Mix of young and old coming good -- Cavanagh
Published 23/07/2011 | 05:00
"I'm looking at six or seven minors from the 2008 All-Ireland winning team. They will be put on strength and conditioning programmes for the McKenna Cup. If they make it, that means a handful of the current panellists are going to lose out. That sends its own message to everyone." -- Tyrone manager Mickey Harte writing in his book 'Presence Is The Only Thing'.
TYRONE'S roll of honour tells a remarkable story. It's lopsided, to say the least. Despite 119 years of trying, Sam Maguire never visited Tyrone before he spent three winters there in six seasons from 2003-08.
In fact, the last 10 seasons have produced a spectacular haul of silverware for the Red Hand county, with four minor All-Ireland titles and a national U-21 crown to add to the senior triumphs, making Tyrone the GAA's greatest rags-to-riches story.
Much of this success has been built around the same core of outstanding footballers whom Mickey Harte groomed for greatness.
However, since their last All-Ireland success in 2008, Tyrone have slipped down the pecking order and for the first time, Harte has heard mention of Tyrone's demise. Such talk has led to calls for the injection of new blood, with people arguing that, following the county's underage success, there was surely talent that was being ignored.
However, the fact that Harte has continued to pick the same core of players is testament to both the manager's loyalty and the longevity of a generation of Tyrone players, who have seen off the challenge of wave after wave of talented youngsters.
When Philip Jordan and, more recently, Owen Mulligan temporarily defected from the panel, it was used as evidence that the fire had gone out within that group. In terms of miles on the clock, it seemed a fair point.
Of the team that lost to Donegal in the Ulster semi-final and surrendered the Tyrone-Armagh provincial duopoly that had been in place since 1999, eight started the breakthrough 2003 All-Ireland final win. Another, Stephen O'Neill, was sprung from the bench.
One of these survivors, Sean Cavanagh addressed the issue after Tyrone's qualifier win over Longford.
"People seem to latch on to these myths and seem to think that we're all done. You see the likes of Philly Jordan driving up there at 32 years of age, Ryan (McMenamin) and Conor (Gormley) being fit as anything, despite being around the block."
As they did in the All-Ireland final of 2003, Armagh provide the opposition with a 'do-or-die' championship match tonight. Orchard boss Paddy O'Rourke will be able to call on just three members of the side that started that '03 final, with Paul Hearty, Andy Mallon and Steven McDonnell still in action at inter-county level. Ronan Clarke would also be available, but for an Achillies injury.
While defeat to Donegal hardly marked a sea change in Harte's selection policy, it at least forced a rethink ahead of the Longford game and the relative newcomers wasted little time in making their mark.
Peter Harte and Mark Donnelly, both All-Ireland minor winners in 2008, dominated the scoring stakes, hitting 1-9 of Tyrone's 1-17 total.
Kyle Coney, the star of that minor team, briefly joined AFL side Sydney Swans before returning to Tyrone. A serious knee injury slowed his progress, but he now seems settled.
And the new breed have a home tie against Armagh to further prove their mettle. It was in Omagh in the spring of 2003 that Tyrone and Harte, in his maiden campaign, initially made their mark when they inflicted a first league defeat on the reigning All-Ireland champions, Armagh, who were coming off four wins on the bounce. They went on, of course, to beat the same oppos-ition in the All-Ireland later that year.
Things have almost come full circle for Tyrone and Cavanagh, 2003's Young Footballer of the Year, believes the mix of old and young is coming right.
"We've a lot of experienced heads there with the young guys blending in. If we can get another couple of games and a bit of momentum, hopefully, we can slide up through the rounds."