High-flying Tyrone's impressive start a source of satisfaction for O'Neill
The Tyrone players held a brief conference on the field after they were awarded their do-or-die penalty against Mayo on Sunday in Castlebar. The debate over which player would take the kick reflected the changing order in the Red Hand county. Several players were up for accepting the responsibility.
“Whoever feels confident enough to hit it can hit it,” said Stephen O’Neill, the man who ultimately dispatched the match-winning kick, which leaves the Ulster team sitting pretty as the football league goes into hibernation for three weeks. “Wee Ronan O’Neill, I think, was looking to hit it. Then big Seán (Cavanagh) put the foot down and said I was hitting it, so I stepped up.”
The amusing thing is O’Neill is the team captain; if anyone should have been dictating who took the kick, it was him. But O’Neill has always been one to make his statements though his scoring and his penalty – ice cool despite the best attempts of the Mayo fans to distract him – was an example of that. Anyhow, he wasn’t going to argue with Cavanagh.
But the moment distilled the latest chapter in Tyrone football.
O’Neill and Cavanagh are made men: gilded members of the county’s three All-Ireland -winning seasons. Into the mix are the younger generation like O’Neill and Patrick McNiece and Ronan McNamee, who have looked at home during Tyrone’s impressive opening performances in Division One.
Tyrone have lost so many seemingly irreplaceable figures, like Brian McGuigan, Ryan McMenamin and Brian Dooher, there was a question over how fast they could rebuild. The answer is becoming clearer with every league game.
It is often forgotten Tyrone probably gave Donegal their toughest match during their All-Ireland run last summer. And last year their season was defined by the absence of Seán Cavanagh. Tyrone’s win in Castlebar was significant not just because they rescued a match which Mayo looked to have stolen but because they dealt with the injuries to Conor Gormley and Peter Harte smoothly. It was vintage Tyrone: everyone knew what they were doing.
Their two road wins against Down and Mayo leave them in a nice position as they prepare for their March 3rd meeting with Donegal in Omagh.
“Our new players have settled in so well,” O’Neill says. “They have represented Tyrone at underage and we knew we were getting good players in. But it is early days yet; it is only February so there are a lot of teams that will be improving as the weeks and months go on. “We have a massive task on our hands over the next few months. At the start of the year we wanted to maintain our status in Division One. And if you had told us at the beginning we would have four points after two away games we’d have taken the right arm off you.
“But we know ourselves that four points doesn’t guarantee you safety in this league and we have two weeks now to prepare for the All-Ireland champions and we are going to be doing our best to get two more points in the bag.”
And they are doing it by starting from scratch – again — under Mickey Harte. The Tyrone boss has won plenty of league games down the years but he looked particularly happy after Sunday’s victory. For 31 minutes in the second half Mayo could not score from play against the Tyrone defensive system in which Patrick McNiece had dropped back to sweep around the field.
Then the visitors were hit with 1-3 in five minutes and time was almost up. It looked as if they had been hit with a sucker punch that could easily destabilise a young team. That they were able to produce the move which led to O’Neill’s penalty was hugely significant.
But Tyrone will have to examine why they lost their way in the last few minutes. They had done all the hard work, blunting the Mayo attack and keeping the defenders penned back with deep, precise passes for Conor McAlliskey and Mark Donnelly to hunt down.
“We just lost out a lot at midfield . . . we weren’t happy with the amount of breaking ball that Mayo were getting and then they got a run on us. I think we lost our shape a wee bit in that last 10 or 15 minutes and Mayo were coming at us in droves. We couldn’t stay with the runners and it is something that we will be working on the next day.”
They go into the league recess in a happy frame of mind. Cookstown won the Intermediate All-Ireland over the weekend, facilitating the possible return of Owen Mulligan and Raymond Mulgrew to the panel. With Seán Cavanagh looking formidably strong and fit at midfield and the McMahon brothers running defence, Tyrone have that look again.
Already, they have put considerable distance between themselves and their Division Two memories. Just like that, Tyrone are taking on a more familiar guise: as a front-running Division One team.
They look a good bet to enjoy a prolonged league run. “Ah, it is far too early to be talking about that. We have a lot of big games to come – Kerry and Cork are there, Donegal. That is the experience you want. When you are in Division One every game is going to be close. Last year in Division Two we won a lot of games at a canter so we know ourselves there will be nothing won easy and that is just the kind of experience you want for the championship.”