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Red Hands need to get into gear from the off: Harte

Back again: Mark Bradley is set to rejoin the Tyrone team for 2020
Back again: Mark Bradley is set to rejoin the Tyrone team for 2020
Fast start: Mickey Harte with Mark Bradley and Peter Harte
John Campbell

By John Campbell

Time was when teams could pay lip service to the Dr McKenna Cup before taking a leisurely stroll through the first half of the then National League prior to engaging a slightly higher gear in the interests of staving off relegation.

Not any more, though. With county squads throughout the country engaged in intensive preparations for the season-opening provincial competitions, thoughts of promotion and avoiding involvement in Tier Two of the All-Ireland Football Championship are instead uppermost in the minds of most managers.

With a cluster of new managers anxious to make an early impact, a battalion of fresh faces anxious to create an impression in their county's colours and GAA chiefs hopeful that worries over declining attendances might be erased, the days of an early-season preamble are gone.

Tyrone boss Mickey Harte has seen and done it all in his 17 years in charge yet he remains on tenterhooks for what he views as a seminal period for the GAA.

"With the extra competitions in January, the recommendations of the Fixtures Review Committee due to go before Congress in February, the new Tier Two of the All-Ireland Football Championship and the road map on club activity still to be clarified there is quite a lot on the horizon," muses Harte.

But the desire to see his side make an encouraging start to the new season takes precedence over any other considerations just now.

"I think over the years we have shown that we are serious about the McKenna Cup and we have been fortunate enough to reach numerous finals and win the trophy on several occasions," reflects Harte, "but you have to look at the bigger picture. We have been drawn against Donegal in the opening game in the Ulster Championship and they will be bidding to make it a hat-trick of titles."

"So, obviously, we can't wait until later in the year in the hope that we might hit peak form, we have to reach it from the off. That's the challenge as I see it and when you hit that form you have to show that you can hold it."

"Our first game in the Ulster Championship is going to be extremely difficult and if we were fortunate enough to win that, then any other side would not be easy either. And if you go out at that juncture you're into an even tougher qualifying series because with the new second tier you're going to meet difficult sides right away. Any team losing their opening championship match now could find themselves in a dangerous place."

Harte's aim to see his side hit the ground running has sparked a painstaking build-up to the 2020 season. While he has drafted several new faces into his squad, he is also pleased to have key forwards Ronan O'Neill and Mark Bradley back on board.

O'Neill left the squad earlier this year while Bradley's study course in England meant he was also an absentee but now that both have been restored to the panel they will offer Harte additional options up front, something for which the manager is grateful given that skipper Mattie Donnelly will be out for some months yet and Connor McAliskey is to focus on club activity with Clonoe.

"While you have to be prepared to give new players a chance to show what they can do, at the same time it's encouraging to have people like Ronan and Mark back on board with us," says Harte.

"Obviously Mark was in England and then he went travelling but all that is behind him now and I am sure he will have a great appetite for action with the county team once again. We will see how things go."

Meanwhile, former Tyrone All-Ireland winner Stephen O'Neill is settling into his new role as manager of the St Canice's club in Dungivenn.

O'Neill, who is the holder of three All-Ireland medals, was part of Harte's backroom team this year but stepped away from that role recently..

A schoolteacher, O'Neill is now charged with restoring the Dungiven club's fortunes. He is one of the best forwards to have emerged from Ulster and it's his ability to coach the Dungiven club's forwards in particular that could see the side emerge from the shadows.

O'Neill is one of a number of high-profile personalities who have taken up the reins with different clubs over the course of recent weeks and their arrival is certain to lend an added element of appeal as well as intrigue to the club scene in 2020.

Belfast Telegraph


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