Irresistible fourth for Dublin? Or the fourth with Tyrone?
A FOREGONE conclusion? Or a ‘four won’ conclusion for Tyrone?
You’ll not be surprised in the slightest to read that Red Hand boss Mickey Harte believes his team can defeat four-in-a-row-chasing Dublin in Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC Final.
He’s not blind to the scale of the challenge facing his side, against Jim Gavin’s record-breaking, brilliant boys in blue, who destroyed Tyrone in last year’s semi-finals.
Yet neither does he play down the potential and playing ability within his own panel, nor their chances of winning ‘Sam’ for the fourth time ever themselves.
Back in an All-Ireland decider after a decade, he insisted with a smile that he always retained the hope that the Red Hands would return to the ultimate stage:
“Maybe I am an eternal optimist. I always believe things are possible. Even though certain results hit you very sorely and you are thinking 'Are we ever going to get back to the top table?' You do ask yourself these questions.
Mickey Harte on Tyrone's three-point defeat by Dublin in the league
“But I do have serious belief in the quality of the players that exist in our county, the systems that prevail and the support that we have on every level.
“There is something about that, about being patient, trusting what you are about, adjusting what needs to be adjusted to try to come up with something better and something different.
“So it is an ongoing process. You learn a lot from setbacks and you learn a lot from hurt. And maybe it is good to feel the hurt of defeat and know that you are slipping a bit. It drives you on to think outside the box and how to get to a better place.”
Learning from last year
Last year’s chastening loss to the Dubs, who blew away the optimism created by Tyrone’s high-scoring progress to the last four, certainly provided plenty of lessons, although Harte keeps that game in context:
“You learn every day you go out. Hopefully we have learned from that. Where does that learning manifest itself to the full?
“I think this all has to be kept in perspective. There are very many measures of success and for some people, success is having a good run in the qualifiers, for others it is getting to a provincial final. For others it is getting to a semi-final, a final.
“Ultimately, at the top, it is about winning finals.”
This Sunday pits two of Gaelic football’s ‘winningest’ managers against each other.
Harte has won 18 of the 21 major finals he has contested with Tyrone teams, at three levels, collecting six All-Irelands (three senior), 11 Ulsters (six senior), and one National Football League Division One title. The defeats were in the 1997 All-Ireland Minor Final (to Laois), the 2005 Ulster Final replay (Armagh), and the 2013 NFL decider – against Dublin.
That win set Gavin on his way at senior level, with his finals record even more remarkable, triumphing on 18 out of 19 occasions (four All-Ireland SFC, two All-Ireland U21, seven Leinster SFC, and five NFL Division One titles). His only loss came in last year’s NFL Final (Kerry).
Dublin haven’t lost in senior Championship since Donegal stunned them in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, and are aiming for football’s first four-in-a-row since 1981.
Harte knows that even an improved Tyrone may not be good enough to topple the Dubs: “We hope we have learned from every game we have played over the last number of years, and indeed the games we have played this year. Whether there is enough learning in that to achieve the ultimate, who knows?
“That all has to unfold in a week's time, but it is important to learn. And I think the more you hurt, the more you learn.”
Many observers feel this final is a foregone conclusion, but that doesn’t bother Harte – nor boost him: “Well, people can say what they will and observe it how they may think they see it.
“Yes, you may use it as a degree of motivation but that would not be enough to win the game. Unless we become a far better team than we were last year, wishing things to change will not make them change. We have got to take action to make them change.
“That’s the secret. If we can take action that proves we’re a different outfit, that we’ve other things to offer that we didn’t have that day, then whatever way that motivates us, it won’t win the game for us. It will take something very much more than that.”
If Tyrone shouldn’t be ‘written off’, Harte also said they hadn’t written off last year’s 12-point thrashing by Dublin as merely ‘an off-day’:
“I don’t want to do disrespect to Dublin by thinking they just beat a team that didn’t perform. Dublin, I believe played really good football that day, which was part of the reason that we appeared so bad.
“It was a double-edged sword. They were definitely playing really well, and we were not playing the way we can play. Did one thing cause the other? Who knows?
“It definitely needs to be looked it – if one team is excelling, the other team will appear to be very poor then. It could be as much to do with Dublin’s excellence as our poor under-performance.”
Yet despite the dispiriting nature of that defeat, Harte said that there was no confidence re-building job needed – or not much anyway:
“No more than the fact that we were sure that we weren’t as bad as we appeared that day. We never believed we were as bad as we appeared that day.
“Players had performed well over a few years, winning back-to-back Ulster titles, coming through some really difficult games.
“We had a decent run, we stayed in Division One in the league for a few years, and that’s not easily done either because you’re talking about 25 per cent of the teams being relegated. That’s a very tough league to be in. So we survived that as well.
“We had lots of things we were doing well. We couldn’t be thinking that all is lost because of one game.
“Yes, the chance of an All-Ireland final was lost, and that’s hateful any day. But we had much more to be grateful for than we had to be beating ourselves up about.”
No lingering scars
With no self-flagellation, there were no lingering scars either: “No, no I don’t expect so. The scars would linger if you felt that you couldn’t raise your head again to that level or that standard, but I think we have done that.”
Harte admitted that heads were obviously down during and after last year’s semi-final drubbing: “It didn’t feel particularly good. It’s not a feeling I would recommend to anyone else at any time. What it was, it was very disappointing….
“All I could liken it to was a couple of All-Ireland finals I was at. One of them was Kerry and Mayo, it was over at half-time. Another one, was it [Kerry] against Cork?
“It makes people think ‘Why are we here? I know the result. I know the outcome.’ It’s a pain actually to watch the second half, even as a spectator, so you can imagine what a pain it is to watch it in charge of the team.
“It’s just a day to forget, only we’re not allowed to forget it and we can’t forget it because it will always be there and it will always be a fact of life.”
Praise for Dublin's depth
Dublin winning also seems to be a fact of life now, and Harte accepts that they are seriously impressive:
“I think it is to their credit that they have been so consistent and winning so many titles and still in another final.
“That is the challenge and maybe the secret they have is the great depth in their squad and there are so many people fighting to get game-time there.
“People ask about knowing their best team and I think that is a dated comment. There isn't any such thing as your best 15; there are starters and non-starters and you need them to make a difference.
“Dublin have that in abundance and we have seen that over the years where they are in a game and playing well and then they bring in the artillery to polish a team off.
“They have that capacity to do that and of course, the boys coming in will want to do well because they haven't started the game and there is another game coming up. They have got to excel if they want to be considered for a starting position so they are in a wonderful place with all that talent at their disposal and to beat them, you have to be at your very best. But these things do happen some times.”
Another fact, that Dublin are heavy odds-on favourites, is of no concern to the Errigal Ciaran clubman:
“It's not particularly new for us to be underdogs. We were underdogs in 2003 going in to play Kerry in a semi-final, we weren't supposed to win that game.
“Maybe we got a bit closer [in the betting] to Armagh because we beat Kerry, but Armagh were defending All-Ireland champions.
“Every time we have come in we have met the defending All-Ireland champions and Kerry were favourites to beat us in '05 and '08.
“So we were underdogs on all those occasions and we didn't do too badly. We understand that place, being underdogs, and having to be at your very best to get what you want.
“Maybe we should be glad of that fact, that we have never really gone into an All-Ireland final as favourites at any time.”
Similarly, Harte manages to take positives from not one but two Championship defeats this year, in the Ulster opener at home to Monaghan, and again in Omagh in their All-Ireland quarter-final group – against Dublin.
“We say we want to win provincial titles, we want to go direct through the shortest route into the last eight. But, you know what? If we don’t go that way then there is a good alternative. Sometimes, the hurt of losing in the same season is helpful to guard against losing again.”
Defeat to Dublin in Healy Park didn’t hurt so much, because it didn’t spell the end of the story: “It was different, there’s no doubt about it because it was a game that you could lose and still not be knocked out.
“We didn’t go out with that frame of mind, we went out trying to win the game of course. It would be nice going to Ballybofey already qualified, or as good as. We probably would have been anyway.
“But that was different – it was a game we wanted to win of course, but the ultimate outcome wasn’t terminal, so to speak. We had another chance. So it was different.”
And can Tyrone take positives from that in order to get a different outcome this Sunday?
“Yeah. Well, if you turn a 12-point defeat into a three-point defeat I think that has to be positive. Again, it’s not a great way of looking at things.
“Saying ‘I’m happier to be beaten by three than 12’, of course you would be. But we probably weren’t entirely happy that, at a stage in that game, we were five or six points down, it would have took very little for Dublin to go on and slam us again the way they did before. They were only a kick of the ball away from doing that.
“Maybe we grabbed the game at the perfect time that we could make it a fight to the end. It gave us a great bit of belief that, if we play to the best of our ability, we can close the gap.”
Dublin defending better
Harte, though, agreed with the suggestion that Dublin have more about them than was the case four summers ago: “I think there is. It’s happened over years. If any team learned so much about that semi-final defeat [to Donegal], I think from that day on you saw a different Dublin.
“Not that it always been noted, but they became very more defensive and very much aware of the need to be defensive, and they do it with great skill.
“Up to that time, I think they did play totally on the front foot. They just took on all-comers and said ‘We’ll beat you. I don’t care what you’re about, we’ll beat you’.
“Donegal cracked that myth [of being unbeatable] on them, and I think they learned a lot from that myth.
“Ever since that time, they have that quality to go and kill you with scores. They also are very, very secure at the back, and they have a great system of defending and it is very ordered.”
Build on Mayo's example?
Only one team has come really close to defeating Dublin since then, but Harte doesn’t know if Tyrone can go one better than Mayo:
“Yeah, Mayo have had a good record against them in finals in that they’ve ran them very close. There was a drawn final, lost by a point on two occasions. That’s as close as you can come to beat Dublin on such a big day.
“Mayo, obviously, deserve credit for being able to do that. Whether somebody else can take the Mayo template, if there is such a thing, and apply that to themselves, well, that’s a different question.
“What we have to do is apply the best of ourselves from what we learned from how other teams have done against Dublin.”
If that brings a fourth All-Ireland win to Tyrone, would it be the sweetest?:
“It’s always sweet to win at that level, of course it is. That time-span between the last final and now brings a whole new perspective to how fortunate and blessed we are to be in this place. I’m always grateful.”
May the fourth be with Tyrone….