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Tyrone can already feel the benefits of backroom rejig, says Mickey Harte

New chapter: Mickey Harte is entering his 17th season at helm of Tyrone, but his backroom  now has an all new look
New chapter: Mickey Harte is entering his 17th season at helm of Tyrone, but his backroom  now has an all new look
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

It's the dead of winter and the favoured mood to match the atmosphere is one of gloomy pessimism.

At times, it can hang over Tyrone like a smog. In such a place, the slightest ripples produce crashing waves.

You have the injury to captain Matthew Donnelly. Some early comments that his grisly ailment — a result of a ligament holding the hamstring in place ripping off the bone — might not have been as serious as first thought were batted back by Donnelly himself at the recent launch of the Dr McKenna Cup.

Donnelly warned that injuries of this nature have ended careers, so he would be taking an extremely cautious approach to rehabilitation.

The target is to return in time for the Ulster quarter-final against Donegal and while it seems far away now, it is a lot to ask of him to be fully match-fit by the middle of May. 

Then, there is the significant flux among the team management.

Heading into his 17th season in charge, Red Hands manager Mickey Harte once again finds himself in the final year of his current arrangement.

Even though Harte acknowledged Jim Gavin parting ways with Dublin and guessed at the reasons why, he himself hasn’t shown the slightest sign he will give up his own role anytime soon. What usually happens in these circumstances is fresh speculation following a couple of poor results.

A lot of anger was expressed in Tyrone circles about the loss of Peter Donnelly, their strength and conditioning coach who was much admired among the playing panel. Donnelly is understood to have wanted to keep on his Tyrone duties on a part-time basis but whatever way things ended, he will be with Monaghan in 2020.

Stephen O’Neill also walked out the door after two years of progress with the offensive side of Tyrone’s game.

There’s also the little matter of Gavin Devlin, Harte’s right-hand man since the start of the 2013 season, taking up a role with Derry club Slaughtneil. It is certainly rare for what could be termed as a ‘head coach’ of a county to double-job with a club.

All that can be taken and weighed against the additions. Jonny Davis is a one-time Ulster Rugby strength and conditioning coach and has replaced Donnelly. Senior players have admitted in that close-season candour that they have been ‘blown away’ by their initial impressions.

Davis’ early work has impressed Harte, for sure.

“Obviously Jonny Davis coming from a professional background, you see that in him. Everything’s meticulous, everything’s fine-tuned, he’s really on the ball collectively and with individual players, he’s on top of injuries,” he explained.

“He has a very close liaison with the medical people about injuries and when people are due back. When they’re not able to train on the field, he does what he feels he could be doing with them.

“This is really highly detailed, meticulous work, and he has a lovely way about him. He doesn’t have to shout or raise his voice, he just has a lovely manner that players are taking to very well.

“Even when he’s driving them on and doing hard work, there’s no sad heads about it. They just like the idea that this is new, this is different, a new approach to this whole side of work. They just love to be learning something additional themselves, changing little bits of things here and there that they’ve been used to, that’s to be expected.”

Former Antrim footballer Kevin Madden has also been busy in pre-season as an addition to the coaching staff that few saw coming. Again, the early soundings are positive, which is to be expected when Tyrone voices may have grown stale in recent times.

“His work is obviously on the field, coaching and ball work, bringing new ideas of his own which all fit in with the philosophy of how we want the game played,” explained Harte.

“It’s been very good, and the players feel refreshed because of this, they’re excited that there are new ideas floating about, new ways of doing things. There’s kind of an energy that you don’t often get this early in the season.”

It has been a growing suspicion that the strength and conditioning coach — be it ‘head of athletic development’ or whatever fanciful title they come up with — is the most crucial in the backroom because of how fine the margins are.

Davis himself has also had something of a culture shock, admits Harte.

“For him, he has to make adjustments as well. He was working with full-time professionals so he could do anything any time of the day. He now knows that the players are only available in the evening time to do what he does,” he said.

“It’s good to have no baggage, he’s only learning who the players are, and he wants to learn who they are. He’s more interested in their physical conditioning and their injury history, and he obviously wants to know who your top players are too because he wants to be able to put that together with the work he wants to do with those players.

“He’s very tuned in to injury and recovery from injury, trying to time when people will be back, the work they ought to be doing or the work they can do depending on the nature of the injury.”

There’s also an education process to this too. Davis’ sister Julie has been working with Kieran McGeeney teams for years so it’s not as if he had no background whatsoever in Gaelic football. 

“He has watched videos of the game and he’s aware of how we play the game,” said Harte.

“It’s just that he obviously wasn’t a scholar of the game, didn’t spend hours watching it, but now he knows and obviously since he came on board with us he’s been watching more clips and videos, watching what we do on the training field as well.

“He doesn’t just come, do the strength and conditioning and head off. He’s with us all the time, and the nights he’s doing the specific strength work he’s talking to the players, he spends time with individuals as well as the group.

“I’m really pleased with the way he’s working with us.”

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