Tyrone don’t mind reality check now if it pays dividend in summer
Mickey Harte takes setback in his stride as defeat to Donegal dampens expectations
Donegal’s Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh with Tyrone’s Justin McMahon and Rory Brennan in Ballybofey. Photograph: Lorcan Doherty/Presseye/Inpho
If there was one consolation for Tyrone to take home with them from Ballybofey on their Saturday night drive through rainy Ulster, it was that nothing worked for them. Mickey Harte has seen rough days in the league before but this was a different level.
When Seán Cavanagh rushed through for a business-like point seconds after half-time, the score stood at 0-10 to 0-5 and the visitors had the gale at their backs. They had both time and conditions to gradually reel the young home team in. Instead, they stalled in the mud. It took until the 70th minute for Tyrone to post their next score. Including the time added on, they managed just a single point in 42 minutes of football.
Given the waspish relationship which has developed between these two counties and the patience and time it took for Tyrone to regain Ulster supremacy, this was a curiously flat performance. Maybe, on a night of driving rain and gales and a spongy field, they were keeping their powder dry for better days.
“Well, I don’t think they weren’t trying but it was just one of those nights where things weren’t working for them,” Harte said as the players trooped onto the bus.
“Their decision-making just seemed to be not quite what you’d expect it to be and when that sets in – kind of a bit of a malaise comes with it. After one misplaced pass and another and another and Donegal are picking off a few points in the meantime, that’s hard to get out of – especially against a team like Donegal.
“We all know playing a team like Donegal, you have to be with them step for step. If you give them a lead they are very good at protecting it and it’s very hard to break them down. You have to say the players tried very hard and the conditions that were there really didn’t suit our running game as well as a good dry sod would do. But those are the conditions we had to play under and we didn’t manage it very well. The end result is we got a bad beating and we have to live with that.”
The quality of the Donegal score-taking was exceptional in wild conditions and the series of second-half wides Tyrone fired meant that their hopes were carried off on the breeze.
They had a seasoned attacking unit, with Peter Harte playing a more advanced role and Seán Cavanagh and Mattie Donnelly named in a potentially lethal full-forward line. Darren McCurry had to withdraw just before throw-in with a sore back but Tyrone were able to replace him with another flier, Mark Bradley.
It was one of the first glimpses of a possible Cavanagh/Donnelly axis forming the basis of Tyrone’s front-line attack in the summer. It would be a bold move given that Donnelly has excelled in his role manning the engine-room of Tyrone’s attacking game in recent seasons.
“Well, it’s not necessarily sort of set in stone,” Harte reasoned.
“They are both playing in the front line or at least the numbers suggest it, but if you watch the game you’ll see that both of they don’t spend a lot of their time in the front line. They could alternate in and out, one could be out and the other could be in or the two of them could be out – it’s not a perfect formula any more.
“The game is very fluid and you try to make the best of the players you have in the positions you think they will be most effective and that’s always a changing scene if you like.”
The speed at which perceptions flip is one of the fascinations of league football. In the opening weeks, Tyrone seemed to be purring nicely and had been pencilled in by many as likely league finalists and All-Ireland dark horses. A no-show on a rotten night doesn’t change that but it is bound to cool the talk.
Tyrone host Mayo next Sunday and then travel to Kerry to complete their league programme. Both are stern assignments. Harte smiled when it was put to him that the defeat would change the opinion that Tyrone were the team to beat in the Ulster arena.
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“Hmm . . . hopefully, for you boys that thought that,” Harte laughed. “We didn’t think that! That’s a reality check for you people that write these stories. We would never suggest that. We would suggest that Ulster is always as hard as it’s ever been and anyone that would suggest at this stage that somebody has a right to win it, they would be not very well aware of Ulster football. I don’t think you can come to conclusions like that on any one game.
“On the night Donegal looked a very good side and if they keep up that kind of form for the rest of the season, then your speculation will be very accurate. But I’ll wait and see; it’s too early yet to be deciding.
“We wouldn’t like to think that people would be suggesting that we are world-beaters at this stage of the year. We think are a decent team and we think we will be difficult to beat as the year goes on. But none of us have a crystal ball and as the season unfolds we’ll be better armed to make those kinds of decisions.”
The standard managerial reaction after defeats is to accentuate the positives and the lessons accumulated but Harte shrugged when he was invited to do the same.
“Well, what do you expect me to say? Certain individuals at certain phases of the game did many good things but we didn’t do enough of it across the entire game. This thing about positives, it’s a bit of a clichéd sort of question at this stage. The fact of the matter is we are hugely disappointed that we didn’t get any point out of the game and it will take time to reflect on where we might find something to be happy about.”