The evolution of Tyrone

Tyrone players line up for the National Anthem prior to the recent Dr. McKenna Cup semi-final against  Derry at  Healy Park, Omagh. Picture:Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

ALLIANZ FL DIV 1:
Tyrone v Mayo
When the time comes to review this decade of football, and in turn the validity of Kerry’s 10-point win over Tyrone in July 2012, just how dimly will history view that qualifier in Killarney?

Replaced by Donegal and Dublin at the top of the heap, was this merely a pair of has-beens slugging it out for pittance off the strip? A lot of Kerry supporters and a handful of their players convinced themselves it was a win more than its true worth as the Tyrone following strenuously played it down when their team’s season had climaxed for Donegal and fell away thereafter.

Despite the billing, the game was less than it appeared, but then neither was it a false dawn for the hosts or a false dusk for the visitors. 13 months later and the headline pugilists of the 2000s had reached All-Ireland semi-finals off campaigns that could be believed in.

Fast forward to last week and the parallels between the counties continue. In their opener against Dublin, much was made of Kerry fielding a team without a player who started a winning All-Ireland final. That same evening in Derry, Mickey Harte did exactly the same as Eamonn Fitzmaurice.

Enda McGinley, one of only six men who began all three of Tyrone’s September successes, watched on excitedly as much as with a sense of relief.

“I don’t think until now there has been a proper wave of new players since the original group. Every year there has been a couple of new players coming through.

“The McKenna Cup this year was the first time a team has been fielded without a significant element of the main bunch, those that came through minor and U21s for the ’03, ’05 and ’08 successes. I’d have seen that bunch as the same generation.

“There is a strong feelgood factor in the county. The injuries and unavailability of senior players, I think, has worked into Mickey’s hands and in a way forced him to give the young players free reign and believe this is very much their team now.

“It’s probably shown it’s time now to put the faith in the new players. Rather than when it was a sprinkling of new players with a majority of senior players, we might now see it other way around — a team full of young players getting the best out of a sprinkling of senior players.”

Club Tyrone’s Mark Conway smiles when it’s put to him the county’s fourth coming is beckoning.

“To re-coin a phrase, ‘we never went away’,” he says tongue-in-cheek. “The greatest crop of minors we ever produced was in ’97 and ’98 and Tyrone arrogance would say no other county has produced a batch like that at the one time. Six years later the bulk of them won the first All-Ireland senior title.

“Time will tell but we thought our minor team of 2008 was an exceptional team. Out of that team now you have Niall McKenna, Paddy McNeice, Matthew Donnelly and Ronan McNabb. Of the 2010 minor team you have the likes of Ronan O’Neill and Conor Clarke. This team has won nothing yet but if they do it won’t be much of a surprise because there is a bit of a pedigree there.”

McGinley is concerned, though, by the size of the shadow cast by the teams he featured on. The constant harking back to what was achieved in that glittering six-year period, he warns, could debilitate the current crop.

“One nagging thing — and I think it’s an Irish one — I’m hearing time and time again is that this group is not the same as the group I was part of. That’s a very false comparison to make. When we were coming together in 2002 and ’03 our group wasn’t recognised as particularly special.

“People are believing we were something we weren’t. We’re becoming better footballers in retirement. It’s an unfair comparison. The footballers now are expected to be the finished article at the start of their careers.

“The game has become youthful. The time to shine is from the ages of 21 to 24 but with that there has be to an element of patience too. I’d just like to see the idea that we were this out-of-this-world bunch of footballers knocked on the head.”

What this Tyrone team can only beat is what is put in front of them. For the past three seasons, they have been presented with Donegal but found each time their eyes bigger than their bellies.

The possibility of an Ulster final date with their neighbours is one to relish, although it is a long way off, and Tyrone must make it there the long way with a preliminary round date with Down in mid-May.

“It’s nearly like a tidal thing,” argues McGinley. “One team, Donegal, has been on a high and the other on a low. Tyrone would be very confident that their lull will be relatively short. Even the year Donegal won the All-Ireland, Tyrone weren’t that far off them.

“Last year in Ballybofey was tough to take but Tyrone would be happier with how the Championship went. Donegal peaked for the Tyrone match but Tyrone peaked later in the season.

“Donegal are approaching this year differently but Mickey has injected more pace and freshness into the team. There is still doubt about whether we can beat the top teams, but there is confidence in the camp that they can. The experience of losing close games and that wee bit of match management will help. Nothing’s a done deal but it feels as if it’s a new journey.”

A new journey but with the same captain at the helm. Harte remains the one true constant, this his 23rd consecutive year involved with a Tyrone county team and 12th with the seniors.

Several managers with designs on succeeding him have been foiled by his enthusiasm to stay in the role, but then such is the good faith he has generated that nobody would dare raise their head above the parapet to question him.

Harte is no daw, either. If there is another golden generation to harvest, why vacate? Besides, few in the county would suggest there is anyone better positioned to do so.

“I’m very biased but I just think he’s the man,” says Conway. “Nobody, not even Mick O’Dwyer has a track record like him. He has All-Irelands and Ulster titles at senior, minor and U21. He’s won the National League and the Ulster minor league. Every school team he took charge of won their Tyrone, Ulster and All-Ireland title.

“At club level he’s won the Tyrone and Ulster championships and I think the only thing he hasn’t won as a manager is the All-Ireland club title with Errigal Ciarán.”

What’s certain now is Tyrone, as they face a rematch with their 2013 semi-final victors Mayo tomorrow, are far removed from Killarney 2012. For one, just six of the team that took the field in Fitzgerald Stadium start in Omagh.

“It’s something you always want to avoid but somewhere in your mind and heart, you know it’s coming,” recalls McGinley of the game. “It was perfectly set-up for Kerry, the cards were stacked up in their favour. These things happen.

“The most important thing now is there are plenty of good days and huge potential in the county and it’s starting to gather momentum.”


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