Ball looking for a settled team
TIME is moving on for Tyrone. Next Sunday, they face the third match in succession in which victory would secure their Division One status. Already Cavan have forced the Ulster champions into the relegation play-offs and the same opposition will face Tyrone in Clones with the remaining place in the top flight at stake.
At this time of the year, championship considerations are also coming into focus. In eight weeks, Tyrone make the first defence of their title against Down in the preliminary round of the Ulster championship.
Given the question marks over last Sunday's disappointing performance against Meath, Tyrone's manager Danny Ball is happy to have the chance of a further competitive outing to try and establish his first-choice team going into the summer.
Tyrone last year became the first county, in 20 years to retain the Ulster title. Defeat by Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final was followed by the retirement of joint management team Art McRory and Eugene McKenna. As a result Ball's initial task is the unenviable one of accomplishing a three-in-a-row in the province.
The NFL campaign has been disrupted by a series of injuries. Ball agrees that last year's championship team will be largely his own choice and last weekend, half of the 1996 attack were injured. Peter Canavan has only just returned from a long lay-off and is far from match-fit.
It was, however, at centrefield that most of the team's problems appeared to arise. Meath's John McDermott was the dominant figure and Tyrone withdrew both players in the sector, Ciaran Corr and Enda Kilpatrick.
"Our problem was that we were giving the ball away," says Ball. We weren't composed on the ball and let ourselves down. Meath were more mobile in the middle but Tyrone's midfield was good enough to get out of Ulster last year. On Sunday, we had to keep Pascal Canavan in the half back line - where I think he did a good job on Trevor Giles - and Pascal likes to get forward. I wouldn't agree that all our problems are in the middle.
"Ciaran Corr was not fit, enough. Even when we were doing well, you could see that. That's why we took him off. Enda Kilpatrick had a bereavement in the family last week but is getting games and is capable of a higher level of mobility.
Alternatives are not thick on the ground. Jody Gormley was injured on Sunday but has been a member of the county's centrefield for the past two championships. Together with Fergal Logan - with whom he formed a partnership in the 1995 All-Ireland final - Gormley has been playing recently in the half-back line.
Seamus McCallan played in the middle for the county's under-21s when they won a couple of All-Irelands under Ball's management in the early 1990s. Having been centre back in recent years, McCallan has found himself moved around and started Sunday in the half forward line.
"The idea was to give strength to the forwards," says Ball, "but it hasn't really worked. I'm not panicking though. Players are getting used and in three or four weeks, I'm hoping to have both Adrian Cush and Brian Dooher back."
Cush and Dooher were wing forwards in an attack that was impressive in Ulster but which floundered amidst injury and poor form in the All-Ireland semi-final. Cush's comeback, from a bad car accident, will be eagerly awaited. As an under-21, he was generally mentioned in the same breath as Peter Canavan but his confidence ran mysteriously low in the years that followed.
A motor accident presumably won't help that but if he can even regain the better form of last season, it will be a useful starting point.
Both Kevin McBride and Malt McGleenan were disappointing. Ball accepts this but points out there were mitigating factors for McGleenan. "He wasn't properly fit and shouldn't have been playing. We only threw him on because of late injuries."
Peter Canavan's role was changed to centre forward on his comeback last Sunday. Leading the attack, formally, is one of the few things Canavan has yet to do for Tyrone. "I would like to see him there," says Ball, "but it will depend on the rest of the players. Our half forwards weren't concentrating (on Sunday) and faded out of it. When Meath got the scores, the heads went down and that typified our performance."
One way of supporting Canavan on the 40 would be to bring his brother Pascal up the field, whether to centrefield where he provided an unorthodox but vital link in the team's short game in recent years or to the half forwards where he has connected well with his brother in the past.
Filling the gap at wing back would be relatively easy in that there are a number of candidates for defensive positions. The established tenants last year were Ronan McGarrity and Sean McLoughlin but the flanks were particularly troublesome areas in last year's championship defeat and this year Jody Gormley has been playing on the left and Noel Donnelly on the right.
Donnelly's performance was excellent on Sunday and he together with full back Paul O'Neill, are mentioned by Ball as two players "to have come into the reckoning".
Also in the reckoning are established members of the full-back line: Fay Devlin, currently recovering from injury, Paul Devlin, unavailable because of food poisoning at the weekend, and Chris Lawn who has moved to the corner to accommodate O'Neill's arrival.
"I was not disappointed by the performance and am looking forward to the next big game," says Ball. "If we eliminate some of the errors and play the way we're capable of I'm confident of winning. I'm happy enough with, progress."