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Harte sure Tyrone can power from a painful near miss to All-Ireland glory in 2017

By Declan Bogue

There's no hesitation when Mickey Harte is asked his major regret of the 2016 season.

"Ultimately, it was down to finishing," he states.

"If our finishing had been there - even if we hadn't played to the top level of our game - we still would have won the game."

The game he refers to was the All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Mayo - Tyrone's only meaningful defeat all year.

The context is that they fetched up in Croke Park battle-hardened having finally wrestled the Donegal monkey from their backs with the fastest counter-attack in the game.

To the top-tier teams, the Red Hands were what Rumsfeld might call a "known unknown".

With eight goals in their first three Championship games, Tyrone were expected to overcome a stuttering Mayo. But despite Sean Cavanagh being awarded a controversial second yellow card as they lined up for the second half, Tyrone forced enough chances to win the game.

Against Donegal, Peter Harte, Sean Cavanagh and Kieran McGeary kicked three late points to land an Ulster title. For the Mayo game, Cathal McCarron, Niall Morgan and Darren McCurry pulled clear chances wide with normal time up.

"You can't say much more than that about it," adds Harte, sitting in the boardroom of Tyrone's Garvaghey centre, surrounded by larger-than-life representations not only of the Red Hands' most successful period, over which he has presided, but also the hungry years when Gaelic games struggled to gain a foothold in this county.

The conversation briefly flits to the poet John Montague, buried across the road the week previous, brought up in this very townland (Garvaghey is translated from the Irish for 'Rough Field', Montague's most famous work) and schooled in Harte's own townland of Glencull nearby, before coming back to the world of collisions and fluffed chances and referee decisions.

"Mayo are a formidable side and they have been in so many All-Ireland finals and semi-finals so it's not as if we were up against a novice team!" he says.

"Okay, it hadn't been their greatest season since they were beaten in Connacht and that hadn't happened in the previous five years. But we all know ourselves, especially in Tyrone, that if you get on a roll in the qualifiers, you grow into it.

"Even if you don't look so good as you go through the rounds, the fact you are getting through the rounds means you are learning a lot about permutations within your team, it gives you a chance to experiment with certain moves within your team as you go along."

So much of Mayo's task in 2016 felt like Tyrone's in 2008 when they went into a quarter-final nobody expected them to win against Dublin.

Harte states: "It was all of that. In 2008, we beat Mayo by a point and then went on to win an All-Ireland and that time we know for sure we could have lost that game. We could have lost it in '08, we could have won it in '16. That's life."

When asked to score Tyrone's season and his own satisfaction out of 10, he answers eight, without any hesitation.

A generous mark. Deserved.

But not perfect. Perfect in Tyrone means an All-Ireland. And there is a sense the 2017 journey is already pointing that direction.

"I believe we were one game away from being in an All-Ireland final," Harte admits.

"That is absolutely no disrespect to Tipperary, but I do believe that if we had got past Mayo, we would have been capable of beating Tipperary and getting to an All-Ireland final.

"That would have been something we hadn't experienced in eight years. I think we were very close to that. I think we were very close to that over the last two years."

He continues: "But last year in particular we had certain things we wanted to achieve. Obviously, the McKenna Cup is the McKenna Cup - we like to win it if we can and we always give it our best. That's a given and we will be fighting hard for that.

"Not a lot of people pass a lot of remarks about it outside of ourselves. In terms of they have an ambition to win it, as much as we have.

"The next big thing was that we were playing our football in Division Two and we needed to get out of there as fast as possible. That was a big ambition we had."

In fact, that ambition was realised after only five straight opening wins. Their last two games were against Armagh, who punched a last-second goal from Niall Grimley to earn a draw in Healy Park, and another draw against Fermanagh who secured their Division Two status with the point.

A couple of weeks later, they went to Croke Park and took home the Division Two league title after beating Cavan in a brisk bit of business.

"I think all told, we put a lot of things in place that we wanted to do over the last couple of years and that had to make it a satisfying season for us and it has got us into Division One football again," he says.

Rather famously, Harte once said that no team could win an All-Ireland having played their league football outside Division One. Earlier this summer he added the caveat that Tyrone never seen themselves as a Division Two side for 2016, such were their performances and the nature of the relegation the previous year.

Perhaps it was a clever line he spun, intended for the ears of his players, dangled in the media. Either way, as they approach 2017 there are no such doubts. "We are the Ulster champions," grins Harte. "It is nice to be able to say that again.

"That was something that was pretty common in Tyrone for about 10 years. People just took it for granted; 'if you don't get it this year, you will get it next year'.

"That dried up in terms of what we were doing but the fact that it was Donegal we beat in the final probably made it more satisfying. We had different encounters with them for three or four years in the Championship and they always came out on the right side.

"We probably needed to win that, more than Donegal did."

Montague once described this place in prose; 'in this by-passed and dying place'.

He referred to it in terms of a lost Ulster, a lost Tyrone, a lost townland. Thousands of lonely outposts such as Garvaghey; windswept, lonesome, speckled with heather and windmills, feel bereft of a purpose.

From now on, headlights of cars will turn right and left off the A5, uphill onto the Radergan Road. Young men will get out of their cars to be put through their paces by Harte, his assistant Gavin Devlin and what Harte likes to term their 'functional movement' coach, Peter Donnelly, in pursuit of excellence.

In a county obsessed with Gaelic football, this is how they measure themselves. It plays into the self-esteem of the county at large.

Lying close by, Montague has to be heartened by the transformation of the 'by-passed and dying place'.

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