Three games into this year’s Allianz League campaign and Tyrone deep in relegation trouble with one point out of six, Mattie Donnelly went to Mickey Harte with a suggestion.
The captain, whose so often curbed his natural instincts for the benefit of the team, had been watching his brother Richie and their Trillick club-mate Lee Brennan in training playing off Cathal McShane close to goal, and wanted a piece of the action.
“It kind of came at training when we were round in the middle eight and I’d seen the way it transpired that maybe Lee was inside with Richie, and because we all have that understanding from club football organically, I stayed a bit closer to them and it worked well.
“I sparked the conversation with Mickey and Gavin (Devlin) that it could be worthwhile.
“I thought I could add value in a more advanced role and closer to Cathal (McShane).
“It was working well in training and so I just took it into the game that weekend to see how it would work.”
The game that weekend was Monaghan, and while it wasn’t the only reason for the upturn in form, the switch to a more direct style of play certainly coincided with a more dynamic approach and better results.
Tyrone finished the league with four wins on the bounce, including a first win over Dublin in Croke Park for six years, and narrowly missed out on a place in the Division One final.
Donnelly and McShane formed a two-man wrecking ball on the Dublin fullback line and it’s a tactic Donnelly is hoping to try out in the championship, starting with Sunday’s Ulster SFC opener against Derry in Omagh.
“The Monaghan game was the first time and obviously every game after that we were just looking to see if we could improve on different things, but it’s still a work in progress.
“I wouldn’t say I have it completely sussed at this stage.
“I do want to test it in championship though, I want to test it against the best teams in that environment and it’s a massive challenge, because it’s very different to what I have been doing.”
What he has been doing is playing an unselfish role for the team. Anywhere from right half-forward to centre half-back to midfield, he’s played right across the middle eight.
Given his ball-winning ability and threat close to goal, full-forward could become a permanent, happy home for the 2008 All-Ireland minor winner.
He disagrees he’s had to give up on a lot for a fair amount of his senior career to suit the team, but he’s excited about the possibilities offered by this new role.
“I wouldn’t call it sacrificing my game because the role I’d been given by Mickey was with the idea that it would add value to the team. That’s all I was ever happy to do and I think I did that.
“I always enjoy playing for Tyrone in any position and certainly that’s been varied this past few years.
“I’ve played in a number of positions but I suppose I’m being a bit more advanced now and it’s probably been a by-product of how the team as a whole is playing.
“In the last four games in the league we found a rich vein of form and the team was playing well. With that much energy coming from the back, everyone was enjoying their football at that point in time.
“Again, the litmus test for myself and the team is in the championship and that is the challenge we’re looking forward to.”