Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Tyrone boss Harte on wing and prayer

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte

Tyrone's fire-power up front has helped to underpin their stunning record of consistency since Mickey Harte took over as manager just over six years ago.

A battery of marquee forwards including the great Peter Canavan, the gifted Stephen O'Neill and the enigmatic Owen Mulligan have ensured that the Red Hands remained a major force having previously laboured in the wilderness for decades.

Of late Tyrone's scoring touch has extended to a greater spread of players and when they meet Antrim in Sunday's Ulster football championship final at Clones (2pm), two of their most trusted warriors who are not forwards are likely to have a major say in determining the destination of the Anglo-Celt Cup.

Wing-backs Davy Harte and Philip Jordan may be presented with rather more opportunities to drive upfield should Antrim adhere to their policy to date of playing Niall McKeever and Terry O'Neill, both primarily recognised as half-forwards, at midfield and sweeper respectively.

Tyrone boss Harte has undertaken an intense study of Antrim's tactics in their wins over Donegal and Cavan and it is expected that he will now hand additional responsibility to his wing-half backs, both of whom thrive in launching counter-attacks and, in Davy Harte's case in particular, picking off important scores.

Manager Harte, though, is approaching Sunday's much anticipated showdown with extreme caution.

“Antrim have shown themselves to be very well-organised, very mobile and extremely adaptable,” observes Harte.

“They have quality players who have clearly grown in belief this year and will quite justifiably think they can do even better.”

The absence of Enda McGinley from midfield is a setback for the Red Hands boss who must now seek to counter the threat posed by McKeever and Aodhan Gallagher in the central area — that's assuming Michael McCann, so often in recent seasons Antrim's talisman there, is again deployed in attack.

The withdrawal of McKeever and the influential O'Neill from the Antrim half-forward division could offer Davy Harte and Jordan the opportunity to unleash their attacking skills in addition to supplementing the renowned Tyrone defensive machinery.

Rarely have either of the two players turned in a below-par performance for Tyrone and I cannot recall an occasion, indeed, when either was substituted except for injury.

Antrim now face the considerable problem of not only dealing with a hungry Tyrone attack in which Martin Penrose, Stephen O'Neill and Tommy McGuigan have been impressive recently, but are tasked with restricting the input of Harte and Jordan while at the same time leaning on two of their own half-forwards to fulfil roles elsewhere.

Yet ebullient Saffrons boss Liam Bradley firmly believes he has evolved a strategy aimed at restricting Tyrone's attacking prowess.

“Tyrone will be as good as they are allowed to be,” said Bradley.

“We accept that they are favourites, they are All Ireland champions after all, but this is a big game for us.

“Indeed, it's the biggest occasion in the lives of my players to date and they want to do themselves total justice.”

Fitness, mobility and cohesion are the qualities which have taken Antrim to this stage of the year.

To these, confidence and poise have been added by virtue of their more recent track record.

To deny Tyrone what would be their fourth Ulster title since the dawn of the new millennium, it will take a performance of soaring skill, immense character and boundless courage.

It's a big ask — providing the answer may prove rather too much for Bradley's boys.