Tyrone dream edging closer but showdown with kings of Ulster doesn't faze Harte
When Tyrone trudged off a sodden MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey back in mid-May having been sent packing from the Ulster Championship by Donegal, the notion that they could become a force in the All-Ireland title race would have been deemed nothing more than illusory.
Yet when Mickey Harte's rejuvenated troops don their combat gear once again to engage current provincial kingpins Monaghan in next Saturday's All-Ireland quarter-final, they will do so bolstered by a recent playing record that has restored their standing among the elite.
In overcoming Sligo 0-21 to 0-14 at Headquarters on Saturday, the Red Hands chalked up a fourth impressive victory in succession and copper-fastened their arrival at the cutting edge of a fascinating Championship race.
And Harte's insight into the renaissance will certainly help to fuel analysis in advance of Saturday's mission.
"When you are in the qualifiers, you are going a different route," reflected Harte. "You're not just meeting those you always meet. We find that we do a little better when we get away from the teams in our own province.
"When we got to pastures new we seemed to be able to relax and play football. It has worked for us this time."
Nowhere will Harte's observations be digested more carefully than in Monaghan, as indeed will be his team's ability to keep Sligo at arm's length for the greater part of a game which the Yeats County never looked like winning.
Tyrone have evolved from no-hopers into credible All-Ireland contenders and Harte's diligent selection process and man-management skills have been central to this.
"Over the past couple of years we had people who were getting to the end of their careers but who were still very good footballers and we needed their experience, though they didn't have 70 minutes in them," explained Harte.
"So maybe that has filtered out and we now have younger and fresher men coming through. I think this gives us the capacity to play at a higher intensity for a longer period."
Sligo certainly found Tyrone's pace and power too much. Niall Carew's plucky outfit looked like being cast adrift when Darren McCurry, Connor McAliskey and Mattie Donnelly in particular assembled the building blocks that took the O'Neill County into a 0-12 to 0-6 interval lead.
To their credit, Sligo substituted heart for finesse and Mark Breheny, David Kelly and Pat Hughes never allowed the Tyrone defence to ease off.
Indeed, when Kelly and Breheny pounced for points immediately after the resumption, the merest hint of alarm bells rang for Tyrone.
But in a blistering last-quarter scoring spree, Sean Cavanagh, Peter Harte and the ubiquitous McCurry - the man of the match - combined to sweep over a succession of points that left Sligo nine in arrears by the 56th minute.
That they retaliated yet again says much for their tenacity and courage but cohesion, craft and accuracy were the more imposing virtues for Tyrone.
It will be a 10th All-Ireland quarter-final for Tyrone boss Harte and it would be an understatement to suggest that he is counting down the hours until Saturday with relish.
"The quarter-finals are the place to be. We feel confident and we have a shot at getting to the last four," mused Harte. "We will endeavour to make life difficult for Monaghan."
And Harte is not particularly perturbed that his team only have a matter of days in which to prepare for their biggest game of the year to date.
"I am not too concerned," he stated. "The players don't look tired. I think there is a good freshness about them so Saturday will tell the tale. Results are ultimately what people hang their hat on."
Monaghan take heed.
Tyrone: N Morgan (0-1f); A McCrory, R McNamee, R Brennan (0-1); R McNabb, Joe McMahon, P Harte (0-1); C Cavanagh (0-1), M Donnelly (0-3); T McCann, M Bradley (0-2), C Meyler; D McCurry (0-8, 4f, 1'45), S Cavanagh (0-3), C McAliskey (0-1). Subs: C McCann for C Meyler (48), P McNulty for M Bradley (57), Justin McMahon for Joe McMahon (59), D McBride for C Cavanagh (62), R O'Neill for C McAliskey (62), C Clarke for M Donnelly (68).
Sligo: A Devaney; R Donavan, S Gilmartin, D Maye; K Cawley, B Egan, E Flanagan; C Breheny (0-1), N Murphy (0-1); B Curran, M Breheny (0-6, 3f), N Ewing; D Kelly (0-1), P Hughes (0-3), A Marren (0-2f). Subs: K McDonnell for C Breheny (33), J Hynes for S Gilmartin (55), C Davey (57) for N Ewing, L Bree for D Maye (62), K Sweeney for P Hughes (68). Yellow cards: Ewing (3), Maye (16), Egan (49).
Referee: Rory Hickey (Clare)