Mickey Harte’s Tyrone looking the part again

But new-look team must face down bogey side Donegal to claim a first Ulster title in six years

With the patience and precision of a lathe turner, Mickey Harte has crafted his latest team with big ambitions.

There’s been a sense of inevitability about Tyrone’s progress for much of this season. Although they began it in Division Two after the familiar game of musical chairs at the end of last season ended in relegation, at the time Harte made no secret that he viewed this as an accidental nudge off course.

"I don't believe we are a Division Two team, I believe we are a Division One team, even though we have to play our football in Division Two next year," he told the Tyrone GAA website teamtalkmag.com at the end of last year's championship.

The perception that they had never really gone away was sustained in the aftermath of two early-season championship exits against this weekend’s Ulster final opponents Donegal,


Tyrone motored through the qualifiers to end both 2013 and last year with narrow, creditable defeats by Mayo and Kerry, respectively in the All-Ireland semi-finals.

There has however been something about the team this year (as they won the expected league promotion and powered through the province, surviving the speed bump of Cavan’s strong comeback in the drawn semi-final) that suggests they have clicked and can take a characteristically formidable challenge into Croke Park. But first there are old scores – and plenty of them – to settle with Donegal. The counties have played four times in the past five years and Tyrone have lost the lot.

Defensive structure

None of those defeats was severe even if they all appeared to conclude with the winners finishing strongly to barge their way through to the next round. Tyrone had chances along the way – and better than that in 2012 – to engineer a different result but it never took shape.

Now though the team is more mature, both in terms of the individuals who have broken on to it but also its abilities as a collective. Based on a deep defensive structure, the game plan thrives on the ability to shut down the approaches to scoring and ensnare the opposition by dispossession or pressurising them into turnovers.

The aggressive counter-attacking at speed is exceptionally hard to defend against.

For someone who had been depicted as needing a break – this is his 14th season in the position – Harte has responded convincingly and not alone by grumpily taking issue with the suggestion that the team needs a new voice but by the energy and skill with which he has rebuilt the Tyrone challenge.

There are other components in this resurgence besides the manager's tactical and team building acumen: the emergence of last year's All-Ireland under-21 winners and the highly regarded physical work done with the team by former All-Ireland winner Peter Donnelly, who returned to Tyrone in 2014 as the county's full-time strength and conditioning coach – a role he previously played with Cavan.

Another ex-player Fergal Logan, along with his former team-mates Peter Canavan and Brian Dooher, managed the side that won the under-21 All-Ireland last year and has produced exciting new talents like Rory Brennan, Cathal McShane and Mark Bradley

“The under-21s are in the shop window and can see the rewards of success and that drives them,” he says. “It’s definitely been a positive influence on the overall Tyrone picture. I would have expected them to come through although maybe not as quickly as they did. There was an exodus of retiring players coincidentally as the influx from the 21s happened. I’m pleased they’re getting an opportunity.

Last season

“There are also middle men (from the 2008 All-Ireland winning minors) like

Mattie Donnelly


Peter Harte

and Ronan McNabb, who’s back again now (after injury). Niall McKenna’s another but he’s also had trouble with injury. They’ve had plenty to offer too.

“Then you have Seán Cavanagh and the McMahons, who have been around since the good days.”

Seán Cavanagh is the one remaining link with the team that became Harte’s and the county’s first All-Ireland winners 13 years ago. He has strongly hinted that this could be his last season but he continues to bring nous and leadership to the team whereas his brother Colm is one of the manager’s most successful projects.

For years the younger Cavanagh made [Animal Farm's ] Boxer look like a dilettante but he has been transformed in the past couple of years from a valiant trier into a highly effective sweeper.

Harte is on the record praising the player’s intelligent reading of the game, ability in the air and speed over the first few metres, which has lit the fuse on many of the team’s explosive breakouts from defence.

Peter Donnelly’s role has been widely praised. The relentless tempo of tracking back into defence and counter-attacking at pace makes huge demands on players’ fitness.

According to Art McRory, who led the county to two All-Ireland finals, Donnelly has provided the moving parts for Harte’s retooled machine.

“Peter Donnelly has revolutionised the fitness end of things. The players place great faith in him. He’s the most obliging of individuals and visits people to chase up even small things. He talks to them – doesn’t just demand.

Big help

“It’s been a big help to the style of play that Mickey has persevered with. He has combined great leaders like Seán Cavanagh, Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte with younger players and has rebuilt thoughtfully after putting up with criticism that he held on to a good team for too long before refreshing it. Then there was a period when he began to rebuild and he used 34 players in five championship matches but he persevered and must get credit for that.”

The six-year gap since last winning an Ulster title has whetted appetites in a county that had taken to pushing away its plate in the province by the turn of this decade.

“In one way we gorged out on success in the 2000s and have been suffering from a hangover since 2008,” says Logan. “It was all part of a process. We became complacent about Ulster titles and then they dried up – so we’ve been through those phases and the buzz is back.

“It would be a milestone to get an Ulster title again.”

It’s an interesting state of mind because in many ways the qualifier system has suited Tyrone so well. It rewards and exercises Harte’s ability to tweak selections and configurations and allows teams to knit together with its steady rhythm of weekly matches.

Two of the county’s three All-Irelands have been pieced together on the championship’s outside track and on the two occasions when Donegal eliminated them in the province, they ultimately progressed farther than their opponents and reached All-Ireland semi-finals, defeating the Ulster winners (on both occasions their neighbours, Monaghan) along the way.

This time though there is excitement at the prospect of lifting the Anglo Celt again but a parallel anxiety about the record against Donegal and the fact that the team hasn’t had to face top-flight opposition so far.

According to long-serving county secretary Dominic McCaughey the demand for tickets is up to four times what it was for the semi-final. “And that’s just to the office,” he adds, “and doesn’t take into account sales in the shops and on line. The enthusiasm – and confidence – is back and although we’re wary, we’re hopeful.”

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times