Gaelic Games
Subscriber Only

Jim McGuinness: Could Tyrone’s class of 2022 breathe new life into an ailing team?

Imagine the spark that both Canavans coming into a qualifying game could bring

The surface story about Tyrone is that they are enduring a miserable football summer. It’s a misery many counties would wish for: they’ve also just won the All-Ireland U20 championship with an ease that should make people sit up.

Watching Tyrone dismantling Kildare in that game got me thinking about a long-forgotten U21 game of which I was part in the spring 1991. The turn of that decade was an interesting time in Ulster. In 1989, Donegal qualified for a surprise Ulster final and conceded a free to Tyrone in the last minute and were brought back for a replay. Everyone was delighted – two Ulster finals in one summer added to the novelty. But the team was heavily beaten the next day out.

The following year, our minor team was beaten in the Ulster semi-final by Derry so I was on a bus leaving Glenties for the senior final, part of the straw-hat and stonewash jeans brigade to watch Donegal win its fourth ever Ulster title. There was a vague sense of something stirring; that the province was on the move and that county teams were beginning to think on a national scale and developing ambitions to win All-Irelands.

I think it's fair to say that Peter Canavan changed the fortunes of Tyrone football. As an individual talent, he was without peer

So for that 1991 U21 season, we were scheduled to play Tyrone in Omagh, having easily overcome Fermanagh in Ballyshannon. It was a different time, information on your opponents was fairly sketchy and limited. We just knew Tyrone were supposed to be good. But we didn't care: we were good. Eight of our side would go on to play senior football – Tony Boyle, Noel Hegarty, John Duffy, Mark Crossan, John Gildea, Tony Blake, Ollie Reid and myself. My memory of the actual game is fragmented but what I do recall is the heavy tension in Healy Park and the quality of the football – both teams played a kicking game. Donegal were about five up with 15 minutes to go. We could see it. And then Peter Canavan revealed himself.

I remember he hit two frees, one from flush on the right sideline, one from flush on the left, using left foot and right foot. He scored from play with either foot. He reeled us in and got Tyrone across the line by a single point. He was sensational in what proved to be a formidable team with future senior players Fay and Paul Devlin, Chris and Stephen Lawn, Dinky McBride and Adrian Cush.

And I got this terrible sinking and empty feeling going home on the bus. I had a couple of more years ahead of me at U21 but this particular team was the best group to come along in a while. And we just had to see that game out. But we couldn’t. Tyrone coasted to the Ulster title. Then they beat Kerry 4-16 to 1-5 in the All-Ireland final. In our heads, we were a better team than that Tyrone side. But that is as far as it went. Tyrone won their second ever U21 title the following year.

And I sat watching this year’s Tyrone U20 team on television and I kept hearing those names: Cush, Devlin, Donaghy, McGleenan and, of course, Canavan.

I think it’s fair to say that Peter Canavan changed the fortunes of Tyrone football. As an individual talent, he was without peer and with his emergence at senior level, Tyrone made the transition into an All-Ireland contending force. Since his first senior final in 1995, Tyrone have never gone away.

I remember my first year doing some analysis work with Sky and meeting Peter’s sons, Ruairí and Dara, when they were with him at one of the games. It was the summer of 2015: nobody knew it but Dublin were about to embark on an historic surge. And the Canavans were just a couple of really nice kids. And then, in the blink of an eye you see Dara coming in to win an All-Ireland senior title with Tyrone – the first county other than Dublin to do so since that year.

Dara is a superb talent. Ruairi, playing with Tyrone U20s this year, reminded me of his father – his agility, his skill, his decision making, his movement, the ease with which he can take a score with the outside of the boot with and just how classy he looks in possession. Ruairi kicked 0-8 against Kerry in the semi-final and naturally, it brought him a lot of attention. To follow that with 1-7 in an All-Ireland final, despite the analysis work Kildare undoubtedly conducted, is something special.

It’s difficult to come up with a weakness in his game. He can kick from tight angles and his speed, his ability to take scores on the run with his weaker foot, his playmaking facility is of the highest calibre. And he uses his body as a shield in a way that very few players can do. His father used to do this.

The former Donegal player Christy Toye was also a master at it. When they were on a solo run, they would allow the defender to get close and then closer on the ball-side as they ran. And then they would slow to allow the defender to actually make the contact and as soon as the defender leaned into to make the tackle, they'd drop their shoulder and use the defender's body weight to propel themselves out of the tackle and kick a score with the other foot. It's a brilliant strategy for any forward trying to create space.

It’s clear that there will soon be a retro look about the Tyrone senior team in the composition of surnames. But what could the U20 crop bring to the senior team this summer?

James Donaghy, Conor Cush, Niall Devlin will play senior soon. Michael McGleenan is a big strong fella. Do they change the picture?

Well, remember Tyrone 2021. It was all about attitude. Yes, they had a clear game plan and very good players. They defended the mid-block better than any other team and chased back and had the stomach for the fight in the last third. Theirs was an All-Ireland built on turnovers and, then, breaking at speed. The ruthless transitions became their calling card in the semi-final and the final. There was a clear sense of purpose and unselfishness about them. They looked like they were enjoying every minute of it.

The contrast this year could not be starker. They are All-Ireland champions and have shown nothing. They were indifferent, at best, in the national league and very ill-disciplined. The number of players who left the squad this year has been well documented. Tyrone is a deep football county but those absences told a story in the Ulster championship. They surrendered their Ulster title in a timid manner to Derry and again, their discipline let them down.

Cathal McShane, Tiernan McCann, Ben McDonnell, Dara Canavan and Mark Bradley came in off the bench for that famous semi-final win against Kerry last August. That is a serious introduction of talent. Dara had an electrifying effect when he was introduced in the All-Ireland final against Mayo also. That spirit and zest does not seem to be there for Tyrone this year. Against Derry, Dara Canavan and Michael O'Neill came in from the bench. But by then the game was almost out of reach. It was a far cry from springing these guys to make that surging impact.

It is amazing what the introduction of new young players can bring to transform a group

The Tyrone starting 15 against Derry was very strong. On paper. But they were flat.

So the question is: can they regroup and find their mojo in the qualifiers? Can they tap into that belief system? And do the young guns hold the key to a rejuvenated Tyrone? And, in particular, what could Ruairi Canavan bring? If he is on the bench with that agility and sharpness and intuition, then Tyrone become a different proposition. Imagine the spark that both Canavans coming into a qualifying game could bring.

James Donaghy, Conor Cush, Niall Devlin will play senior soon. Michael McGleenan is a big strong fella. Do they change the picture? They are young and hungry and they want to be there. They are completely fearless. They have just won an All-Ireland.

It is amazing what the introduction of new young players can bring to transform a group. They can flip the energy and the mood. I think Ruairi is good enough to start right now but the management might be wise to hold him in reserve and lessen the pressure. But what an option to have!

Could the Tyrone class of 2022 breathe new life into an ailing team? We can’t forget that Tyrone are All-Ireland champions. Maybe all is not lost for them yet.

And maybe history is about to repeat itself.