Sport Gaelic Football

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Qualifiers could get hairy for Tyrone . . .

THE beards aren't coming back. Tyrone may find themselves in the purgatory of the back door, but there will be no repeat of 2008, when, in a moment of levity, Ryan McMenamin suggested they should grow their facial hair in response to the question of 'what should we change?'

A couple of days later, Ciaran Gourley turned up at training with a heavy stubble and played along with remarks about being a teacher on his holidays. Others followed suit, with McMenamin's beard giving him the look of a frontiersman.

By far the most impressive, though, was Joe McMahon's: a thick thatch gave him the resemblance of a Spartan warrior from the film '300'.

A few plays on the theme emerged. One paper had a mock-up picture of McMahon in full battle cry after the quarter-final against Dublin, clutching Dubs midfielder Ciaran Whelan's decapitated head.

You could almost believe it, too.

Now, the landscape is altered. Thoughts of All-Irelands are a long way off. Two successive semi-final defeats to Donegal have knocked them in the solar plexus.

But they live and breathe. Today they take the first steps of a perilous qualifiers route. First stop Roscommon, but as McMahon says, they'd rather be looking into an Ulster final.


"From starting out early on in the season we had our sights set on the Ulster championship but we knew that getting past Armagh was going to be tough," he says.

"In the past, especially in the last 10 years, it was taken for granted that we were getting to Ulster finals and winning All-Irelands. It wasn't always the case and people expected it. But these things happen and the gaps are definitely closing between teams throughout Ireland.

"There's any number of teams can win an All-Ireland, any number of teams can win Ulster as well -- look at Donegal winning Ulster last year coming from an Armagh and Tyrone domination for so long. Teams are coming along and they are pushing harder every year."

In 2011, there was a strange chemistry after defeat to Donegal. Philip Jordan toyed with the idea of retirement and then returned. Owen Mulligan and Niall McKenna both skipped training sessions before being coaxed back into the fold. This year, they knew they had to stick together to stop things unravelling.

Two nights after the game, they met in small groups for weight training. Tuesday night was training in Cookstown. No absences.

"The big thing is to get straight back into it again," says McMahon. "Deal with it then. Play the football and be with the lads.

"While it's good to be with the lads when things are going well, equally you need to be together to talk and see what happened in the game, what you're feeling and get feedback when you lose. The feeling mightn't be good, but it's important to get back out."

While they are all together, the question remains, are there enough of them? The promise that Tyrone displayed throughout the league was built on big performances by the likes of Kyle Coney. With him and Sean Cavanagh out for the year, have they the arsenal to be a threat?

"They are definitely a big loss," says McMahon, "but the boys that have come in, look at the experience they are getting. They have done well and you have that youth, and Mugsy (Mulligan) and Stevie (O'Neill).

"When you're coming against big teams and needing big scores, we have men there can do it and have done it in the past with Stevie and Mugsy. Then you have Petey Harte, (Martin) Penrose ... it's only a matter of time before they are going to be carrying the scores for the team.

"Different men have stepped up through the last few years and it's not going to be any different this time. If you look back through the stages in '05 and the years followed, people said Tyrone weren't going to do anything with the retirement of Peter Canavan, where are the scores going to come from?"


In their games so far, it has been noticeable how much of a leadership role McMahon has assumed. He agrees that with a couple of retirements and injuries, 'veteran status' creeps up on a player.

"You think more of your role within the team, where you have come from," he admits.

While softly-spoken by nature, he's had to change.

"I have come more to the front. In the past I would have just nodded the head and been a 'yes man'. But I've become more responsible as an older member," he says.

"I talk to the younger boys more, but probably mostly by leading by example."

How he plays against Roscommon will be the clearest intention of where Tyrone want to be in August, or even September.

The back door has provided refuge for them in times past when the shrapnel was flying and criticism was coming to the boil.

And the Rossies will relish it after a strong showing against them last year in Croke Park.

"We won't be underestimating them. They put it up to us. I got a bit of a runaround in the first half, and it's going to be even harder down in Hyde Park. They will be hard to stop, but Mickey will have us well prepared," insists McMahon.

True faith. The Tyrone way. The only way.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport