It’s been six years since the Anglo-Celt Cup last visited Tyrone, and the hurt that drives Mickey Harte’s men has become an obsession.
Only a handful of the class of 2016 — the likes of the Cavanagh and the McMahon brothers — boast an Ulster Championship medal.
In order to fulfil their potential, Harte feels that his talented bunch need to reign supreme once again in the northern province, and break the stranglehold of Donegal and Monaghan, who have shared the last five titles.
That’s not to say they must win their provincial crown to be successful. No county has garnered more from the Qualifier route. Tyrone won two of their three All-Irelands via the back door, and only last year, took the scenic path to a semi-final.
But this one is different. It’s a right of passage for a group of emerging young players who need to capture a significant piece of silverware in order to take it to the next level.
“We see every game in Ulster as an Ulster final, and that’s very simple, because if you lose it, you’re out,” said Harte.
“We played an Ulster final against Derry, and now we have another Ulster final.
“If we win that Ulster final, we will be in the Ulster final proper. That’s our aim, that’s our goal, one day at a time, one step at a time, and others are talking away in the distance. Dublin is both geographically and practically a long distance from us at the moment, so we wouldn’t be even thinking in that direction,
“It’s a step by step process, where we would like to get better in each of those steps, and if we do get better in each of those steps, then I think we will be in a good place to win an Ulster title.”
In recent seasons, Tyrone have struggled to find the net, a failing that has cost them in some big games. This year, however, they have been working on that weakness, and showing a more ruthless streak in front of the posts.
Central to their success in improving their goals tally has been the form of Ronan O’Neill, who is finally delivering on the promise shown as a teenage star. He grabbed two goals in a sensational first half against Derry.
“It wouldn’t just be because of the Derry match that people would want to be giving him special attention,” said Harte. “His form all season would merit that he should be getting special attention, in the best possible way. He’s a much more mature player than people give him credit for, even though he missed a few years with injury.
“I don’t think it bothers him that people might be trying to get under his skin.
“He has the capacity to deal with that and still play good football. I’m not saying that he’s going to win every ball, or that he’s going to get 2-2 the next day, or anything else, but I know that he is very comfortable and capable at the moment.”
The notoriously competitive Ulster Football Championship has flopped this summer in terms of producing cliff-hanger contests, with all five games won comfortably by the favourites.
Tyrone enter into tomorrow’s clash with Cavan as favourites to move on to the final, but their manager has sounded a cautious note as they face a side that turned over Armagh with a potent display of effective, counter-attacking football.
“This is the first year there hasn’t been something of an upset even before the semi-finals, but upsets can happen, and when people are touted as favourites, then they have to be very much on their guard and play like they deserve to be favourites. That is the challenge for anybody who is called a favourite.”
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