Some three-and-a-half months after the county’s senior team exited the All-Ireland football championship, courtesy of a qualifier loss to Armagh, the Tyrone senior football championship finally throws in tomorrow.
But to present it as an afterthought, coming so late in the year and taking just four weeks to complete, in a 16-team knock-out format, would be grossly misleading.
In fact, Tyrone can rightly lay claim to the most competitive senior football championship of them all just by the range of different winners it has produced over the last decade.
There have been eight in all, a list that doesn’t include the county’s regular winners and the last team to successfully defend a title, Carrickmore, who went back-to-back in 2004 and 2005.
The reigning champions are Dromore but they face Killyclogher, the 2016 champions and the team the topped the Division 1 league in recent weeks, to enter the play-offs in that competition, in the second part of a double bill in Omagh on Friday night.
Tomorrow night, at the same venue, the 2019 winners Trillick play Dungannon, the team that displaced them as champions in 2020.
“One of them will be gone come 10pm, that’s it, their season is over. Yet both are capable of going on and winning it,” said Noel McGinn, former Tyrone defender and Dromore manager, and front of the ever-popular Team Talk Mag website that provides such in-depth coverage of GAA matters in the county.
Yet the cut-throat nature and the uncertainty it provides is cherished.
Tyrone football has never known another way and the programme is facilitated so that all eight games in the competition can be watched with individual slots from Thursday right through to Monday night.
Finance clearly isn’t an issue either. McGinn estimates there could be in excess of 5,000 in attendance for each of the first nights of action.
“When Errigal Ciarán were in their pomp occasionally they would get caught,” said McGinn. “You might get them once but you wouldn’t beat them a second time. That’s what gives the ‘smaller’ teams hope. The beauty of this is, if you beat the big guy on the day, like the FA Cup, that’s it, they’re gone. Tyrone would be proud of its championship structure.”
To compensate for a possible dearth of championship games, there’s a vibrant league that the county players could play up to two thirds of.
Errigal, despite all their riches, haven’t won the O’Neill Cup since 2012. Since then seven other teams have stepped up, Clonoe in 2013, Omagh in 2014 and again in 2017, Trillick in 2015 and 2019, Killyclogher in 2016, Coalisland in 2018, Dungannon in 2020 and Dromore last year. That’s some spread, unrivalled across the same time period in any other county.
Only Cavan and Wexford senior football championships, with seven winners each over the last decade, come close.
But in Dublin, Kerry and Mayo, Tyrone’s keenest rivals on the inter-county stage, the net of winners is limited to just four in each county in the same period.
Four is the average number in most counties – Offaly, Sligo, Waterford, Wicklow, Louth, Kildare, Clare, Armagh and Fermanagh have all had that number of different winners since 2012 – putting into context what the Tyrone championship currently delivers.
Meath and Leitrim go to six and the championship hasn’t been retained in Leitrim since 2011 when Glencar-Manorhamilton completed four-in-a-row.
The great irony is that for all its competitiveness, that seems to militate against further progress through Ulster.
“We know that coming through to win an O’Neill Cup in Tyrone takes that much out of the team that wins it and then secondly it’s such a cause for celebration,” said McGinn. “The Ulster club, I’m not saying it’s not rated but winning a championship in Tyrone is about winning a championship in Tyrone. Anything after that is a bonus. It’s not a stepping stone.”