Tyrone’s new generation blossoming

It started just five days after Dublin’s All-Ireland triumph with the news that Brian Dooher was pulling the shutters down on his 16-year career and only ended last week with Kevin Hughes’ decision to follow suit.

Four others – Brian McGuigan, Philip Jordan, Enda McGinley and Ciaran Gourley – had bid similar farewells in the days in between. That’s 16 All-Ireland medals, and a lot more besides, removed from the Tyrone dressing-room.

It didn’t bode well.

That was the instinctive reaction anyway. How could any county ship such losses in quantity and quality in a window so small and hope to emerge into the spring with hopes and ambition intact?

Inside the county news of so many departures merely ignited hope in young men eager to follow in their footsteps. Having stood by his veterans for so long, Mickey Harte now had no option but to give youth its head.

The initial buds have been promising.

A late comeback against Derry last month secured the Dr McKenna Cup and further encouragement came with an impressive second-half performance against Kildare in the Division 2 league opener at HQ on Saturday.

Unfamiliar names and strange faces were sprinkled liberally among the starting 15 with more accommodated on the bench. Tyrone’s underage production line has been well publicised but here at last was evidence of the next generation.

“I suppose that was the difficult thing for young players in the past,” said Harte.

“They knew there were a lot of seasoned campaigners and high-quality players who were probably going to be first choice and a lot of them have gone. Not just this year but over the last two or three.

“You might have ten or 11 players who might have been starters [gone] so that is a great incentive for young men to come in and say ‘I am not just making the panel here, I have a great chance of making this team’ and we would like them to continue playing like that.”

Chief among them was young Conor Clarke. A minor on the team that won the All-Ireland two years ago, he was handed the task of manacling the beefy Tomás O’Connor on the edge of his own square and fared none too badly.

The age profile had been lowered even further than Harte would have wanted by the absence through injury or illness of the McMahons, Joe and Justin, Conor Gormley and Colm Cavanagh while his brother Sean saw no more than five minutes of action.

It was Harte’s good fortune that two of the more senior lieutenant’s left available to him on the night were Stephen O’Neill and Owen Mulligan who contributed eight points and much more to claim the spoils.

O’Neill could have claimed another 1-4 with a little luck while Mulligan had a hand in at least 1-7 of Tyrone’s final tally with his clever pass to Peter Harte setting the centre-back up for the second, game-killing goal 13 minutes from time.

It was Peter Harte who had cleared the table for Martin Penrose to claim the game’s first goal shortly after the interval and his meanderings were typical of a team for whom numbers and positions have become increasingly outdated.

It would be premature to talk them up just yet.

This is the third time in five seasons that Tyrone have kicked off the league with a win at a wintry Croke Park and they have looked world-beaters in June in recent seasons only to melt away come the August Bank Holiday weekend.

Still, they remain ones to watch.

“We won the McKenna Cup and we were glad to do that,” said Harte. “People say the standard rises when you go into the league and there is no doubt but that is the case. Again, the old story, one swallow doesn’t make a summer.

“We could have been beaten there just as handy but we got the breaks at the right time to give us a foothold in the game. There were periods when we were on the back foot as well so we are no finished product. We are a team in the making again.”

Scorers for Tyrone: Stephen O’Neill 0-5 (2fs), O Mulligan 0-3 (1f), M Penrose, P Harte 1-0 each, Mark Donnelly, D McCaul, R O’Neill 0-1 each.

Scorers for Kildare: M Conway 0-6 (4fs), P O’Neill, E O’Flaherty (1f, 1 45) 0-2 each, P Kelly, J Doyle 0-1 each.

TYRONE: P McConnell; A McCrory, C Clarke, PJ Quinn; C McCarron, P Harte, Sean O’Neill; M Murphy, A Cassidy; Matthew Donnelly, P Hughes, M Penrose; O Mulligan, Mark Donnelly, Stephen O’Neill.

Subs: D McCaul for Quinn (33), R O’Neill for Hughes (33), N McKenna for Cassidy (60), S Cavanagh for Penrose (67), R McMenamin for Matthew Donnelly (72).

KILDARE: S Connolly; P Kelly, C Fitzpatrick, O Lyons; B Flanagan, T O’Neill, E O’Flaherty; D Flynn, R Sweeney; T Moolick, M Conway, P O’Neill; J Kavanagh, T O’Connor, A Smith.

Subs: J Doyle for Moolick (20), H McGrillen for Flanagan (42), E Callaghan for Smith (45), M O’Flaherty for Fitzpatrick (50), R Kelly for Flynn (59).

Referee: Michael Duffy (Sligo).

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