Red Hands are heading down slippery slope
IT'S early days in the Allianz Football League, but there's no doubt that the biggest surprise across all four divisions so far has been the dismal start made by Tyrone.
Defeats to Ulster rivals Derry and Donegal in the opening two games dropped Tyrone to joint bottom of Division 2 with Antrim, while their low return of 0-19 is the fourth worst in the country, leaving only Fermanagh (1-15), Limerick (0-14) and Kilkenny (1-3) behind them.
Given that it has happened in Division 2 rather than the top flight, which was a productive hunting ground for so long, Tyrone's poor strike rate looks all the more stark.
And, as they prepare for Sunday's crucial visit to Markievicz Park to take on Sligo, there's a clear realisation that dropping so far off the pace early on is a major setback.
"It's not where we intended to be. We'll have to take a long, hard look at ourselves and see what we can do to get out of that place," says manager Mickey Harte. "It's not a good place to be, but it's where we are. We'll roll up our sleeves and work as hard as we can."
Tyrone, who were relegated from Division 1 with Derry last April, started this season as 7/4 favourites for promotion but have drifted out to 14/1, with only Sligo and Antrim behind them in the betting.
Even if Tyrone win their remaining five games -- a tall order against Sligo (away), Antrim (home), Laois (away), Kildare (home) and Meath (away) -- it would leave them on 10 points, which might not be enough to clinch promotion. Certainly, if they drop even more points they can resign themselves to a second season in the lower division.
Far more worrying for Tyrone is the possibility that they could actually become embroiled in a relegation battle. It may look like a long shot, but anything can happen in what is a very competitive group.
There are precedents for successive drops, as Westmeath slid from Divisions 1 to 3 in two seasons, while Fermanagh went from Divisions 2 to 4 in the same period, showing that once a squad loses momentum it can be difficult to regain it.
It would be unthinkable that Tyrone, who along with Kerry were the dominant championship and league force of the last decade, would drop two divisions in successive seasons, but it will happen unless they show a vast improvement on the performance against Donegal.
"We're not exempt from that possibility (relegation for a second year), but we have five games to try and do something about it," adds Harte.
The one-point loss to Derry gave no great cause for alarm, but the seven-point defeat by Donegal in Omagh last Saturday carried a worrying undercurrent. Tyrone led by three points early on but managed just two points -- both from frees -- in the final 55 minutes and finished up with only six points.
Their prime concern is in an attack that has scored just eight points between them from play over two games. It's a dreadful return for a group that includes such high-profile performers as Sean Cavanagh, Brian McGuigan, Stephen O'Neill, Owen Mulligan and Martin Penrose.
The poor start this season is an extension of a league trend that has developed in Tyrone in recent times. They have declined every season since topping Division 1A for a fourth successive year in 2005.
Indeed, it would probably have been for a fifth year had Tyrone not been forced to withdraw after five games in the 2001 league due to the foot and mouth outbreak.
Their consistency in the league between 2002 and 2005, during which they won two Division 1 titles and reached two semi-finals, was mirrored in the championship, a period which yielded the county's first two All-Ireland titles.
However, from 2006 on, Tyrone's league form deteriorated and while they won a third All-Ireland title in 2008, they haven't managed to improve their spring haul.
On the contrary, they have got progressively worse, winning just five of 16 league games since the start of 2009. Significantly, their home form has been especially disappointing, as they've lost five of eight games.
It leaves opponents no longer harbouring any fears about taking on Tyrone in Omagh, which presents Harte with another problem as he attempts to plot a way out of the current slump.
He has, understandably, remained loyal to most of the squad that has done so well in the last decade -- 11 of the side that lost to Donegal last Saturday played in the 2008 All-Ireland final -- but if results don't pick up rapidly, the pressure on Harte to go for a dramatic overhaul will grow quite quickly.
Tyrone will be hoping that the threat of being dragged into a relegation battle will provoke a positive reaction next Sunday.
Sligo have picked up just one of a possible four points so far, but since both of their games were away from home, hopes are high in Kevin Walsh's camp that the return to Markievicz Park can kick-start their season.