It’s amazing how quickly the popular narrative turns in the world of Gaelic games. Back in February, there was a highly-publicised post-match interview between Tyrone manager Mickey Harte and BBC reporter Mark Sidebottom, following Tyrone’s 2018 McKenna Cup Final defeat to Donegal. The interview was interesting for a number of reasons.
One of those was that we got to see the cantankerous side of the Tyrone boss having been caught off-guard by a question that hit a little too close to the bone. In an era of vacuous player and manager interviews, coupled with media bans (the likes of which Dublin manager Jim Gavin has recently engaged in) the exchange between Sidebottom and Harte was quite refreshing. It’s nice for Gaelic football fans to see a manager not only show what appeared to be his true colours but also display a passion for the team – and by extension, the sport – with which he is involved.
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The question that raised Harte’s ire was one about his team’s general tactics, deemed overly defensive, that failed so miserably in last season’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin and whether he needs to have a rethink. Harte claimed that his side played very good football for four games in the 2017 championship and questioned why Sidebottom would focus on just one game.
But in reality, Harte had spent the whole of the winter listening to criticism from all angles. Ciaran Whelan, Tomas O Sé, Joe Brolly all mirrored each other – almost exactly word for word – in having a go at Tyrone’s style of play, whilst one commentator even said Mickey Harte reminded him of besieged former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. In February, Mickey Harte was getting so pissed off with this lazy rhetoric against his team that he was forced to point out a lack of “independent thinking” among journalists.
(In all likelihood the long-serving Tyrone boss was angered and hurt by the criticism, not because it was correct, but because the story had been peddled so much that thousands of Gaelic football fans around the country – especially in his home county – would accept it as fact. And that’s not easy to brush off, as the interview in Armagh would attest.)
Fast forward a few months – to late yesterday evening – and Tyrone have lost their second successive championship match, this time to Monaghan in a rain-soaked Healy Park. The Red Hands set up similar to how they did most of last year, but the match received universal acclaim in pundit-land!! Who’d have thought?
Oisin McConville and Martin McHugh enjoyed a “high quality” game on the BBC’s deferred coverage last evening whilst the aforementioned Ciaran Whelan said the game really “kickstarted” the championship on last night’s The Sunday Game. Even Pat Spillane thought it was a “great advertisement” for Gaelic football. As we know by now, these guys like to watch open football with high scoring. The game wasn’t necessarily open, but it was high-scoring and sure isn’t that good enough!
But Monaghan were the real story here. Their unexpectedly impressive display was enough to take the pundit-induced heat off Tyrone. And whilst they had many star performers on the field, Malachy O’Rourke was arguably the best performer of the lot. His post-match interview was most interesting. He stressed the point multiple times about how well prepared his side were mentally. (Physically also, but the mental aspect is the crucial item here.) The Farney side were incredibly composed and patient throughout. With four minutes left on the clock they proceeded to open a five-point gap, kicking points alone – something Tyrone in their pomp did with alarming regularity. Their intelligence and execution at that stage in the game was extremely impressive. It’s the sign of a well prepared team – almost as if they had practiced the last five-minute scenario continuously, like an NFL team would a two-minute drill.
(Tyrone meanwhile, lacked that same mental strength. Peter Harte got sent-off late for a needless punch. Niall Morgan was lucky to stay on the field after lashing out.)
Ironically (because there will be much less written about it), the defeat for Tyrone is potentially a more damaging one than the defeat to Dublin last August. The Dublin loss can be explained, the loss to Monaghan less so. Outstanding performances from Conor McManus and Rory Beggan have grabbed the headlines, but that hides the fact that players of Vinny Corey and Dessie Mone’s vintage were allowed to saunter forward unabated for crucial scores. That the Tyrone defence looked stretched at times, especially after Colm Cavanagh’s half-time exit, will raise questions about their defensive system that has worked like clockwork in recent years.
Mickey Harte’s men still have a long summer in front of them if they can harness a siege mentality the likes of which Monaghan are experts at. They should batten down the hatches and concentrate on perfecting the style of play that suits Tyrone and those who want to play within it. Harte knows what his players are capable of. Never mind the begrudgers.