During my first year in charge of Mayo in 1995/6 it was decided that we should take that year’s national league campaign seriously. We were playing in Division 3 at the time and I can assure you we had some right battles up and down the country squeezing narrow victories over some mediocre opposition in order to secure promotion. We made the play offs and managed to take a major scalp in the quarter final with a great victory over Meath in Hyde Park, Roscommon. We went to Croke Park to play Derry in the semi-final and were comprehensively beaten by what was then an exceptionally talented Derry side. In fact we decided before we left Dublin after that defeat that we would work our socks off for a few weeks and look for another game against the same opposition in order to benchmark and progress.
Not alone did it focus our minds over the intervening weeks, but we knew also that, by playing the best in the country, we could learn so much from them. In fact it is a philosophy of most managers to play against good quality opposition as you generally learn very little by beating poor opposition. Derry, as I recall it, wouldn’t travel half way to play the game so we reluctantly agreed to travel all the way to Derry for the match. We were very keen to learn! We were beaten again, but not by anything near the margin we had lost by in the league semi-final a few weeks earlier. It was a great learning curve for us all and in my opinion, one of the primary reasons we advanced to the All- Ireland final in 1996.
In a similar fashion I believe managers can learn so much by mimicking the styles of the best teams in the business. In that regard Mickey Harte has proved himself to be one of the most astute managers involved in Gaelic football, having first got involved with the Tyrone minors in 1997. Harte guided Tyrone to unprecedented success at minor and u-21 level initially. He has, to date, delivered three senior All-Irelands since his first year at the senior helm back in 2003. He has gone about his business without fanfare and, as a football man, I admire his brilliant achievements. Last year’s achievements in particular were quite fantastic. Between injuries and retirements, it looked destined to be a second quiet year for Tyrone. Harte, it appeared, had no options beyond the positioning of Seán Cavanagh at full forward and hoping that, by allowing him roam around the attack; the team could improvise a way around his absence from midfield. Of course Cavanagh delivered an extraordinary season of athleticism, score-taking, and leadership and inspired the rest of the team to deliver performances way beyond what people thought were possible a few months earlier.
When Tyrone drew with Down in the Ulster Championship opener and then lost the replay, some were adamant it should be Harte's last year in charge. However Harte was able to turn around Tyrone's fortune using the back door system. In fact he referred to that loss as their "sweetest defeat" as it allowed them to regroup and build up confidence and momentum and deliver victories over Louth, Westmeath, and Mayo in the qualifiers to qualify for the All Ireland quarter-finals. They were said to be a team in transition. Their victory over Dublin was paramount and propelled their season to a glorious conclusion while highlighting Harte's management capability at its brilliant best. The season ended with a breath taking All Ireland final victory over the favourites Kerry in one of the finest finals we have witnessed in years. After pulling off this famous victory, we would imagine that he would be well entitled to a winter’s break to recharge the batteries for what will surely be another long season. They will surely be the team to beat this year. At least that is the assumption I was left with having watched his charges in action last Sunday, when they won their second game on the trot in the McKenna cup.
The first thing that caught my eye was the number of his first choice players that played in that match. Not alone did they want to line out for their county on a horrible winter’s day, but the displays of the aforementioned Cavanagh and Stephen O Neill were simply awesome. O Neill hit seven points, five of them from play, in a superb attacking performance, with Cavanagh equally impressive with a tally of seven points. Mickey took his usual stance on the sideline, hardly twitching a muscle over the 70 minutes as he once again applied the Midas touch in having his team play at championship tempo in the month of January. They looked very formidable and I firmly believe they will prove a tough nugget to crack throughout this year’s National league and championship.
Rushing through minors
I was particularly interested on his comments regarding Kyle Coney who has just returned from a short stint away sampling the AFL. Harte has flagged his views on the oval ball game and it is acknowledged by now that he isn’t a fan. The impression was given that Harte had coerced Kyle into returning home to become involved with his senior squad. We here in Mayo will remember Kyle in particular as he was a star performer on the successful All Ireland winning Tyrone minor team. Mickey made it quite clear that he had only ever spoken to the young Coney on one occasion about his decision to travel down under and also made it clear that he had nothing whatsoever to do with his decision to return home.
In particular he has made it known that he (Coney ) will not be rushed into the senior squad, but will be allowed find his feet at under 21 level. Graduation to senior level just can't be taken for granted. "It's not automatic that he will make the step up. We don't tend to involve players just out of minor football in our senior squad but we'll be keeping a watchful eye on all those minors and how they are progressing.”
I fully support this concept and would go even a step further by suggesting that the GAA should have a policy that prevents previous year’s minors from playing senior-inter county football in the following season.
Poor performance last Sunday
The FBD league, from a Mayo perspective, has been a disappointment. Last Sunday’s display against Roscommon, albeit in poor playing conditions, and with lots of the senior squad missing, was pitiful to say the least. No new talent of any great significance was unearthed, although Jason Doherty from Burrishoole played exceptionally well when introduced at half time. Our FBD league performances suggest that we might struggle for winning results in 2009. Sean Ryder, James Burke, and Aiden Campbell were noticeable absentees. These lads had proven themselves at under 21 level and I would have assumed they would be pressing for a senior jersey at this stage.