Cassidy impressed with rejuvenated Tyrone’s march to the final
Promotion and now reaching final suggests Tyrone are back challenging
The brilliance of Tyrone's Stephen O'Neill was evident at the weekend wtih four points from play. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Dublin and Tyrone haven’t previously met in a league final and both will mark significant anniversaries since their most recent successes when they meet in this year’s decider on Sunday week.
Twenty years ago Dublin avenged their All-Ireland defeat of the previous September by beating Donegal, then as now champions, after a replay.
Ten years later Tyrone retained the title with a win over Laois in what was manager Mickey Harte’s first year in charge. In his initial period in charge Harte was a great advocate of contesting the later stages of the league and his team played in the semi-finals of 2004 and ’05.
The county’s decline in the league and relegation to Division Two three years ago marked their fading as a championship force but promotion back to the top flight and now qualification for the final suggests that Tyrone are back challenging at the top.
Whereas winning the NFL title in a fortnight would be tangible recognition, Harte’s focus will ultimately be on their Ulster championship opener in Ballybofey on May 26th against All-Ireland and Ulster champions Donegal who have beaten Tyrone in each of the past two championships but whose league ended in relegation.
One man who remains to be convinced that the counties’ graphs have crossed on the basis of the league campaign is All-Ireland winner and former Derry manager Damian Cassidy, who has extensive experience coaching in Tyrone with Clonoe. He is, however, positive about the achievement to date.
“I think it’s great for their self-belief and confidence,” he said about Tyrone’s march to the final. “Mickey’s drafted in a whole lot of new players and has been able to try things through the league. I suppose the downside is that the team that played Kildare didn’t feature an awful lot of those younger players.You’d have to say Tyrone’s fitness levels can’t be underestimated in that they’ve been working hard since before the year started.”
Familiar with the standard of club football in the county, Cassidy is impressed by the resources at Tyrone’s disposal. “There’s a lot of good footballers in Tyrone. It may sound like an exaggeration to say that they have players who’d get on a good few county panels but who aren’t on Tyrone’s.
“That’s been reflected in how well the clubs have done in the junior and intermediate – the All-Ireland won by Cookstown this year – championships in recent years.
“Their systems are good and they’re identifying footballers and bringing them through development squads. They’ve also done well at vocational schools level (Holy Trinity, Cookstown, were in last weekend’s All-Ireland final).”
Tyrone’s league campaign hasn’t been built entirely on newcomers although goalkeeper Niall Morgan has been impressive and Conor McAlliskey is tipped to start in the championship. There have also been younger players who have developed well during the league such as Sunday’s goalscorers Mark Donnelly and his namesake Matthew, who was awarded the TG4 Man of the Match award after the Kildare semi-final. “That’s another positive,” according to Cassidy. “It sometimes takes a season or two before players get up to that level and Mark Donnelly’s been very consistent so far.”
Another factor has been the fitness of two former Footballers of the Year. Stephen O’Neill has had what had become for him the unfortunately rare experience of playing a full league without injury and his brilliance was visible at the weekend as he notched four points from play.
Seán Cavanagh is also back after missing last year’s championship with injury and the impact of the duo has helped bring through younger players.
“If they’re fit,” says Cassidy, “Tyrone are obviously capable of playing at a different level.”
Yet he remains unsure whether the league is much of a guide to next month’s championship meeting with Donegal.
“I think it’s much the same position as last year. Every forward needs space both to score and also to win ball. That space is not there against Donegal. Last year Donegal dictated the shape of the game and Tyrone played identically. The only ball kicked was from kick-outs, frees and attempts at scores. Otherwise it was hand passing.
“If Donegal had really wanted to stay up they would have stayed up. But they took a chance with their training and it didn’t work out. They were also late back after the All-Ireland but if they’d been as fit as Tyrone through the league, we’d be having a different conversation and Donegal would be in the final.”
Meanwhile, Kilkenny footballers have withdrawn from the Leinster minor football championship after last week's 34-points defeat by Kildare. The county would have been entitled to proceed to the qualifier system in the province but for the third year they have withdrawn after losing in their opening championship match.
A year ago the county’s under-21 footballers were beaten by Louth by a massive 50 points, 6-34 to 0-2, and didn’t enter this season’s championship.