Containing Harte could be the key


ULSTER SFC TYRONE v ARMAGHKildare had a plan to deal with the Tyrone centre half-back but will Armagh be able to cope, asks MALACHY CLERKIN

IT WAS a January Wednesday night in Brewster Park and it was the Dr McKenna Cup against Fermanagh and it was nothing – nothing – that anyone should have considered important or even noteworthy. But with the clock just about dead and Tyrone holding onto a slim lead, Peter Harte gathered possession around the Tyrone half-back line and went on a burst. Winter ground or no winter ground, he ploughed up the centre of the pitch at pace and blew through a couple of tackles before laying the ball off for the sealing score. It was his first game as centre half-back for Tyrone and if there was a man of the match bauble going, he’d have had it. But it was the McKenna Cup and it meant nothing.

Spin the tape on a fortnight or so, however, and it came to mean quite a bit. Tyrone played Kildare in the Division Two league opener in Croke Park and both their goals came from runs through the middle made by Harte. By the end of the league, he was Tyrone’s top scorer with 5-5. Granted, three of his goals were from penalties but he created as much as he scored.

Division Two teams were unsure as to how he should be dealt with and it wasn’t until Kildare got another crack at him in the league final that he was finally contained. As a tactical ploy, it was straight from the Mickey Harte ideas factory – take a talent and find a way to exploit it that nobody else has thought of yet. Watching on from south Armagh, Crossmaglen co-manager Tony McEntee couldn’t but be impressed.

“They’ve been very smart about it,” he says. “Mickey Harte has obviously thought a lot about how to utilise Peter’s strengths which are his running with the ball and his ability to attack from deep and get scores. Peter was fine as a wing half-forward and was capable of getting a few scores and making it difficult for opposing defences there.

“But he is very strong coming on to the ball so it was a very clever move pushing him back there and having him come through with it. What Mickey has done to facilitate it is allow Ronan McNabb to drop back from wing-forward and cover across at centre half-back so as to give Peter that freedom to go forward knowing that he wasn’t leaving the whole centre of the defence open.”

It worked like a dream, right up until the point where it didn’t. Harte was an elusive presence throughout the league and must have seemed like subliminal advertising to opposing teams at times, for they could never quite be sure in what part of the pitch they’d seen him. The teamsheet said one thing, the scoresheet said another. From centre-back, Harte was the only Tyrone player to score in every game.

“It’s always the case when a new player comes in or a new system is employed,” says McEntee. “You tend to get the freedom of the field for a while until somebody else cops on to what you’re doing and they adjust. Kildare adapted to it in the league final but there were a number of reasons for that. Most of all, it was because they were strong and fit and they were able to track his play whenever he went on a run.”

There was more to it than just fitness and brawn, however – Kildare had a clear plan for Harte in that game. Eoin O’Flaherty pushed him down alleys whenever he took possession. The rest of the Tyrone team, possibly caught on the hop when Harte didn’t have quite the free hand he’d enjoyed all spring, left him isolated at times and Tyrone’s play slowed down dramatically as a result.

Will it force a rethink for the championship? McEntee doubts it. “I think it’s interesting that on the teamsheet for this weekend against Armagh, Mickey’s changed it and named Peter at number 12.

“Nobody expects him to play there and I think he’ll just drop back from that position and do exactly what he’s been doing through the league.

“It might vary a little in that Conor Gormley could sit there as a pre-defined centre half-back and Ronan McNabb will stay at wing half-forward. But Peter’s role probably won’t change very much.

“Armagh will have a system in place in order to counteract Peter’s runs. I would suspect that Kevin Dyas has been named at centre-forward for this purpose.”

Punch and counter-punch. In a Mickey Harte world, every game’s a chess game and by moving Peter Harte to the other end of the board, he’s turned a pawn into a queen. Kildare found a defence for him in the league final but we can take it the Tyrone manager isn’t finished tinkering with the strategy just yet.