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Mantle of the father rests easy on McGuigan's shoulders

WHENEVER the debate about who was 'the greatest player ever to wear the county jersey' recurs in Tyrone, you can generally tell a person's age by his nomination. Old timers inevitably preach about the qualities of Omagh's Jack Taggart, Frankie Donnelly from Carrickmore or Dungannon's Iggy Jones.

For those whose experience is confined to modern times, however, the discussion rarely stretches outside two names. One of those underlined his enduring excellence on Easter Sunday with two of the goals that killed off Fermanagh in the National League semi-final.

The other will watch his son lining out alongside Peter Canavan this afternoon. My father in law, Eoin Kerr, played half back on the Carrickmore team that won three county titles in the 1960s, but he often talks about his last final, in 1971, when Carrickmore were cut to shreds by a lad from Ardboe named Frank McGuigan.

McGuigan was only 16 or 17 at the time, but Eoin insists he was the best player on the field that day. A couple of years later, McGuigan had the rare distinction of playing championship football for Tyrone's minor and senior team on the same day.

The game that did most to carve McGuigan's legend was the 1984 Ulster final. He was full forward and captain; Armagh changed full backs three times during the game as McGuigan kicked 11 points in total - six off his right foot and five off his left.

Naturally, the great imponderable is what might have happened had he played in the 1986 All-Ireland final when, without him, Tyrone pushed the great Kerry team to the brink of defeat. But by then, his career had been cut short following a car crash.

For me, there is no 'great debate': For sheer application, excellence, longevity and achievement, Peter Canavan's record with Tyrone comfortably surpasses McGuigan's, but then, maybe I'm biased because I played with Canavan.

Like most artists cut off at their prime, the premature end to McGuigan's career has granted him an almost mythical status. There is still a firm body of opinion in Tyrone that would rate him higher than Canavan.

But giants cast long shadows, McGuigan's enduring reputation has inevitably created high levels of expectation for his sons. For this reason, I've always had particular sympathy for Frank McGuigan junior.

Not alone was he the first born, but he also inherited his father's name. He was talented enough to play minor and U21 for the county and he's currently on the senior panel, but he never quite had his father's physique or finesse.

Because he was the oldest, Frank Junior probably shouldered most of the expectation, which has made it a little easier for his younger brother Brian.

And here is where many Tyrone eyes will rest this afternoon. When Mickey Harte named his team to play Laois in the National League final, the most notable change was the decision to replace Ger Cavlan with Brian McGuigan at centre half forward.

If you want a man to send you a pass 50 yards onto your finger tips, there's no better man than Cavlan, but his concentration wanes at times and all too often he drifts out of games completely. McGuigan won't.

He'll be a thorn in Laois' side all day, buzzing around, picking up breaks and playing balls through to his inside forwards with both feet. Peter Canavan, for one, will gain from McGuigan's presence because often Canavan makes runs so early his teammates don't pick them out. Like his father, McGuigan possesses that magical ability to unlock a defence with his feet.

There is one quality he didn't inherit from his father, however, the lack of which still makes the wisdom of his positioning on the 45 open to debate. Frank McGuigan senior was a big, strong man who could handle himself in the most physical encounter. Brian, unfortunately, got his height from his mother.

In the vast expanses of Croke Park this afternoon, with a lot of big men around him, Tyrone's number 11 will look almost puny. His introduction to senior football was an unpleasant one, three years ago, when he was brought on in the Ulster quarter-final defeat to Armagh.

In the vast expanses of Croke Park this afternoon, with a lot of big men around him, Tyrone's number 11 will look almost puny

Late in the game he was running on to a through ball when Armagh's full back, John Donaldson, charged out and flattened him with a 'clothes line' challenge. Donaldson was sent off, McGuigan carried off.

His ability has made him a natural target for some robust attention over the years, and while he has never lacked bottle, there are question marks over his temperament.

The thing about marking Peter Canavan is, if you were to niggle him, push him or pull him in a game, he'll kick three goals past you. Then, with five minutes to go, he'll hit you a belt just to prove a point.

McGuigan senior could also channel his aggression the right way, but Brian has had a tendency to lose the head in the past. Opponents know that if you niggle him enough, he can lash out, or make a rash tackle.

If McGuigan can learn to control his temperament, then he has a bright future as Tyrone's playmaker. Some believe he's too small for such a central role, but the modern game has changed. Size isn't as important on the 45 nowadays, because skilful players get more protection from referees.

Otherwise up north, the build up to this final has been quiet. There hasn't been much discussion and certainly no euphoria about playing in another final. I'm not sure whether that's because Tyrone were here last year, or simply memories of too many disappointments in Croke Park.

Traditionally, Tyrone have not fared well against Leinster teams at headquarters and if their defeat to Sligo last summer proved anything, it's that Tyrone don't like teams running straight at them.

The fact that Laois are now managed by Mick O'Dwyer raises the anxiety, because if there is one trademark O'Dwyer stamps on all his teams, it is the ability to charge forward in droves.

If that ups the ante for Tyrone this afternoon, it also makes winning the game a more worthwhile prize than the one-sided farce against Cavan last year. They should be good enough to retain the title.