IT SEEMS preposterous now, what with the glory he has heaped upon his county since the late 1990s, that anyone might ever have contemplated giving Mickey Harte the sack.
In the 1990s, his main goal in life was to coach the Red Hands’ teenagers to an All-Ireland minor title, but it took eight years to achieve, from his first season in 1991 to victory in 1998.
“If they had wanted to move me on, it would have been very easy to do so,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
Tyrone’s patience with Harte has been rewarded with a previously unthinkable procession of silverware.
But there are idiot supporters in every county that seek a managerial change every time a football match is lost — and there were probably some thinking that way after Tyrone fell short of Donegal for the third year running in the Ulster Championship earlier this season.
Events since have shown why no one in the Tyrone hierarchy with an ounce of intelligence would have contemplated parting company with one of the best Gaelic football managers of all time.
Lesser teams led by lesser men would have reacted to the Donegal disappointment by yielding at the first serious obstacle, accepting, even subconsciously, that hanging around in a competition that it seems you cannot win is an ultimately pointless exercise.
And boy, have Tyrone had excuses to bend the knee. There have been junctures in each of their past three championship games where all the momentum was with their fired-up opponents, where victory might have been let slip without any loss of honour.
It was there in Newbridge, when Kildare turned a 1-6 to 0-3 deficit into 1-6 to 0-9, and were further buoyed by a save from a Stephen O’Neill penalty.
It was there against Meath, when Mickey Newman’s penalty and two rousing points by Eamonn Wallace left Tyrone again facing defeat, somehow a point down after responding to Wallace’s opening goal by being seven points the better team.
And it was there more than once against Monaghan, the Ulster champions who raced into a 0-5 to 0-2 lead in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Every time, Tyrone have responded with remarkable industry and self-belief. Mayo supporters hoping for another double-digit demolition should bear in mind that Tyrone have also displayed these qualities against top-tier opposition.
Twice in the first half of the league final against Dublin, Harte’s men were three points down and set up to be brushed aside like almost all other opposition the Dubs had faced in the spring.
Instead of capitulation, there was typical Red Hand defiance; it took two stunners from Dean Rock to deny Tyrone a repeat of their earlier AFL victory against Dublin, and they remain the only side to have beaten Jim Gavin’s men in league or championship this season.
Mayo are the rightful favourites on Sunday, but to our mind, it would be a bigger shock to see Tyrone roll over than it would be to see them win.
They have obvious weaknesses — teams without them do not concede six points on the spin to Kildare in the first place — but regardless of how a game unfolds, they remain utterly horrible to play against, and that is as much about work rate as it is about cynicism.
That relentless will to tackle and disrupt was personified by Martin Penrose, a man whose occasional mistakes on the ball blind observers to his phenomenal tackling ability off it. But his loss will be offset by a siege mentality among his eligible teammates, a redoubling of their desire for battle.
And it is a two-way street, this cynicism: you can point out that Sean Cavanagh has picked up three yellow cards in three games for hauling opponents down, but you must also acknowledge that Tyrone reckon he is the subject of one-in-six fouls they are awarded.
Too often, Cavanagh must earn his marker a yellow card before he gains the freedom to display his gifts with a football. It will be the same on Sunday, Tyrone both the sinners and the sinned against.
And they have no reason to fear Mayo; six Tyrone players who can hope to see action will baulk at claims that Aidan O’Shea cannot be limited, given that they were on a team that achieved exactly that in the 2008 All-Ireland minor final replay.
They also have the 2010 minor success against Mayo to boost their self-esteem, when a certain Ronan O’Neill, who is almost certain to replace Penrose, kicked 1-4 to Cillian O’Connor’s 0-6.
And we must remember that their work-rate and eye for the turnover often gives rise to some brilliant football. Mattie Donnelly’s top-corner peach against Kildare sprang from Stephen O’Neill’s dispossession of Peter Kelly, and one of the better moves of the championship, a beautiful sequence of pace and movement between O’Neill, Darren McCurry and Mark Donnelly, resulted in Kieran Hughes’ second yellow in the Monaghan game.
If Mayo are off form, they will lose. Given the westerners’ close-to-flawless display against Donegal, it is too hard to bet against them, but if they do prevail, they will have come through a serious test.
Mayo for the win, by about four points, and if Tyrone can better that margin, Harte for manager of the year.