'Don't stop believing' is Mickey Harte's plea to Tyrone
THERE has never been a greater challenge. Mickey Harte isn’t the first to fall foul of Dublin, and it wasn’t for the want of trying.
Tyrone did their level best tactically, making a myriad of changes to try and get their match-ups right. They found themselves 0-5 to 0-1 up after 15 minutes.
But Jim Gavin’s men don’t do shell-shock. They adjusted, and they capitalised. Tyrone made critical errors and goals from Paul Mannion and Niall Scully turned the deficit into a seven-point lead that they never looked like handing back.
They’re in no panic to hand Sam Maguire back, with GAA president John Horan proudly declaring: ‘Sam stays in the capital’ before giving it to his old St Vincent’s Glasnevin student, Stephen Cluxton.
It had been ten years since Tyrone’s last All-Ireland final and Harte, in a magnanimous mood, admitted the challenge is even greater now to find the same level of improvement again as from last year to this.
“It’s hard to say at this stage [if that’s achievable]. That’s what you’d like to think, if you get beaten by 12 last year and half of that this year, you have to believe that’s progress. But have you got the capacity to make the next step? Who knows? Next year will tell the tale.
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“We have to be very competitive in the league and gain more experience of playing at that level, to see can we qualify again for the last eight, for semi-finals and finals. That’s the challenge. Every team will be wanting to do that.
“It depends how you stay injury free, how your players develop and grow from this experience, or are there new players we can find that will add value to what we’re about.
“All these things are up in the air right now. You have to believe, you have to be an optimist or there wouldn’t be much point doing this.”
The air on which football’s predictable summer seemed to be resuscitating on in those first 15 minutes was slowly drawn from the stadium by the relentless four-in-a-row champions.
That hasn’t been done since Kerry from 1978 until ’81, and quite where this generation’s Seamus Darby moment is coming from looks harder and harder to pinpoint.
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The Red Hands started off exceptionally lively, with Cathal McShane in particular enjoying great freedom off a half-fit Cian O’Sullivan. But over the course of it, they kicked 16 wides and that was equally as harmful as what the relentless Dubs did themselves.
“On the field you could see the disappointment in every player because they gave a lot out there today,” said Harte.
“Because of the really good start we had, it seemed a shame that we were so far behind in a very short space of time. The games turns on small things. I felt when we were 0-5 to 0-1 up, in that time we picked a few bad shot selections, but that one that would have put us [five] up, if we’d retained possession, who knows what kind of trend the game would have taken.
“But we didn’t, we were 0-5 to 0-1 up, and it was 2-6 to 0-5 in a very short period of time. That’s very disappointing given the way we opened the game, when we’d done very well.
“To be trailing by seven points at half-time given the effort the boys had put in in the first half, and then the second half’s always damage limitation to a degree.
“You try to get back at the opposition to a degree but they’re a quality side. Even we get a few scores, they can get a few more, they’re always keeping you at arm’s length.”
It never quite matched the pain threshold of last year’s semi-final, but there was a stage in the second half when it threatened to go close. Dublin were 2-13 to 0-11 clear with 53 minutes gone, but tossing Colm Cavanagh to full-forward helped manufacture some brief semblance of hope, cutting it back to four just as the board went up to signal seven added minutes. Alas, the back door was swinging wide on its hinges. The hope just never carried an eternal air.
“The credit our boys deserve is that they did not allow this to be the battering it was last year, they fought to the bitter end,” said Harte, losing his first senior All-Ireland final from four.
“Even in that comeback, we had chances to close the gap better than we did. You pay the price against a quality side. But I just can’t fault the effort the players have put in.”
He expects that Colm Cavanagh, the only survivor from the 2008 success, will return with the rest for another cut at it in 2019. The gap’s smaller, but the margin for improvement is too.
There has never been a greater challenge.