Niall Sludden delighted Tyrone’s commitment to perform got to play out on the pitch

‘I thought we might not get the chance, lucky enough we got it and we are in the final’

Tyrone’s Niall Sludden  gets away from Kerry’s Adrian Spillane during the All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Tyrone’s Niall Sludden gets away from Kerry’s Adrian Spillane during the All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

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It was at the end of the first quarter on Saturday that Niall Sludden properly realised that Tyrone had a chance. All week in the build-up to their All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry, they looked and felt like they had overcome the Covid outbreak that had so pockmarked their preparation. But they were never going to know for sure until they knew for sure.

“We didn’t start so good,” Sludden says. “But the first water break, you could feel us coming into the game then. Conor [McKenna] got the goal, it was a massive lift to the crowd and gave that adrenalin rush to the boys as well.

“It’s hard for me to say, I didn’t have the Covid. I was very lucky to miss that. I am sure it wasn’t easy for those boys, and a lot of boys were gassed by the end.”

I remember going home and watching the Dublin-Mayo game and they were talking about Kerry playing the winner of this game and you were just thinking . . .

For all the hoo-hah about the extension granted to Tyrone, it was mostly forgotten that for a good week or so, they presumed they were out of the championship. Sludden wasn’t one of the players who had gone down with Covid and over the course of that week, the idea that the whole thing could slip away without them even getting to play a game was hard to take.

“Yeah, I thought we were going to struggle in the first instance. And then, the two weeks thing, the boys that were out – I thought it didn’t sound good. I was at home and thinking we were going to be put out of the championship, thinking of the commitment we all made as well.

“So it was tough. We got there and got some boys back in. You were thinking they hadn’t done enough, or would we be ready for Kerry and the threat that they bring and their power. But you seen out there today.”

His heart must have sank when the management announced they’d be pulling out?

“Oh it did. I remember going home and watching the Dublin-Mayo game and they were talking about Kerry playing the winner of this game and you were just thinking . . . I mean, the time and effort you put into this thing, the runs you do during lockdown, just everything. So I thought we might not get the chance, lucky enough we got it and we are in the final.”

You just have to prepare, you just have to hang in and keep in with the game. We hung in there

In the heel of the hunt, it turned out that they were the fitter team. Kerry were the ones cramping up as the clock ticked by, Tyrone were the ones powering on and sprinting into a five-point lead in extra-time. It must have been in the back of their mind, all the same. They can’t have been confident that their energy reserves would carry the day.

“Yeah, we were kind of thinking, ‘Could we hang in there?’ But we knew before that we have a serious squad and even if there are 12 boys there didn’t make the squad, they could make most squads in Ireland.

Killian Spillane’s shot at goal is blocked by Peter Harte during the All-Ireland semi-final. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Killian Spillane’s shot at goal is blocked by Peter Harte during the All-Ireland semi-final. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

“It’s just backing that up. We didn’t really fear it. It might go to extra-time, it might go to penalties as well. You just have to prepare, you just have to hang in and keep in with the game. We hung in there, Kerry went two points ahead but we kept coming back at them.

“There were a couple of big blocks – Petey Harte’s, a couple of other ones – they were key moments in the match. When Cathal [McShane] got the goal we were two points down and you could say that it was the thing. It is fine margins, really.”

So on they go, to a final against Mayo. They will be painted as the ultimate party poopers but it won’t really matter. For one thing, Tyrone have long since stopped worrying about what people think of them. For another, they have their own party in mind.

“It’s mad how it works. I suppose you want to be in All-Ireland finals, but it is not easy. We want to be there and that is our aim. Of course, you want to be there, but it doesn’t always work like that.

“We know Mayo is going to be a massive task and the country are going to be behind them too. But we don’t mind that. We are looking forward to it.”

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