GAA Football

McKenna Cup just means more to Mickey Harte as Tyrone go in search of another title

Monaghan captain Ryan Wylie returns to the Farney fold in tonight's Dr McKenna Cup final, and could find himself going toe-to-toe with Tyrone's Darren McCurry at some stage at the Athletic Grounds. Picture by Philip Walsh
Neil Loughran

Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup final: Tyrone (holders) v Monaghan (tonight, 7.30pm, Athletic Grounds)

WHEN 2003 was drawing to a close, you’d have struggled to wipe the grin from Mickey Harte’s face. Having laid the foundations for a decade of unprecedented success through his work with the minor and U21 teams either side of the Millennium, he couldn’t have asked for any more from his first year over the seniors.

The National League title had been successfully defended in the spring, Ulster claimed in July before the dam was broken in September, Harte leading Tyrone to their first All-Ireland title at the expense of rivals Armagh.

A perfectionist is never pleased, however. And at an awards bash towards the end of that year, Harte was quick to correct reporter Orla Bannon as she reflected on the Red Hands’ sweeping of the boards.

“Well,” he said, “we didn’t win the McKenna Cup.”

That remark may have been delivered with a half smile, but there was seriousness in the sentiment. While the McKenna Cup is seen as an inconvenience for some, Harte has always viewed it as an integral part of any season.

After missing out in 2003 – Tyrone still reached the final by the way - they won the next four in-a-row. In total, they have lifted the trophy 11 times during Harte’s tenure, and tonight they go for a 12th when they meet Monaghan in the Athletic Grounds.

“It’s a competition that, when Tyrone win it, people think nothing of it. But if we lose it, it’s a serious trophy,” said the Glencull man.

“It’s a serious issue for us to lose this game and it’s no big deal if we win it – that’s the way it is because we’ve been there so often. But we’ve created that situation for ourselves and I’m happy that we have.

“I don’t care what people think of the trophy, it’s a competition, one of only four we can contest at senior level. It may not rate highly on the Richter scale of success but I’d rather be winning trophies of any kind than not winning them.”

The county who beat them in that McKenna Cup final 17 years ago was, of course, Monaghan. The Farney County haven’t won it since, but their fortunes improved dramatically from the following year when Seamus McEnaney replaced Colm Coyle.

‘Banty’ is back now, a decade after making his exit. Throughout that first spell over his native county, McEnaney locked horns with Harte many times, most notably in the 2007 and 2010 provincial deciders – both of which the Red Hands won.

“When I was going out the door 10 years ago, I thought if I was going back we’d hardly be renewing our friendship,” laughed the Corduff man.

“Our relationship in opposition corners goes back some time, and even when I was managing Meath we played Tyrone in the National League. But Mickey Harte is a legend in team management, the longest-serving county manager in the country.

“He has done a phenomenal job with Tyrone. He’s had tough times in his personal life and I’m delighted to be back on the line with Mickey.”

There will be another familiar face involved tonight too.

This time last year Peter Donnelly was helping prepare Tyrone for the season ahead but, 12 months on, the Coalisland finds himself in league with the Farney County.

“We’re delighted to have Peter Donnelly in our corner, he’s a fantastic coach,” said McEnaney, who has lost Dessie Mone, Vinny Corey, Gavin Doogan and Owen Duffy to retirement.

“It’s early days in the season, he’s doing a really good job since we’ve been there but it’s like every other operation, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.”

McEnaney’s men come into tonight’s game on the back an unexpected break in action following Donegal’s decision to pull out of their scheduled semi-final last weekend.

“Listen,” he added, “everybody has problems getting players because of college games this weekend. We also have three or four players involved with Sigerson Cup, five playing with the U20s…

“But even if Monaghan does only have a population of 50,000, we'll find 15 to play the game anyway.”

Their last competitive outing therefore was the one-point defeat to the Tir Chonaill men on January 5, and ‘Banty’ continues to experiment in tonight’s decider as he builds towards next week’s Division One opener against Galway in Tuam.

Thus far he has given seven new faces the chance to impress on the inter-county stage, and hands a start to Emyvale's Conor Forde instead of first choice ‘keeper Rory Beggan against the Red Hands.

Captain Ryan Wylie returns to the starting 15, though Darren Hughes and Jack McCarron remain sidelined after coming off early against Donegal. McEnaney insists their withdrawal was “precautionary” and hopes to have both available next weekend.

For Harte, meanwhile, it will be a further opportunity to consider his options ahead of their League opener at home to Meath.

With Allstar forward Cathal McShane currently on trial with Aussie Rules outfit Adelaide Crows, the Tyrone boss has handed out opportunities to fill that potential void at full-forward.

Conal McCann did well in the wins over Cavan and Down, while Frank Burns gets another chance to impress having caught the eye with his clever runs and inventive link-up play in victory over Armagh last week.

Mark Bradley’s return to the fold has been put on ice as a result of a knee injury picked up in training, while Peter Harte doesn’t return from honeymoon until next week and won’t be back in county colours until next month at the earliest.

Although an eye will be fixed firmly on next weekend, neither will want to leave Armagh without the trophy tonight. For McEnaney, the motivation is clear.

“Monaghan is not in a position to refuse any trophies,” he said.

“We are a very small county with a very small population and a small number of clubs. Any competition you enter you want to be as competitive as you can.”

The end result just always seems to matter that bit more to Harte than anybody else at this time of year. Never mind the one that got away, number 12 could be on the way.

Tyrone: N Morgan; C Quinn, R McNamee, HP McGeary; M Cassidy, M O'Neill, T McCann; B McDonnell, C Grugan; C Meyler, D Mulgrew, K McGeary; R McHugh, F Burns, D Kerr

Monaghan: C Forde; D Wylie, C Walshe, C Boyle; S Carey, R Wylie, P Keenan; N Kearns, B McBennett; M P O’Dowd, R McAllister, D Ward; J Irwin, K McEnaney, P Donnelly

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