Logan and Dooher keep the faith as new-look Tyrone face first big hurdle

Heavy defeat to Kerry was chastening but opponents Cavan relegated to Division Four

It's been a long apprenticeship. Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher were part of the management team – with Peter Canavan – that delivered the 2015 under-21 All-Ireland for Tyrone.

But despite their clearly being in the waiting room, it took another five years before opportunity knocked last winter after the long reign of Mickey Harte.

A nation builder like Harte – who had led the county to all three of their All-Irelands – was a tough act to follow in obvious ways but in others, there had been an appetite for a more adventurous style of play for a couple of years.

It was of course no year to be taking over a football team, let alone one in need of a makeover. Pandemic restrictions kicked in at the turn of the year. Not alone was the fixtures schedule abandoned but no training would take place until April.

How do you prepare for a tactical paradigm shift in such circumstances when everything has been abbreviated?

“It has been short,” says Logan, “and challenge games aren’t an option, being few and far between with the public health emergency so what you try to do is introduce your own themes and stick with them at training. Again it’s been a very short innings and you’re staring down the barrel of the championship.

“It’s easy to kick for touch and say ‘give it a year or two’ but we are introducing our themes, we hope the players are receiving them well and we’ve just got to keep on it.”

All proceeded more or less to plan in the league, which was chopped back with divisions split into two geographical conferences, north and south.

As there were so many Ulster counties in the top division, the northern group had the feel of a McKenna Cup. Might a more conventional league fixture list not have been better for developing a team?

“Yeah we would have loved it! We would have loved seven or eight games, we would have loved the McKenna Cup. We would have loved it all just to give people time, to give them an opportunity not under the immediate pressure of cut-throat league with three games.

“So we would have loved all that but the reality is everybody is living under the shadow of a public health emergency. And in the scheme of it all, football has its place and we just got to make do, and the season has been truncated.”

Major voyage

Still, Tyrone competed well and made the semi-finals. Drawn against Kerry, they not only had a major voyage to Killarney to navigate but also opponents, whose sense of ambition had been sharpened by the grievance of a catastrophic Munster championship defeat last November.

The result: a 6-15 to 1-14 annihilation and the low grumbling of expectations not being met. It was certainly not the sort of match a new management would have wanted going into the championship.

“Nothing like a defeat to temper expectations,” says Logan breezily. “But things can change in football quickly as we know and in sport. I suppose the expectation and the burden of pressure is from within really. We’re lucky it’s a very interested and very deep-rooted county in Gaelic football.

“So whoever or whatever the circumstances of their introduction, there’s an expectation around Tyrone now. And it took a long passage of years to bring Tyrone to the top. So listen, it’s something we’ve just got to live with and we hope things work out.”

But had the heavy defeat created doubts about the project to move away from defensive football?

"Yeah, well listen – it's constant reassessment around football teams. You have your basic themes and you try to stick with them. Your basic convictions. And we possibly paid a price that day, but we have to now look at Cavan and that's our singular focus."

Saturday is the beginning of the championship. Tyrone face Cavan, the winter sensations of Ulster, who last November won a first provincial title in 23 years and did so in an epic manner, overturning huge deficits and blindsiding hot favourites Donegal in the final.

Running in Tyrone's favour is that if they think their league ended in demoralisation, Cavan can see their trimming down in Kerry and raise them a defeat in Wicklow that resulted in relegation to Division Four.

There is a polite consensus suggesting that won’t matter as Cavan had been relegated to Division Three before embarking on the annus mirabilis of 2020. But Division Four – really?

“They’ve come off a relegation last year and won the Ulster title so they’ll want to set their year alight as well, shortened and all as it may be. So it’s a big carrot for everyone.”

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times