Sitting in the opulence of a Dubai hotel, during the 2016 All-Stars tour, Tyrone’s Matthew Donnelly was asked about the promise of his Trillick club mate, Lee Brennan.
The year before, Brennan had collected the Patsy Forbes Cup for top championship scorer, with a tally of 2-27, as Trillick captured the Tyrone title for the first time in 29 years.
That came six months after the county U21 team, with Brennan on board, had won the All-Ireland title, under the guidance of Feargal Logan. By season’s end, he had forced his way onto Mickey Harte’s senior panel, but had played no part in the championship.
“I don’t know when, but he will definitely come to prominence over the next year or two…
“He has that temperament, that class about him. He’s just destined to do big things,” said Donnelly.
“Hopefully, for himself and Tyrone, that can be sooner rather than later, but it’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s just ‘when’?”
At the outset of the 2017 season, when asked the reasons for Tyrone grinding to a halt during their 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Mayo, Harte identified poor finishing.
It seemed as if he was about to take his chances on Brennan, but, for the 2017 league, Brennan gained just three minutes.
That decision appeared to be churlish, when a video clip of him torturing the Strabane defence, in a league game, went viral.
He scored 3-14: 1-3 from play, coming off his less-favoured right foot, five from frees and one ‘45’.
League performances, however, do not carry that much weight with the more seasoned Tyrone watcher.
There is an old story that former county manager, Art McRory, tells of John Joe O’Neill famously calling him up, after scoring three goals for Moortown, against the Rock, to which McRory replied, in that dry way of his: ‘The next time Tyrone are playing the Rock, I will be onto you, John Joe.’
There was also the suspicion that Brennan, a prodigious talent and, alongside Tony McEntee, the only player to have won three Ulster School’s football All-Stars, from his time with St Michael’s, in Enniskillen, was being allowed to mature at his own pace.
Donnelly said as much: “He’s been in there (the senior county team) two years now. The big thing that’s held Lee back is his involvement with the U21s.
He’s been left to develop there and that’s been happening at a critical stage of Tyrone’s season, during the National League. It’s hard to come back and force your way in between the league and championship.
“That may have gone against him and, obviously, it’s going to be an issue again for him next year, with the U21s, too.”
He added: “But I would carry wee Lee every day of the week, in any team I go to, because I’ve seen, first-hand, his free-taking and his temperament for free-taking. Not only that, not discarding his free-kicks, he has that wee bit of magic up his sleeve. He can mix it up, he can come out and play-make, but he’s a lethal finisher, too, from play. He’s a threat from play; he’s adding to that side of his game. He has all the attributes to be a very, very good asset for us.”
In last year’s championship, Brennan was left kicking his heels. Tyrone’s scoring return wasn’t a concern, as they set the scoring record for the Ulster Championship for the second year running, with 3-60 in their three games.
A 3-17 tally against Armagh wasn’t leading to calls for Brennan’s exclusion, but a mere 0-11 against Dublin raised suspicions. Altogether, he played just the last seven minutes against Derry, in the Ulster quarter-final, scoring two points, and got four minutes in the Ulster final.
After Tyrone began this league with a miserable 0-8 return against Galway, Harte might have felt the need to finally roll the dice and Brennan came on for the last two minutes. He started against Dublin and helped himself to six points, three from play. A highlight was when he sent Michael Fitzsimons careering into the turf with a lovely dummy.
Since then, he has started every game and, after five full games, he has overtaken Patrick McBrearty (0-30) at the top of the Division One scoring charts, with his 2-25 tally, (0-20 from frees).
In comparison to other prolific men, Dean Rock has amassed 1-18, 0-13 of that from the dead ball; and David Clifford has 0-21 to his credit, 12 of that from frees.
The most surprising statistic of these finding is the remarkable 2-16 scored from play this campaign by Dublin’s Ciaran Kilkenny.
Last year, Harte settled on a formation with the Tyrone team almost entirely retreating into defence, bar Mark Bradley, who was left up top on his own to stretch opposition backlines with his elusive movement. Nobody could argue with the results it brought in their own province, but, for the second year running, it came unstuck in Croke Park, against top opposition.
After the first two games of this league, when Tyrone lost to Galway and Dublin, it moved Tomás ÓSé, who had urged the Tyrone county board to grant Harte a contract extension at the end of 2017, to observe that:
“They might win another Ulster, and fair play to them if they do win another Ulster. My point is that the style of football they are playing, at the moment, is not going to win them an All-Ireland.
“It might be good to beat 28 teams in the country, it might even be good enough to beat Kerry, but I don’t think they beat Mayo and I don’t think they beat Dublin.”
Perhaps all that showed was the folly of over-analysing teams after a mere two games, and one of them in January conditions. Closer observers would insist Tyrone have gone more offensive, with a full-forward line of Mark Bradley, Connor McAliskey, and Lee Brennan.
How far the evolution will travel remains one of the summer’s mysteries.
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