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Tyrone boss Mickey Harte makes his case for the defence

By John Campbell

Rigid defensive systems, relentless lateral passing, controversial refereeing decisions - one could be forgiven for thinking that plus-factors in the top bracket of the Allianz Football League have been submerged in a tidal wave of negativity.

Yet a helping of unpredictable results, a ration of outstanding individual performances and the forever thin line that separates promotion hopefuls from relegation candidates ensure that, rather than prove a turn-off, the competition could surge into overdrive from this weekend.

And one team with perhaps more reason than most to embrace a positive approach is gearing up for a massive challenge.

Tyrone's name will invariably crop up in any debate or analysis on defensive mechanisms yet they are just one of many teams who are currently adept at denying opponents time and space in which to operate.

No wonder manager Mickey Harte sees the visit of pacesetters Cork to Healy Park, Omagh as an opportunity for his side to make a statement of intent as the run-in to the knock-out stages gathers momentum.

His team's win over Mayo was crafted through a heavy reliance on blanket defence while Saturday's draw against Dublin owed more to a safety first policy rather than to generous flair.

But Harte is far from apologetic as the Red Hands plot further upheaval within the upper echelons of the league table.

"In the modern game, you definitely need the ability to track back and go forward in numbers and if you can achieve that, anything is possible," stresses Harte. "If you do not do that as a team, then you fall foul of too many going forward and not retreating. Then if you have everyone back you don't have the potency to get the scores."

It all sounds stunningly simple yet the implementation of such a strategy requires boundless energy, a ferocious work-rate and cohesive support play.

A number of matches, including Sunday's turgid Donegal v Monaghan tie where lateral passing reached an unprecedented level, have been anything but easy on the eye while top referees such as Joe McQuillan, David Coldrick and Ciaran Branagan have been in the firing line over their decision-making.

With three rounds of scheduled fixtures left there is still an opportunity for football to be shown in a better light although the feeling persists that more barricades could be erected.

And that's what makes Cork's trip north fascinating. They will have in their ranks three of the most aristocratic forwards in the country - Colm O'Neill, Brian Hurley and Donncha O'Connor - and their tussle with a Tyrone defence in which Aidan McCrory, Peter Harte, Cathal McCarron and goalkeeper Niall Morgan have been the essence of consistency will be a key element.

In accumulating six league points from four matches to date, Cork have scored 7-54. While not quite absorbed with containing opponents, they generally make sure that they score more than them - again overtly simple.

But simplistic philosophies don't tend to carry great currency in the game nowadays.

Convoluted team ploys, heavy demands made on players and the oft-repeated mantra that everyone from one to 15 is a defender have seen the game evolve into a much more complex, sometimes unfathomable art.

And that's why the Tyrone v Cork clash on Sunday may go some way towards reviving the faith of those who, in the words of Director General Paraic Duffy, are "staying away from matches".

The Healy Park showdown will not merely be a pursuit of league points - it can be a big step towards the restoration of credibility for a sport that appears to have temporarily lost its way.

Belfast Telegraph

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