland qualifier defeat in Killarney to Kerry. It was difficult then to see Tyrone returning to the big time any time soon.
“It was one of those landmark times,” Harte agreed. “There were a few other times as well that we shipped a bit of a beating that wouldn’t have been par for the course in the previous eight or 10 years. We have had to learn from some hurtful defeats and obviously our league defeat to Kerry in Killarney, (last year), wasn’t pleasant either.
“It’s not easy to play the modern game with men in their 30s, in numbers. You can handle a few of them, but you can’t have the majority of them. Maybe it took that little bit of time for us to have just a few in that category and others who have the potential to go for 70 minutes in an intense game.”
That the game is more intense now than it ever was has long been accepted as scripture, though Harte has never had any truck with those who have bemoaned talk of revolution, preferring instead to see the changing landscape through the prism of evolution.
As for the term ‘defensive football’, that has always stuck in his craw.
“For example, there were 32 scores in our (quarter-final against Monaghan) in Croke Park,” he said. “That seems to have gone unnoticed. That amazes me, but that’s the case. Two Ulster teams that are recognised to be in a defensive province and dour, generally, in the eyes of some. Thirty-two scores is not bad for that kind of strategy.”
Tiernan McCann’s dive and the various other unappetising scenes witnessed in that encounter were always going to overshadow any other talking points, but Harte has a point in refusing to see the modern game in the black-and-white terminology of ‘attack’ or ‘defence’.
And, anyway, few are immune to the charms of a concentrated defence anymore.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice displayed his pragmatism last September by deploying a more cautious strategy to outwit a Donegal side that had performed football’s greatest ever rope-a-dope against Dublin in the semi-final and Harte wasn’t surprised to see the Kingdom come to that conclusion.
“They did have to mirror them and they did that very well,” said Harte. “You might say they got the rub of the green in terms of the mistake that Paul Durcan made — and he doesn’t make very many of them. That was critical.
“The early goal they got that day was critical as well in that performance because to do what they had to do, it’s easier done when you are on the front foot than chasing the game. You can’t chase the game and be ultra-defensive. So things worked out good for Kerry in that they created that situation for themselves early on and maybe got a bit of luck to consolidate it later in the game. If anybody are good learners, it is Kerry and they showed that last year.”
It’s been seven years since he masterminded the last of Tyrone’s three All-Ireland titles, but Harte revealed he never once considered vacating his role.
“No, I never had that temptation,” said the Errigal Ciaran clubman who has now been county senior manager since the 2003 season. “I love a challenge. That’s been clear in all the years I have been working with football teams.
“This was a great challenge to try and do something after a group of real quality group of players had gone through the system and I am enjoying and relishing the challenge.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved