Darragh Ó Sé: Mickey Harte’s philosophy hasn’t changed

Tyrone might disrupt Dublin’s rhythm but I don’t see them scoring enough to win

Seán Cavanagh with Kerry captain Declan O’Sullivan during the league clash in Omagh in 2006. When they had players like Peter Canavan, Stephen O’Neill, Kevin Hughes, Cavanagh and Brian McGuigan to call on, they would always build a score that’s hard to beat. Photograph: Alan Betson

Seán Cavanagh with Kerry captain Declan O’Sullivan during the league clash in Omagh in 2006. When they had players like Peter Canavan, Stephen O’Neill, Kevin Hughes, Cavanagh and Brian McGuigan to call on, they would always build a score that’s hard to beat. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

  You have to hand it to Mickey Harte. For a fella who has been through as much as he’s been through – on the pitch and off it – to be taking a team to another All-Ireland final 10 years after the last one is some going.

Not many people have that sort of staying power – or maybe that stubbornness would be the best name you could put on it. I have the height of respect for him that way – what else could you have?

Think of all the games Tyrone have lost since the 2008 All-Ireland. They’ve gone out of the championship to Cork, Armagh, Kerry (twice), Mayo (twice) and Dublin (three times). They went from three All-Irelands in five seasons to year after year without a sniff of a final. All those teams they used to beat got out ahead of them and stayed out ahead of them.

Think of the talking behind Harte’s back that there must have been in Tyrone through all those years. Or even the talking to his face! To be still going and still full sure he knew how to get them back to this point must have taken some steel. But in fairness, as we all know, Mickey was never lacking in that department.

A few years ago, I was up at a dinner dance night in Pomeroy. The set-up was Mickey and myself on-stage with Peter Canavan as the MC. I was on the Playing Rules Committee at the time and one of the things that was up for discussion around then was the mark. Mickey, like most managers, was against anything changing – he wasn’t the first or last intercounty manager I came across who wanted things left the way they were.

Canavan would have a nose for mischief anyway so as soon as he copped that there might be a bit of disagreement between me and Mickey, he jumped on it straight away. He asked me to explain what need there was for a mark anyway – easy knowing he never had to go up for a kick-out in his life.

All the same, I figured I was on fairly solid ground here. I waxed lyrical about growing up watching fellas like Jack O’Shea and Brian Mullins and Willie Bryan and even their own Plunkett Donaghy rising into the sky and fielding high balls. Seán Cavanagh at the event as well and I used him as case in point – “Look, ye have one of the best fielders in the game in the room tonight – why wouldn’t ye want to exploit Seán Cavanagh and use one of the things he is best at?”

I talked about the skill that was involved – the timing of the jump, the judgement of the flight of the ball, the anticipation of the move your man was going to do to try and get there before you. That was my inspiration growing up. I would go to games just to see high fielding alone. If the mark worked, it would bring more high fielding into the game. It was worth a try, at the very least.

By now I was remembering that I had to drive home to Kerry after the event was over and the thing was going on so I left it at that. My case for one of the great skills of the game was made, I thought.

Mickey had a different view.

“To me,” he said, “there’s a huge skill is getting three players around a man who has come down with a catch, surrounding him and turning him over.”

Brilliant strategy

I was stunned into silence. I was expecting some sort of argument but I genuinely hadn’t seen that one coming. I looked over at Canavan, as if to say, “Is this fella having me on here, or what?” I got no help there either.

Straight away, I realised that we had just completely different ways of looking at football. To make those two things out to be comparable skills of the game was just beyond me. And with a long drive to Tralee ahead of me, I thought better of trying to talk Mickey out of his position.

Nobody was just filling the fixture that day or getting their fitness back – we wanted to beat them big time

“Do you know what, Mickey?” I said. “You’re probably right.”

Now, there’s nothing too pure in football, no matter where you play it. I’m not trying to make out that my way is better than Mickey’s. That’s not the point I’m making at all. It’s more that Mickey’s way and his Tyrone teams’ way has always been based, first and foremost, on disruption of their opponents. Tyrone football is about upsetting the other team’s apple cart, knocking them out of their rhythm, shaking them out of their stride.

And when he had the players, it was the foundation of a brilliant strategy. Those Tyrone teams in the 2000s always had our number in Kerry and Mickey’s template was there for all to see. He looked at us, came up with a plan to weaken our strengths and sent his players out to implement it.

Mickey Harte: his team will resemble the great Tyrone teams of the 2000s in their tactics and but the quality of the players at his disposal is no longer the same. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Mickey Harte: his team will resemble the great Tyrone teams of the 2000s in their tactics and but the quality of the players at his disposal is no longer the same. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

When you have players like Canavan, Stephen O’Neill, Kevin Hughes, Seán Cavanagh and Brian McGuigan to call on, you will always build a score that’s hard to beat.

I remember playing them in a league match above in Healy Park one year. It was one of the league games that we were going up there determined to win. Nobody was just filling the fixture that day or getting their fitness back – we wanted to beat them big time. We couldn’t let it keep going on the way it was going, for ourselves as much as for them.

We were three or four points up at half-time and cruising. But right after half-time for about 15 minutes, they came out and blazed into us. I mean they were ravenous, now. We could not get our hands on the ball. This was Mickey Harte football at its peak.

It was just such a whirlwind, frenzied spell of football – and they blew us to pieces with it

You had no time on the ball. You had no time to think. They were coming at you in twos and threes and fours. They were hopping off you every time you got near the ball. Throughout that spell, you never got to make even just a straight-forward handpass – every ball you delivered was either up high with an arm on your shoulder or down on the ground and you trying to get it away through a fella’s legs.

Their terms

Most of all, everything was on their terms. Everything you were doing was being forced. Every kick was off balance. You were instantly surrounded every time you made a catch. You got to make no decision the way you wanted to. For 15 minutes, there was no few seconds of calm for you to get your bearings or to get a message to each other. You basically had to do everything off the cuff, on instinct and hope that instinct chimed with those of your team-mates. Your own game plan was irrelevant – it was just pure survival.

When I think of what it was like to play a Mickey Harte team, that 15 minutes in Omagh jumps out at me quicker even than the times we played them in Croke Park. It was just such a whirlwind, frenzied spell of football – and they blew us to pieces with it. They scored 1-5 or 1-6 before we could get any hold on them at all and it pushed them out into the lead. Playing like that, you couldn’t live with them.

The problem with that, from their point of view, is that you can only keep that up for so long. Nobody is capable of doing what they were doing for more than 15 minutes, 20 at the outside. Definitely nobody was back in 2006, anyway. You have to physically run out of road eventually.

We came back at them as they tired but they had the players to see the game out. I think Stephen O’Neill got 1-4 that day but Cavanagh and McGuigan were well on their game as well. Even though they couldn’t keep up the ferocious high-energy stuff, they had the class to use the cushion they created in that spell to keep us at arm’s length. They had a couple of points to spare in the end but it was that spell just after half-time that won it for them.

Fundamentally, I don’t think Mickey Harte has changed his style very much over the years. Okay, they play with more men further back the pitch now than they did in the 2000s but that’s as much down to the way football has gone as anything else.

The basic principles of his football strategy are the same now as they were when they sprung from the bushes on us in 2003. It’s still about disruption, it’s still about making life as uncomfortable for the opposition as possible.

The difference now is that come Sunday, Stephen O’Neill will be on the sideline, Peter Canavan and Seán Cavanagh will be above in the TV studios, Brian McGuigan will be somewhere in the stands. Tyrone will do their best to try and smash into Dublin, to avoid what happened in last year’s semi-final and to stop them getting into the lovely, unhurried rhythm they’ve been in all year.

But they can’t do that for 70-80 minutes. And when the dust settles, I don’t see them having the calibre of players needed to keep ticking off enough scores to put Dublin in trouble.

Ever since Tyrone qualified for to play the Dubs, I’ve heard people talk about how Mickey Harte always comes up with something for finals. He has this reputation of being like a chess grandmaster. As someone who was on the receiving end in two of those finals, I can promise you he was playing with some seriously top-quality pieces back then. I just don’t see that being the case to the same extent this time around.

Dublin by five or six.

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