Mickey Harte's wheel of reinvention still turning forward
Loss of Connor McAliskey to long-term injury will not hold Tyrone back
Mattie Donnelly played an attacking role for Tyrone in their Football League Division One win over Cavan at Healy Park on Sunday. Photograph: Lorcan Doherty/Inpho.
It’s not that long since Mickey Harte was lamenting the loss Connor McAliskey, and how it might impact on Tyrone’s return to Division One.
Even Harte’s renowned faith in reinvention appeared a little shaken.
McAliskey had been one of Tyrone’s most conspicuous if not prolific forwards throughout 2016, first in helping secure promotion from Division Two, then in assisting their march to the All-Ireland quarter-final: he hit two points in that eventual defeat to Mayo, promising bigger and better things in the season to come.
Only in Tyrone’s opening game of 2017 – defeat to Cavan in the Dr McKenna Cup – McAliskey sustained a cruciate ligament injury, ending that season before it had even begun: “I think he (Connor) was in the best shape he’s been in for a long time, since he came to us probably,” said Harte, the day after that game.
“Cruciate injuries are a very unlucky thing to happen to any player, and particularly the first game of the season. He was so determined to make this a good year for himself and then he gets that knock. It’s a challenge for young players, young athletes, to have their season written off before it begins.
“He was getting ready to be a bigger player in our team, I just had that feeling about him since he came back to our team this year. We do have a certain number of inside players. Maybe we have too many similar inside players? There’s a few of them lefties as well, so his right-footed aspect will be missed badly too. And he can kick frees as well. But I think he is a quality player and I think he gives us something very different and he is certainly going to be a huge loss to us.”
Just over two months on, however and, as unfortunate a loss as he was, McAliskey has hardly been missed. Sunday’s refixture win over Cavan at Healy Park leaves Tyrone sitting atop Division One, leading the charge for one of the automatic final places.
They have three of the top teams to come – starting with Donegal in Ballybofey this Saturday night, followed by Kerry and Mayo – and yet once again it seems no one does reinvention better than Harte, now in his 15th year as Tyrone manager.
Sunday’s win over Cavan provided ample evidence of that: not just with younger, fringe players like Mark Bradley stepping up to the mark (scoring 0-3 when coming off the bench) but also in the positioning at Mattie Donnelly, their 2016 All Star midfielder, in an overtly more attacking role alongside Seán Cavanagh.
Even if Donnelly only hit a single point on Sunday, Cavanagh has similar faith in the reinvention, suggesting it may help Tyrone create more goal chances: “There were signs there that we were linking up quite well, and it probably gives us that wee bit more impetus to let the ball in that wee bit longer,” said Cavanagh.
“Probably we haven’t played with a couple of physical players in there, size-wise, and it will take maybe a wee bit of tweaking. This last couple of years, we probably ran the ball quite hard through the hands, and we obviously had the players to do that.
“But now with Mattie there, in the second half, letting the long balls in to him, and it only takes one of those to go right and you’re probably going to create more goal chances. If that’s the case, and it works out like that, it will definitely be another string to our bow.”