Bouncing back comes naturally to Tyrone danger man Sludden

Dromore man recovered from a double leg fracture to claim a place in Harte’s plans

All around the narrowed Healy Park pitch, Niall Sludden struggled for air against his diminutive marker, Dublin's Eoin Murchan, during Tyrone's Super 8's defeat.

Dublin did a number on Sludden that evening. And well they might as the Dromore man has been at the heart of this Tyrone revival since 2016, yielding two Ulster titles and an All-Ireland final this Sunday, and two All-Star nominations for the 26-year-old.

Shunted out to the wing that night he got little joy. But against Monaghan in the All-Ireland semi-final he was playing down through the middle again, that scampering stride coupled with a devastating ability to shoot from range with the outside of the right boot.

“Teams look at certain players they want to stop and defect and they did a very good job that day. Hindsight is a wonderful thing as well and we have another opportunity now to come back,” reflects Sludden on that Omagh evening.

“I look at that as a good thing as well because they are concentrating on me as a threat so they are worried about me. We’ve got plenty of other players that can step up too.”

When casual observers look at this Tyrone incarnation, they are inclined to believe Sludden graduated from the 2015 U-21 All-Ireland-winning group. However, his route to senior football was more circuitous than for others.

He won an All-Ireland at minor level in 2010 and Mickey Harte invited him onto the senior panel. He said no.

Instead, he concentrated on his own physical development and flourished while under Paddy Tally at St Mary's College and Paul McIver in Dromore, who nurtured his versatility and keen footballing intelligence. Ryan Porter was also the Dromore trainer at the time and became a huge influence as well as his team -mates Ryan McMenamin and Collie McCullagh, who he emulates now by playing in a senior All-Ireland final.

His progress was derailed however with a double leg fracture in a league game against Cookstown.

His 21st birthday was spent on the operating slab in Altnagelvin Hospital. When he came round, the nurses presented him with a birthday cake.

“At that stage you are thinking if you will come back from it. It was definitely a key moment in my life but a lot of the boys in the squad and around football have had major issues, especially the cruciate,” Sludden says.

“Mentally and physically it meant I was doing rehab and in the gym and it kept this thing very strong up there [in the head] and it meant I appreciate my football a lot more and the fact that opportunities like this don’t always come about.”

Highest level

His comeback was tentative and he was performing well for the club after 18 months of recovery. Harte approached again. But again, Sludden felt he needed a solid pre-season under his belt.

“I had the injury and that was a massive part of my development because I really appreciated my football. Then when Mickey did come with the call I felt ready. I had a good pre-season. I came in at 24, not at 18 or 19 like some of the other Tyrone lads had. I would have felt that hard to do,” he says.

“I was ready at 24, not just to be part of the squad but to come in and make a start. I had that confidence in myself from the injury and from playing a few bigger games with the club.”

He adds, “I was always of the belief that if I kept performing well for the club Mickey would give me the call,” he says.

“I suppose in the back of your mind you are thinking that he has forgotten about me because in Tyrone there is so much youth coming through from under-21 teams, you can start thinking that he is looking at those players.

“But, no, I always had the ambition I would be here and that one day I would be playing at the highest level so I was hoping Mickey would give me the call and I remember when he gave me that call it was a great feeling.”

In his first season of 2016, he arrived fully-formed. In his first two seasons he collected Ulster medals and All-Star nominations.

Last year's All-Ireland semi-final ended with Dublin 12 points ahead of Tyrone but Sludden, along with Colm Cavanagh, emerged with real credit. So much so that when the two met in Omagh during the Super 8s series, Dublin tagged him with Murchan on his tail all day. That's the challenge ahead of him this Sunday.

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing as well,” he warns, “and we have another opportunity now to come back.”

‘Coming back’ is a superpower the Dromore man possesses.