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O'Neill's perfect match for Harte

By Declan Bogue

A good player-manager relationship is like a father-son relationship: loyal; fractious; layered with complexity.

Take Clare 1995 for example. Anyone would have had captain Anthony Daly down as a son of manager Ger Loughnane in all but name. But in Daly's 2014 autobiography 'Dalo' he recounts how, when he was Clare manager himself, he felt stung by Loughnane's words as a pundit, and in particular those 'constipated hurling' remarks when he was in charge of Dublin.

And then one day they bump into each other in an Ennis supermarket, Loughnane reacting with delight in seeing his former captain, that famous grin splitting his face and it's all 'Ah Dalo!" greetings and pleasantries, Daly leaving the conversation with his head in a spin.

Not to say it lightly but to my interpretation, Loughnane was the father figure Daly was denied when his own father died young.

The link between Mickey Harte and Stephen O'Neill, however, runs like a rod through both men.

It was O'Neill, along with Brian McGuigan, who persuaded Harte to stay on for another year and their last year as minors in the mid-90s. They went on to win the All-Ireland the following year and under-21 and senior success was to follow in due course.

When they won their second All-Ireland in 2005, O'Neill was crowned Footballer of the Year. Yet two seasons later he was gone, retired from a game he loved but his body was tortured.

How Harte tempted him back into the panel for the 2008 All-Ireland was an example of him considering what O'Neill had to offer. Once the panel gave it their collective blessing, O'Neill was back from that point until his second retirement in 2014.

Three years on, and O'Neill comes in as the newest member of Harte's backroom team. This is not an old pal's act and Harte has never found any difficulty in putting sentiment to one side. After all, O'Neill wasn't even a starter on the 2003 All-Ireland winning team. And we all know how Owen Mulligan's county career ended, painfully waiting by the phone for a call that never came.

But there is a loyalty here between player and coach that goes beyond football. Harte has always held O'Neill up as an example of how to live your life. O'Neill has presented medals to underage teams and emphasised how being a pioneer - just like Harte - has helped him achieve his aims. The two are also devoted to their faith.

Presumably, O'Neill's brief is to devise a method or the means to take Tyrone from flat-track bullies in their own backyard to becoming a genuine All-Ireland contender.

The facts back it up. Tyrone have won their last seven Championship matches against Ulster opposition by an average of ten points.

But they fell short by a point against Mayo in 2016, and the 12-point defeat to Dublin in this year's semi-final has led to serious navel-gazing about their style and philosophy. Harte's answer is to turn to O'Neill.

What is undeniable is that the Gaelic football that O'Neill elevated to an art form on his good day - and there were many of them - is a completely different sport.

O'Neill's first engagement on his return from retirement was in that 2008 final and although he did not feel he made a big enough contribution to lift Sam Maguire, he was back in the starting line-up for the 2009 National League opener against Dublin in Croke Park, under lights. It was the 125th anniversary of the GAA and the game was followed by a trippy lights and fireworks display.

However, O'Neill's eight points, six from play, were even more dreamy that night.

Harte said afterwards that he was "in the top bracket of players that ever played this game".

But by 2013 he was a different figure, so frustrated with Donegal's defensive system that he ran full pelt at Neil McGee in an effort to drive him backwards, only to find that McGee was on another planet physically and it was O'Neill that looked foolish.

People study Harte and see him as this inflexible type, unwilling to compromise or change tack, just because he won't discuss his approach to tactics. But here is a clear example.

In many ways, it reminds us of the All-Stars tour in Boston, in the winter of 2014. Jim Gavin was there, a man who at the time was under considerable pressure after Dublin crumbled in the All-Ireland semi-final against Donegal a few months before.

While all the advice was that Gavin needed to conform to the Jim McGuinness masterplan and make defence a priority, he went along and took in a couple of Boston Celtics basketball games at the TD Garden.

It was perhaps while he sat in the bleachers that he had the idea of bringing former team-mate and Ireland basketball international Jason Sherlock into his coaching fold. While everyone else was shouting 'Defend!', Gavin was thinking in terms of attack.

Dublin have only been beaten twice since Sherlock came on board. Both in the league against Kerry.

Harte has to dream it up again if he wants Tyrone to be genuine contenders over the next three years, which will see out the rest of his time in inter-county management.

Just as O'Neill needed Harte, now Harte needs O'Neill.

Belfast Telegraph

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