Tyrone happy to be back at the business end again
Mickey Harte’s men are ready for Kildare test
The shapely contours of Tyrone’s season have taken them to the business end of the league once more.
Mickey Harte’s belief that strong league form can lead to something more meaningful later on will not be shaken, regardless of how tomorrow’s Allianz Division One football semi-final against Kildare pans out.
The statistics don’t immediately appear to back up the theory that good league form is a precursor to championship success. Kildare and Tyrone contested last year’s Division Two final yet neither made it to the All-Ireland semi-finals.
None of the four teams who reached the Division One semi-finals had seasons to remember either (Mayo hardly want to be reminded of another All-Ireland final defeat) but then stats can be manipulated to suit any course of action.
So, Tyrone have unashamedly targeted a league semi-final berth this year and, home defeats to Cork and Kerry aside, they are where they want to be.
It’s an approach in stark contrast to that of Donegal manager Jim McGuinness, who offered an indifferent response to relegation last Sunday.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “It doesn’t make a difference to us because we don’t really like the league to be honest with you.”
McGuinness will put it all on the line on May 26th when his All-Ireland champions begin their title defence against Tyrone.
Preparations, we are told, are well underway, with a heavy training schedule being partly blamed for their failure to secure victory against Dublin, Colm McFadden being forced off with cramp at half-time.
In any event, McGuinness believes that Division Two will be a more fertile place for Donegal to hone their championship preparations next year.
“It’ll give us a chance to roll out our annual plan a lot easier than it was this year and last year,” he said.
Mickey Harte wouldn’t agree. He once said that no Division Two team could expect to win the All-Ireland.
Cork did just that in 2009, and followed it up with three Division One titles, yet they only have won All-Ireland to sit alongside those four league medals.
But Tyrone’s intent is clear. Harte, who last won the Division One league title in 2003 en route to a first All-Ireland, will be desperate to beat Kildare and win the league again.
Ultimately, the result on May 26th will determine whether Harte or McGuinness has adopted the correct strategy this spring.
Stephen O’Neill smiles when the question is posed.
“Mickey hasn’t been too bad for us over the years,” said the Tyrone captain.
“We’ll be out playing, while Donegal are able to look at us and plan and do their homework around us, but both teams know each other really well anyway. It’s good to have the competitive games.”
When the Division One semi-finals were reintroduced last year after a four-year hiatus, most teams paid homage to the merits of having an extra game prior to championship.
In Tyrone’s case, this may well be true.
The influx of new players this season has meant a lot of chopping and changing of team personnel. O’Neill is hopeful an extended league run will help his manager decide upon a settled team for the visit to Ballybofey.
“The more games we get before the Donegal game the better,” he says. “It’s a big advantage to us getting to the league semi-finals because there are so many new players in this year.
“You wouldn’t say the Tyrone team is a settled team at the minute. But Mickey will be getting all that sorted over the next few weeks and getting the team he wants ready for the championship.”
Tyrone and Kildare’s battles in recent years have been almost an exclusively championship-free zone, save for an All-Ireland quarter-final win for Tyrone in 2009.
Most of their meetings have been in the league and tomorrow’s game will be their fourth in two seasons.
O’Neill is aware of the vagaries of reading too much into past results. “We beat Kildare in Newbridge a few weeks ago but they missed a lot of scoring chances,” he points out. “Anyway, we beat Kildare in Division Two last year and they ended up beating us in the final, so that could happen again.
“We were very flat in that final last year. They scored about four or five unanswered points in the last few minutes and we had no complaints about getting beaten. I’m sure whoever learns the most from the game a few weeks ago will probably win on Sunday.”
O’Neill has been in sparkling form this spring, not only scoring heavily but displaying a useful knack of bringing others into the play.
Young forwards such as Conor McAliskey, Darren McCurry and Ronan O’Neill are benefitting from his immeasurable experience and they in turn, are re-energizing him.
The 32-year-old adds: “You look at some of the forwards and the skills they have, they are mad keen and their enthusiasm is rubbing off on the older boys. It bodes well for Tyrone in years to come.”