Mickey Harte savours McKenna Cup glory after all this time
Mickey Harte's love affair with the Dr McKenna Cup continues to blossom over 13 years since he first made his acquaintance with the trophy.
Competition sponsors, a raft of players and what appeared to be an intractable format have come and gone in that period but the desire of the O'Neill County boss to cuddle up to the silverware is as intense as ever.
He had already masterminded Tyrone's first All-Ireland triumph in 2003 before he laid the basis for a four-in-a-row McKenna Cup odyssey that spanned 2004-2007.
Right now, Harte's passion for the first silverware of the season is still smouldering and Antrim could discover this to their cost at Healy Park, Omagh this evening.
Quick-fire wins over Armagh and St Mary's have thrust Tyrone into pole position for a last four place and the opportunity to complete a second four-year term of dominance under Harte's baton.
"We like playing in the McKenna Cup, it's a good competition. I have always said that I like to see Tyrone win every match and I make no exceptions," he insists.
"Having said that, winning trophies at any level is never easy and whatever we have achieved in the past does not provide us with any guarantee as to what might happen this time round."
Nevertheless with players such as Colm Cavanagh, Cathal McCarron, Peter Harte, Darren McCurry and Ronan McNamee in fine form, Tyrone's prospects of advancing further look good.
More importantly, Harte is fashioning a team which he feels can make headway in what he terms "a very competitive" Division One of the Allianz League.
"There is no doubt that the quality of the sides in the top division ensure that it will be very competitive and we must be ready for this challenge," says the triple All-Ireland winning manager. "It's vital that we get off to a good start. Every team will be looking for early points, that's for sure."
Tyrone's buoyant outlook is in contrast to that of Antrim who edged past St Mary's in their first outing before being handed out a sharp lesson by Armagh in a one-sided second-half at Creggan on Sunday.
No wonder Saffrons manager Frank Fitzsimons is apprehensive as he ponders tonight's mission against Harte's troops.
"Armagh marked a massive step up in class for us and it's going to be the same against Tyrone. We are looking at a few new players but all the lads face a big test in this one," admits Fitzsimons.
The Antrim boss might well be assessing fresh talent and his primary goal as he sees it is to construct a line-up that will clinch promotion from Division Four.
The Saffrons flattered to deceive in this sector last year and simply cannot afford to remain there in 2016.
Meanwhile, last year's beaten McKenna Cup finalists Cavan still have their focus on reaching the decider again but they must beat neighbours Monaghan handsomely tonight if they are to have any chance of moving on.
Cavan have a decent scoring average and with Gearoid McKiernan and Killian Clarke capable of pulling the strings at midfield, they could slip into overdrive against a Monaghan side that will be seeking solace following their reversal to Down on Sunday.
Monaghan manager Malachy O'Rourke prefers to dwell on the positives from this contest citing the form of recently-returned Neil McAdam and the early-season promise of lively forward Daniel McKenna as encouraging features to date.
While they still have several of their big guns to call upon, Monaghan cannot afford to slip up tonight, particularly as they are laying the groundwork for what they hope will be a successful participation in Division One.
"We had some good individual performances against Down on Sunday but some aspects of our team play let us down," states Enniskillen schoolteacher O'Rourke.
"I was pleased with the form shown by some of the newcomers but the important thing is that we function smoothly as a team," he adds.
Cavan, though, could yet find themselves settling for a semi-final spot as best runners-up and their manager Terry Hyland would hardly quibble with that.