Sunday 18 March 2018

Sludden: I'll do my best to 'blot' McHugh if Mickey asks me, but I'd rather bring my own game

Sludden: “I’m very much a person of high self-belief,” Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Sludden: “I’m very much a person of high self-belief,” Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

Niall Sludden is delivering his first group interview like a pro in the auditorium at the Tyrone GAA Centre ahead of the Ulster final.

Confident. Articulate. Pleasant. Impressive.

You almost feel bad bringing it up, but duty calls. In the final play of the first Tyrone-Cavan game, he found himself 25 yards out, with the shot on. As someone who has scored regularly for his club Dromore as a forward, the ball was in good hands. Sludden took aim, but caught the ball with too much shin rather than boot.

It didn't fall just short. It never even came near reaching the Cavan goals, dropping into the arms of a grateful Breffni defender before referee David Gough called it a draw.

Sludden held his head in his hands. How disappointed was he at that point?

"I'm very much a person of high self-belief," he begins. "At that stage the chance was gone and I was really disappointed but I was already focusing on the next day and knew that if a chance came the next day that I'd be fit to take it.

"Lucky enough, it came and I got the first point. Some people would let that affect them but certainly for myself it's no problem because I'm confident to go out the next day and get a score."

Sludden is a surprise package. He admits his progress has taken him somewhat by surprise - his first Championship appearance came in this year's opener against Derry, while his first few outings where very much off-Broadway in the pre-Christmas O Fiaich Cup.

A primary schoolteacher in St Malachy's, Coleraine, Sludden (24) has an all-Ireland minor medal from 2010, along with Ronan O'Neill.

The reason he is only coming to the fore now owes everything to a double leg break sustained three years ago in a club match.

He lost two full seasons, but gained a greater understanding about dealing with adversity and developing his character.

"It was a total accidental collision, but I do think myself it's made me a lot stronger," he says. "I appreciate my football a lot more.

"There was challenging times, times when I thought 'am I going to get there?'."

When the leg healed and fitness returned, his club manager Paul McIver converted the wing-forward to centre-back and he soon developed a talent for timing late runs through the middle to pick off scores.

Perhaps that owed something to year of watching his mentor Ryan McMenamin in Dromore blue.

"'Ricey' took me for U-8s and U-10s and I learned a number of things off him - even poetry was something he mentioned to us that you wouldn't associate with him!" he says.

"He was a fantastic role model. And then getting an opportunity to play with him at senior (club) level I thought 'this is where I want to be, following his example'."

While McMenamin had a great sense of adventure to dash upfield for a score, he could also do 'a job' as a man-marker.

On Sunday, Sludden might just be a good fit for Donegal's perpetual motion machine, Ryan McHugh. Monaghan habitually sacrifice players to go on McHugh duties. Would Sludden be happy placing his game to one side for the greater good of the team if that is his task?

"Personally I'd like to be bringing my game," he maintains. "I don't like to be going out and deflecting a player. If you're asked to go out and do that, of course. . . but I like to be going forward and trying to bring my game.

"That's very important I feel because it's not going out to blot a player. It's about going out and bring something to the game. But whatever role Mickey (Harte) has for me, I'll be ready for it."

There are two ways of looking at Tyrone and Donegal since 2011. While the Red Hands have few players to have experienced an Ulster final, they also carry lighter baggage.

Sludden himself is completely unburdened by the sense of past failures,

Whatever happens, he gives the impression of a slightly unusual modern footballer, not just because after the tapes roll, he remains to talk with some reporters, laughing easily.

"The tougher times has made me appreciate my football a lot more," he says in anticipation of Sunday.

"What do you train for? You want to train for days like this. I personally don't put myself under that much pressure going out. I just go out and enjoy it. Sport, football, is a very fickle world so I just focus on the next game."

And it's a biggie.

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