Playmaker and heartbreaker, Tyrone’s Niall Sludden is shining in the twilight

Dromore man concedes Mayo never go away but believes 2018 final will stand to his side

 

These are scarcely believable days for Tyrone football. At their All-Ireland press night in Garvaghey, the management and selected players are seated outside around a circle of tables safely distanced from each other and more importantly us.

Any questions about the Covid-19 situation may be off those tables, otherwise the mood is jovial and not without some giddiness. It’s what happens when any teams comes from the proverbial nowhere to where they are now.

Seated among them is Niall Sludden and of them all he is perhaps having the hardest time believing it himself. In ways Sludden epitomises Tyrone’s journey this season: on the fringes of the team throughout the league, unable it seemed to find his old form, he hit the firm ground running in the Ulster championship and hasn’t looked back.

In that madly hectic turnover of Kerry in the semi-final, Sludden covered every square inch of Croke Park, named as usual at wing forward, though operating mostly at wing back, the playmaker for Tyrone and heartbreaker for Kerry: he’ll need to produce something similar if Tyrone are to overturn Mayo on Saturday, and given where he and Tyrone have come from that’s another tantalising challenge.

“Aye, I got a chance in the first championship game, took my chance, and enjoyed being back in the team,” he says. “I feel it’s coming together. In the National League I didn’t play too much, had a few appearances off the bench here and there and you were questioning, looking at games in the club league, and thinking ‘Maybe I should be going there, maybe I should be giving more to my club at this age. I want to be playing more.’

“It really was just a matter of patience, it’s the same for a lot of boys in the squad; there’s so many great players there, even outside the panel as well. I don’t know what it was, sometimes you try too hard, sometimes some other things.

“We’re humans at the end of the day, and people. And things happen in our lives. Maybe sometimes you do try too hard. But I feel good. I’m really looking forward to this opportunity as well. But I know at training, it’s so competitive and you can’t take your eye off the ball or you’ll be sitting on the bench or you’ll be off the panel.

Niall Sludden tries to challenge Jack McCaffrey during’s Tyrone’s 2018 All-Ireland final defeat. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Niall Sludden tries to challenge Jack McCaffrey during’s Tyrone’s 2018 All-Ireland final defeat. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“So I’m starting to get to the twilight of my career, so you really have to make the most of it. I also felt after the defeat in the league semi-final (to Kerry) that we were going to come back, that there was something there, that we can push on from that.”

The Dromore player was enjoying an excellent season in 2018, when Tyrone faced off against Dublin in the All-Ireland final, only to find much of that game pass him by. It’s an experience he wants and needs to call on come Saturday.

“Massively. I think when it’s your first experience of an All-Ireland final, you’re learning a lot of things about it. Just general things, house-keeping matters, wee things like that. Distractions and different things. Trying to get tickets, those kind of things sorted as well. Just enjoying the build-up as well.

“So there is, there’s a lot of learning. Maybe it’s different for some of the lads who are in their first, but it’s up to us as some of the older players - I can’t believe I’m saying that - to keep them in check as well. But you have to enjoy it. That’s very important.

“I don’t think I’d do anything different. The last time I enjoyed it as well. We went in, and we started really well in that game. There’s a lot of things from that game, and all things that we play in, that we learn from. I’d like to think the team has done that, and the game management and this kind of thing, different areas too as well. It was a good experience. I’m just going to enjoy this one.”

Sludden points to the new co-management team of Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan as one of the chief reasons behind his minor renaissance: they say one of the most important things for any management is to have a team of players who want to play for them, and again Sludden epitomises that.

“When you get a new voice and different management team in too, it really does, it just gives you that wee bit more of a focus too as well. You are proving yourself again.

“I suppose throughout the year I was kind of playing bit parts, playing different appearances off the bench and all and thinking to myself, ‘Right, I wonder what these boys think of me?’ or, ‘Do they rate me?’ I just kept going at training. Next thing I know I was getting drafted in and sent into the Cavan game. I am just trying to do my best at training again to impress, impress, impress, impress. Especially with Brian and Feargal, that’s what they are looking out for.”

No one in Garvaghey needed gentle reminding that for many this isn’t just Tyrone against Mayo, it’s Tyrone against the rest of the country. Sludden responds with a smile.

“That’s it, up against it, but that doesn’t matter to us. We just concentrate on ourselves. If people want to support us they can, if they don’t that’s just sport and life. No doubt there’s the whole romance about Mayo, they never go away, but we have to focus on our job, and that’s to beat Mayo.”

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