Tyrone have failed to clear the first hurdle in the ferociously competitive Ulster Football Championship since 2012, but they’re hotly fancied to walk out of Celtic Park with a positive result tomorrow.
The Red Hands have been strangely subdued in the northern province in recent seasons, having gone five years without an Anglo-Celt Cup triumph.
They have travelled well along the qualifier route, however, and their lack of success in mainstream championship can be attributed to the fact that they have come up against Donegal in a series of openers.
This time it’s a Derry team that has lost to their neighbours from across the Sperrins four times this season.
Tyrone are firm favourites not just to make it five from five against their fierce rivals, but to go on and win the Ulster title. There’s a hefty weight of expectation that the players must carry, but manager Mickey Harte says he’s happy to take the strain.
“It’s better to be considered favourites than no-hopers. If I had a choice, I would always take favourites,” he said.
“Then people believe you’re capable of something and then it’s about managing that favourites’ tag. You can’t let the favourites’ gag go to your head, it won’t win any game for you, but if people think you’re favourite to win a game, you have to produce the substance to justify that favourites tag, and that’s the challenge for our players.” Harte believes last season’s extended championship run, which took his side to the All-Ireland semi-final, will be a significant influence as the Red Hands bid to win a first provincial title since 2010.
“To have the players we have coming off last year’s All-Ireland success is very valuable, because there’s a winning mentality that comes with that, there’s a confidence that comes with that, and that can only be good.” And he stressed the importance of strength in depth, and the impact to be made by players coming off the bench at advanced stages of games.
“It’s very often the non-starters who actually make the winning difference, and if you have people who don’t start who make a winning difference then that’s a great formula to have.
“And that’s what you need from people who come into a game, you need people to make a difference, not just to come in and be glad to get a bit of a chance.
“They come in to make a difference, and when you have people with that mentality, that’s a very good thing to have. I believe we have that at the minute, and every team needs that at the minute. You can’t possible win anything with 15 players.
“It’s a 20 or 21-man game now, because people give so much of themselves that you do need to be able to give a player a break, not necessarily because they’re not contributing, but because they’ve given you all they’ve got in 50 of 55 minutes.”
Harte admits that his team needs to become more ruthless in front of goal, and he wants his front men to have the confidence to go for the net when opportunities arise.
“We are conscious of the fact that if a goal presents itself, if it looks like a goal is on, then ruthless teams take those goals. We have to get our players conditioned into thinking that if a goal presents itself, go for it.
“But at the same time, you’re going to miss chances. The goalkeeping standard is raised an awful lot from what it used to be as well.
“Goalkeepers are so much more adept now at closing down space and narrowing angles, and there’s seldom the opportunity comes for a one-on-one you have to beat a few people before you get in with a chance to get a shot at goal.
“So everything is getting tighter, goals aren’t as easy to come by. Teams are aware of the impact it has on them negatively, so most teams are very conscious of trying to keep out goals.
“Maybe some teams are better at getting them than others but it’s a work in progress for us, we’d love to score more goals always.” However, the Red Hand boss is happy with the fact that scores are coming from a greater spread of players than previously.
“It is good, and you can make an argument for all these things. People say you can’t win at the top without a marquee forward who’s going to guarantee you six, eight points any day.
“If we had somebody of that vintage at the minute, then we would certainly keep them, but if they’re not there, then it’s a team game, and it’s how the collective comes together.
“Maybe that’s what we’re finding at the minute, we have a collective front like which can start from anywhere, who can get scores, and if you can have people who get confident in their ability to do that from all over the park, then you probably would be a bit harder to stop.” Last season’s success represented a recovery from the disappointment of 2014, when Tyrone made an early exit from the championship, before suffering a shock qualifier defeat at home to Armagh.
“It did hurt, it stung badly, to go out so early in the championship, the manner in which we went out. We thought we had more to offer.”
M O’Neill, A McCrory, R McNamee, C McCarron, T McCann, N Sludden, P Harte, C Cavanagh, M Donnelly, C McShane, M Bradley, R Donnelly, C McAliskey, S Cavanagh, R O’Neill.
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