PADDY HEANEY: Don’t write off Tyrone’s young guns just yet

If you asked 100 Tyrone supporters to name their first choice team for this year’s championship match against Donegal, you’re likely to get 100 very different answers back.

In contrast, if the same question was put to 100 Donegal supporters, there would be minimal variation between the responses. No doubt, the vast majority would list the side that beat Mayo in last year’s All-Ireland final as their chosen 15. When the neighbours renew acquaintances in the first round of the Ulster SFC on May 26, these contrasting situations will become obvious.

Barring injury and misfortune, Donegal should be largely unchanged from last season. Tyrone, however, will be totally overhauled.

Consider the 15 Tyrone players who lined out against Donegal in last year’s Ulster semi-final. Mickey Harte’s starting team was: Pascal McConnell; Conor Gormley, Conor Clarke, Aidan McCrory; Sean O’Neill, Ryan McMenamin, Dermot Carlin; Joe McMahon, Colm Cavanagh; Mattie Donnelly, Stephen O’Neill, Peter Harte; Martin Penrose, Mark Donnelly and Owen Mulligan.

From that line-up, McMenamin has retired, Sean O’Neill is not in the current squad and Mulligan’s future remains uncertain. It must also be remembered that Sean Cavanagh, Kyle Coney, Justin McMahon, Cathal McCarron and Ronan O’Neill missed that fixture through injury.

At a very conservative estimate, it’s safe to predict Mickey Harte will make about seven changes. Harte has just 17 weeks to build a new side and have it functioning as a fluid, cohesive unit.

Not only does he have to identify his 15 best players, he must also have them coached to a level capable of competing with a slick Donegal side entering its third year under the McGuinness administration.

At first glance, the odds appear to be stacked against the Red Hands. It could all go pear-shaped quite easily. But a very different scenario could also unfold and this is the picture Harte will be painting for his players. At the final whistle in last year’s encounter, Donegal won 0-12 to 0-10. In terms of tactics and teamwork, there wasn’t a great deal between the sides.

Ultimately, a lack of firepower proved to be Tyrone’s undoing. When they were in their pomp, the individual brilliance of a few key players meant they often won games when the team wasn’t functioning well. A blitzkrieg from Sean Cavanagh, Peter Canavan, Stephen O’Neill or Owen Mulligan would be enough to secure victory.

That nucleus of All Star quality just wasn’t present in last year’s team. Tyrone’s forward line managed just 0-4 from play against Donegal, and half of it from Stephen O’Neill. But when Mickey Harte surveys his options, he’ll be quietly optimistic his players can close that two-point gap.

The return of four-time All Star Sean Cavanagh is his single biggest boost. After missing last year’s championship, he is looking fitter and stronger than ever and was Tyrone’s best player in the Dr McKenna Cup.

Furthermore, in Kyle Coney, Darren McCurry and Ronan O’Neill, Tyrone should have a trio of gifted forwards who weren’t available for last year’s game in Clones.

The outstanding player on the Tyrone minor team, which won the All-Ireland title in 2008, Coney initially struggled to make the transition to senior football. He only found his groove in last year’s league. Injury ended his season last April and although he will miss the start of the league with an ankle problem he is in line to start his first championship match in the meeting with Donegal.

Darren McCurry gave notice of his considerable talent for Tyrone’s qualifier match against Roscommon with 0-4 from play off the bench in Hyde Park. More recently, the 20-year-old chalked up 0-5 during a man of the match display against Antrim in the McKenna Cup.

While Coney and McCurry are good, no-one in Tyrone has quite the same amount of potential as Ronan O’Neill. The 22-year-old is one of the most gifted young players in the country. A torn cruciate ligament ended O’Neill’s season last March.

Last week he was given the green light to return to full training. With 123 days to go before Tyrone take on Donegal, O’Neill should be fit to come on as a sub.

And it’s on the bench where Harte might have an advantage over McGuinness. For last year’s clash, the Tyrone boss introduced Brian McGuigan, Ronan McNabb, Aidan Cassidy and Niall McKenna. McGuigan has since retired while Cassidy and McKenna are no longer in the current squad.

Given that Stephen O’Neill, Kyle Coney, Ronan O’Neill, Darren McCurry and Conor McAliskey are probably going to be competing for two positions, there is a strong chance three of those players will be in the dug out.

Even Sean Cavanagh’s deployment at midfield isn’t a foregone conclusion. During Tyrone’s McKenna Cup game against Jordanstown, the 29-year-old demonstrated that he is still a viable option at full-forward.

Any Tyrone supporter who sits down and tries to pick a championship 15 will quickly realise the headache facing Mickey. Over the next three months, it will be fascinating to watch how he shapes and moulds this new generation.

Saturday’s night’s McKenna Cup final, and the seven Division 1 games will provide many answers. Closed door matches will answer many more.

En route to lifting Sam, Donegal enjoyed two-point victories over Tyrone, Kerry and Cork. Evidently, there is little to choose between these four teams, yet the bookmakers have rated Tyrone as 20/1 shots for the All-Ireland behind Kerry (7/2), Dublin (7/2), Donegal (4/1), Cork (4/1) and Mayo (10/1).

But, unlike many of their rivals, Tyrone have a much bigger capacity for improvement. Sean Cavanagh is back.

And if players like Kyle Coney, Ronan O’Neill and Darren McCurry can make the grade, then Tyrone will not be that far from the top table.

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