'We're not a weak team but we need to be strong mentally'
Tyrone assistant boss Devlin insists their league form was ‘better than it looked’
When Gavin Devlin reflects on Tyrone's last three Ulster Championship meetings with Donegal a simple realisation dawns on him that leaves little scope for comfort.
"Every single day they were better than us. I know there has been close encounters but every single game, hand on heart, you would say they were better than us. We've got to change that," he emphasised.
Tyrone return to Ballybofey where they suffered one of their worst league defeats in years seven weeks ago, a result that crystallised sharply an inferiority to Donegal in recent times.
Each time they thought they had worked out ways for liberation from the vicious grip they found themselves in, Donegal would just squeeze that bit tighter.
Last week Jim McGuinness, who presided over that unblemished championship record that brought successive wins in 2011, 2012 and 2013 over Tyrone, made a couple of reflective points.
Donegal were physically stronger and Tyrone's running game played into their hands, he reasoned.
"Who am I to argue with Jim McGuinness? He's a pure maestro," conceded Devlin, with a laugh.
But Tyrone's centre-back in their ground-breaking 2003 All-Ireland success, and now 'second-in-command' to Mickey Harte, sees more a mental issue than a physical defect at play.
"I don't think Mattie Donnelly is that small, Sean Cavanagh, Peter Harte. Even our smaller guys over the last 12 months have been building up and getting stronger," he said
"See Darren McCurry. You want to see him with his top off. We're not a weak team, it's mentally, can we live with them?"
He points to that recent league defeat and wonders if they were in the right frame of mind for it.
"We believe the fight in the dog that day, individually, to a man, they were much better than us. Tactically too that day they were superior to us. We've been working on that.
"The best team always wins at this level of football, no matter how close it comes down to. A penalty kick, a saved penalty, no matter. You have got to change the script and it will be very hard to do it."
Still Devlin believes talk of Tyrone's demise has been misleading. He accepts it has been a challenging time since their 2013 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Mayo.
"But in terms of where we're going it's greatly exaggerated. I don't think it's what we see on the training field or on the field of play either.
"We drew with the All-Ireland champions Kerry, did well against Dublin, beat Mayo in Mayo," he recalled.
"Cork was a game we could have and should have won. But we got relegated. People are painting this picture about how bad we are going.
"Along the way we had a few good performances but that day in Ballybofey against Donegal they were streets ahead of us and from there to now we have been working really hard on the training field to close that gap. We'll see on Sunday how bad we are really going."
Devlin took the 'bainisteoir' bib in Harte's enforced absence due to surgery for the Kerry game but says the longest-serving manager in the game has been a re-invigorated presence this season.
"He's fantastic. We need him back. I said it before the Kerry game. This year, more than any year, he has been more hands-on in the field. He's been chomping at the bit.
"This is my third year in and the changes made from the first year to now has been absolutely drastic.
"As usual, Mickey wants to win every game. At training he would take one team and I would take another. If my team starts to get a bit ahead you have to walk away!
Relegation hurt but Devlin thinks there is a perspective attached to their fall.
"We want to be in Division 1; it's the place to be. Come next year we're in Division 2 and it's a downer.
"As you saw with Armagh last year, they got relegated to Division 3 and they were a kick of a ball from an All-Ireland semi-final so you have to put it in context."
Devlin is confident that Sean Cavanagh can continue his recovery from a recent knee injury and will be ready but is less optimistic about goalkeeper Niall Morgan's recovery from a groin injury.
He also hopes the seniors can "feed off the energy" of their U-21s winning the All-Ireland title last week.
"Mickey and I were down at that game. All year there has been a massive buzz about them. There is something about the team. They work well together, they have been in a couple of difficult positions but they never looked like they were going to cave in. There is something special about that team."
Tyrone U-21 selector Peter Canavan also feels the seniors will get impetus from what their U-21 counterparts have achieved but warns that it doesn't guarantee success.
"I think it's inevitable that a number of those fellas are going to be brought through," said Canavan.
"That's not to say that Tyrone are going to be successful in a year or two.
"I recall back to the first two years we won the All-Ireland U-21 title in 1991 and 1992. But in my first four years on Tyrone's senior team we didn't win a game in the championship.
"If these fellas are on a high, thinking they are just going to go and win Ulster senior championships, it just doesn't work like that. It's not that straightforward.
"Serious work lies ahead. As a group, if they're willing to make those sacrifices and work hard, then I think the future should be sound."
Canavan concedes Tyrone still look off the pace at senior level but feels they can make an impact as the summer progresses.
"They are a bit away yet. They'll have to make serious progress as the summer progresses.
"They still have some exceptional footballers who, if they get playing together, can bond. They're capable of taking a big team out of it.
"Donegal will give a lot of teams hope after last summer, nobody gave them a chance. I'll be looking to see if Armagh make the same improvement from the start of last summer."