Mickey Harte hints at shuffling Tyrone pack for Down replay
When Mickey Harte sits down tonight to finalise his team to meet Down in the Ulster Championship preliminary round replay on Saturday he will not necessarily see himself tasked with what is one of the more onerous duties associated with team management.
'Keeping everyone happy' has for some time, indeed, been the bane of managers' lives as they seek to promote harmony within their squads while empowered to name only 15 players in their starting line-up from a 30-plus squad.
But while Harte is anxious to retain the services of all those within his current panel, he is determined to make his team selection on the basis of form and tactics rather than on sustaining loyalty by offering what might be termed 'sweeteners'.
In confirming his team for Sunday's drawn game – 2-11 to 3-8 – against Down, Harte included rookies Barry Tierney and Tiarnan McCann in defence, plumped for Conor Clarke as Colm Cavanagh's midfield partner, switched Sean Cavanagh to centrethreequarters and deployed Niall McKenna, normally a midfielder, at full-forward.
Mattie Donnelly, who had played a portion of the league at full-forward, was named at centre-half-back while Ciaran McGinley was promoted to the attack.
It was an overall permutation that raised eyebrows and triggered speculation but when the Red Hands controlled the first half, Harte's bold approach appeared to be paying dividends.
Down's second half renaissance triggered doubts, though, that the manager had strayed into high-risk territory.
But the notion that Harte, the most single-minded and thorough of managers, might now bow to public opinion and seek to appease a number of his squad members and perhaps nurture favour with the fans has not the slightest substance.
While Harte today ponders his replay options, he will do so against a backdrop of withdrawals from county panels, the majority of these prompted by the belief that Championship action might have been outside their compass.
Danny Savage (Down), Johnny Hanratty (Armagh), Chris Kerr and Michael Pollock (Antrim), Conor Quigley (Fermanagh) and Mark McHugh (Donegal) have all voluntarily absented themselves from county duty as opposed to having been axed which was the fate of CJ McGourty (Antrim) and Seamus Quigley (Fermanagh).
Of these, only Pollock and McHugh could be considered automatic first choice players were they available although Quigley is still a loss of sorts to Fermanagh.
Tyrone's 26-man match day squad for Sunday was augmented at the eleventh-hour when Ryan McKenna, Justin McMahon, Ronan McNabb, Ronan O'Neill, Stephen O'Neill, Martin Penrose, PJ Quinn and Joe McMahon were added.
From this batch, Justin McMahon, Stephen O'Neill and Martin Penrose were introduced in the second half – and there's surely a message there.
Questioned after the match about the bitter disappointment that one player in particular felt when he did not get game time of any nature and that his facial expression clearly conveyed this, Harte responded: "I don't know how you can tell that from a player's face. Sometimes the face does not always tell the truth. Maybe he was very unhappy that we did not win the game because we thought we would."
In terms of how he will approach his selection for Saturday's replay, Harte added: "We will look at how every player did and how the team as a unit did. Obviously we will try and put out the best team we can."
Ronan O'Neill, Shay McGuigan and Connor McAliskey were thought to be strongly in contention for starting places last weekend but none of them saw action.
Harte, like most managers, sees his primary brief as delivering results rather than trying to keep players happy.
And that's why his team selection for Saturday's Pairc Esler confrontation is awaited with such interest.
Even when confronted with injury worries during the league and the temporary loss of form of some individuals, Harte never failed to put his team into the public domain at least 48 hours before a game. Not for him 'dummy' selections, mis-information and unnecessary delays.
The fact that Paddy McNiece was replaced at a late hour by Mark Donnelly last Sunday was unavoidable and with Tiarnan McCann ruled out of Saturday's game because of a hamstring injury there will be at least one change in the Tyrone side.
There may be others, of course – but then all the players know precisely where they stand with Harte.
The Derry team to face Donegal at Celtic Park will not be confirmed until tomorrow night at a Club Derry function in the Owenbeg complex at Dungiven.