By Niall Gartland
TYRONE go into the lion’s den this Sunday for their much-anticipated Division One clash against Derry in Celtic Park, and Michael McKernan knows that it will take a massive push to claim another precious league win.
Positivity is in high supply after the manner of the Red Hands’ opening day victory over Roscommon at the weekend, carving out a deserved 0-17 to 1-11 win in Omagh.
But it’s still early days in the overall scheme of the league and Tyrone will be mindful that their last few games against Derry, namely the 2023 McKenna Cup final and 2022 Ulster SFC quarter-final, have ended in defeat.
A bumper crowd of more than 10,000 spectators are set to descend on Celtic Park on Sunday afternoon for the game.
There’s the curiosity factor with Mickey Harte coming up against his native county, something McKernan is non-plussed by (“it’s another game”), but setting that aside, the game itself is a hugely appetising prospect for both sets of supporters.
The standard of opposition in Division One is sky-high this year, so McKernan knows that Tyrone will have to be at full pelt to get their hands on another two league points.
“I think every game is extremely important with the quality that’s in it. You only have to look at Monaghan beating Dublin – so we know the challenge against Derry, they’ve won two Ulsters in a row and we know we’re up against it.
“The win over Roscommon is something to build on but Derry were very good against Kerry, we know we’re up against it and we’ll see what the story is.”
Six newcomers made their league debuts against the Rossies on Sunday – Conall Devlin, Aidan Clarke, Ben Cullan, Tarlach Quinn, Seanie O’Donnell and Ciarán Daly. They acquitted themselves extremely well and it’s heightened the sense of competition in the squad with a number of mainstays sidelined with injury.
Darren McCurry, meanwhile, comes back into this contention having served a one-game suspension for an incident in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Kerry last year, while at the time of writing it is unclear whether Conn Kilpatrick will be available having picked up a controversial red card against Roscommon with the Tyrone joint-management indicating they are likely to seek an appeal over the decision.
McKernan, who was in excellent form against Roscommon, acknowledges the positive impact the youngsters are making.
“That’s what you want. There’s a lot of boys to come back – Kieran (McGeary), Frank (Burns]), (Conor) Meyler, (Cathal) McShane, Mattie (Donnelly) – but the younger boys have stepped up, and that can only be good for us as it’s more competition.”
Man of the match against Roscommon was Darragh Canavan, who scored eight points across the hour including six from play. The Errigal Ciaran lad’s talent has never been in question, but he’s also developed into a real leader in the team.
McKernan commented: “He’s unreal. You just have to look at how he played (against Roscommon). He’s always an option to kick to and not being the biggest, I don’t know how he does half the stuff he does.”
Another player to catch the eye was goalkeeper Niall Morgan, who made an astounding catch under pressure late in proceedings when Roscommon were attempting to mount a comeback.
“That’s Niall for you. I think he won a ball out on the sideline as well. That’s the experience we have and the quality Niall has going forward. He’s like an extra attacker for us and he gives us that plus-one.”