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Tyrone boss Mickey Harte on course for unlikely All-Ireland title

by Declan Bogue

Published 20/07/2016

Plenty more to come: the Tyrone squad celebrate as the final whistle confirms victory over Donegal on Sunday in the Ulster Final in Clones
Plenty more to come: the Tyrone squad celebrate as the final whistle confirms victory over Donegal on Sunday in the Ulster Final in Clones
Manager Mickey Harte with his grandson Michael

It was a few days before Christmas when the Tyrone squad huddled around the O'Fiaich Cup outside the changing rooms of Crossmaglen Rangers.

After defeating Louth 2-15 to 0-8 last December, Aidan McCrory, standing in as captain for Sean Cavanagh, made a modest speech while Mickey Harte pondered whether it was a nice end to a season or the start of something more.

In any event, it was the first of four trophies they have collected since. After the triumph, Harte explained the most pleasing aspect of the day. He said: "There are a lot of new players in here and we are trying to mould another team. There are players putting their hands up to say they are good enough to be part of this set-up.

"It's getting that mix of experience and new people coming together to play well, to play the football we like and being patient.

"That's why they are here. They have the potential to be here and now it is their chance to stay."

That day, Niall Sludden, Kieran McGeary and Richie Donnelly started. By coincidence, Sludden and McGeary hit a point each, as they did in Sunday's Ulster final win over Donegal.

Mark Bradley and Cathal McShane both came off the bench and clipped over points. Others to start included Padraig Hampsey, Hugh Pat McGeary, Lee Brennan and David Mulgrew.

Then you have Conor Meyler and Jonathan Munroe. Drill down through the figures and you realise that no team have transformed themselves quite as much as Tyrone have over the past 18 months.

With such upheaval in the panel, some friction might appear inevitable, but that's not the way with Tyrone. Three-time All-Ireland winner Enda McGinley explained: "We heard of rumblings in other camps, player disputes and conflict.

"In our camp, be it happy or sad or frustrated with Mickey or not, you had complete loyalty to him and the camp."

We shouldn't be surprised that Harte - a school teacher by profession - has been able to connect deeply with the 'Snapchat generation' so quickly. How he interacted with them during the Ulster title celebrations was testament to that.

Another moment caught by the camera was when Cathal McCarron ran to Harte and embraced him tightly after the final whistle, talking animatedly into his ear. Both men have been on an unthinkable journey in their personal lives over the last number of years, but their loyalty to each other is unquestionable.

Credit McCarron too. In Tyrone's last Ulster title victory in 2010, he held Monaghan's most prolific forward Tommy Freeman to a single point.

While he might have been a good fit for Freeman then, most observers would have had him fourth choice after Justin McMahon, Ronan McNamee and Conor Clarke to man-mark Michael Murphy on Sunday, where he actually outscored Murphy from play, popping up on the end of a move.

So where are they now? Well, the potential permutations are long winded and tedious and life is too short, but let's just say if Donegal manage to beat Cork - and we think they will - then Tyrone will meet Mayo, the opponents that threw them out of the 2013 All-Ireland race by the scruff of their neck, in the quarter-finals on August 6.

The Red Hands won't forget Tom Cunniffe's early hit on Peter Harte, which forced him off. Cunniffe is no longer there, while Ger Cafferkey's injury has ruled him out for the rest of the season, leaving their defence vulnerable.

Watching Mayo's attack struggle against Fermanagh's defence tips the balance in Tyrone's favour.

After that, it looks like Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final. If there is another team that have re-invented themselves in a similar manner to Tyrone, if not to the same extent, it is Kevin Walsh's side. They have lashings of skill and composure, plenty of power, but most importantly they have the structure to bind it all together.

Can Tyrone take out a Mayo and a Galway? Is this just a season of progress for them, which could lead to an All-Ireland title next year?

Such abstract notions hold no appeal for Harte. In year two of Peter Donnelly's conditioning work, they are strong and powerful enough - but they also still have a freshness that, say, Mayo are lacking right now.

Reach the third Sunday of September for the first time in eight years and they won't rock up to Croke Park as innocents. This just might be the beginning of a purple patch for this team.

A fourth Sam Maguire for Harte - and the most unlikely - beckons. It might have to be smash and grab, but that won't matter.

Belfast Telegraph

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