Kicking Out: Tyrone need more from Harte and Sludden to win Sam
IF you ever find yourself doubting the ability that Peter Harte has, go back and watch the closing moments of the Ulster final from 2016.
There were fewer than 90 seconds left of the six added minutes when he stood back in the pocket, somewhere between 50 and 55 yards from the Donegal goal.
When he’s fed it, he puts every ounce of himself behind it. As his left foot meets the ball, his right foot comes up off the ground too, like some sort of Paolo Di Canio remake.
From more than 50 yards, the ball cleared the top posts as it cut its way down the middle of them, finally breaking the deadlock on a searing hot, claustrophobic day in Clones.
Kieran McGeary kicked the one after and Sean Cavanagh, in equally memorably style, landed the one before. But for sheer aesthetics, Harte’s stood out.
The coaching manual went clean out the window. While the romantics dreamed that he might let fly, the statisticians bellowed ‘No!’ at the top of their voices. This wasn’t from the same postcode as the scoring zone. As percentages go, it was somewhere between a 0 and 10 per cent chance.
Alas, those dissenting voices were quickly drowned as the Errigal Ciaran man’s left boot produced a moment of unforgettable genius.
There are very few players that could have kicked that score at that time of a game. In that moment, he ensured his name would jump off the page when it came to Allstar selections.
Harte and Mattie Donnelly were rewarded that autumn, but their summer had been cut shorter than many expected when Mayo closed them out in Croke Park.
That was the day that Niall Sludden really made a big name for himself. Where others faltered on the big stage, the Dromore man was the one constant.
In a first half where they found it almost impossible to make any headway, Sludden was the one who ran hard at the Mayo line. He was the one that drew frees, that created scores. In the space of 70 minutes, he became an essential cog in the Tyrone wheel.
Across the 18 months that followed, Sludden was Tyrone’s best and most effective player.
His short-stepping style made him a nightmare for defenders to pin. When Tyrone played Donegal in the league last year, his goal was a different type of class.
He made a brilliant block 25 yards from his own goal to stop Michael Murphy from registering a score. He picked himself up, sprinted 80 yards past almost the entire Donegal team and won a penalty at the other end.
In a period where Mattie Donnelly was being played out of position and their attack lacked a focal point, Harte and Sludden had become the two key components in Tyrone’s team.
As we stand looking back upon Cathal McShane’s destruction of Derry on Sunday afternoon, his has been a pertinently-timed step-up.
The different dimension he and Donnelly have offered to Tyrone’s attack has been debated ad nauseam already this year and it’s only May.
Tyrone had to step out of their one-dimensional selves and change.
That’s largely down to the fact that the rest of the country wasn’t slow in catching on. Once Tyrone became known as a running team, the obvious thing for any opposition to do was to tail the key runners.
In the early days, Harte and Sludden both got the freedom to just be ordinary cogs. They’d cover grass up and down like the rest, the difference being that when Tyrone turned it over, they were frightening going the other way into open space.
That has all changed drastically in the last two years. Teams recognised that if they could shut down Harte and Sludden, they would put the clampers on Tyrone as an attacking force.
It hasn’t mattered where Mickey Harte has tried to play his nephew in big games since. Whether he lines out at full-forward, centre-half, midfield or wing-back, the opposition send a sticker straight to him.
Fintan Kelly and John Small have been the two most effective. Aggressive, in-your-face, relentless. You’d have to watch Harte the whole game to see just how often the methods of restriction cross the boundaries of legality, but the black and white of it is that those pair in particular have been able to shut him down.
Karl McKaigue did the same job on Sunday, but the worry perhaps for Tyrone there is that McKaigue is renowned as one of the cleanest defenders in the game. Those that have marked him will tell you there are no guns brought to the fist fight.
Derry also followed the Dublin template of small and fast to deal with Sludden. For the All-Ireland champions, it’s been Eoin Murchan, who’s possibly the smallest, fastest man ever to play inter-county football.
He too has done an outstanding job, one that Paul McNeill was able to mirror at the weekend.
Because of Sludden’s relative lack of physical stature, he struggles to dispose of anyone that can match him for pace and durability. No easy task, but the more teams have figured that out, the harder he’s found it to influence Tyrone’s big games.
Harte is that bit brawnier and brainier, but the way defenders are going at him now makes it exceptionally hard for him to influence games.
They’re both still the kind of players that, if they’re given half a second in space on the ball, they could nail you to the floor. Harte continues to pop up with goals on a fairly regular basis, but primarily now against weaker opposition.
Quite how they shake this problem is unclear. Tyrone have tried Harte at full-forward but the issue there is that, in McShane and Donnelly, they now have a more effective pairing inside.
What’s clear, though, is that if Tyrone are going to win an All-Ireland, then the level of influence imposed by Harte and Sludden in the big games must increase.