Devlin ready for seventh year at the Tyrone U-20 helm

By Niall Gartland

TYRONE u-20 boss Paul Devlin hopes that their looming championship campaign will be more like 2022 and less like 2023.

They won the All-Ireland title in memorable fashion two years ago, but even though they still boasted an immensely talented side, fell short at the first hurdle last March with defeat to a fired up Down side at O’Neill’s Healy Park.

They take on Antrim this Saturday in their Ulster Championship opener, but this time around there’s the luxury of a newly introduced group stage format which sees Tyrone pitted in a tough-looking group that also includes Derry, Monaghan and Down.

They can call upon many of last year’s panel, including new captain Michael Raffery, vice-captain Ruairi McHugh, Conor McAneney, Shea O’Hare, Eoin McElholm, Ronan Cassidy, Ben Hughes, Cormac Devlin, Callum Daly and Odhran Brolly, so hopes will be high of a fruitful campaign.

Manager Devlin has also returned having already served in the role for six years. He has been handed a new three-year term though there have been some changes behind the scenes with Dermot Carlin and Owen Mulligan no longer involved.

Omagh duo Cathal McCarron and Connor O’Donnell remain part of the set-up while talented Omagh CBS manager Diarmaid McNulty has been enlisted as coach.

Reflecting on his own decision to put his name in for another term, former Tyrone defender Devlin said: “It’s a fair round trip every night, but from 17 or 18 years of age I’ve known nothing different other than running the roads. With this three-year term run it’ll maybe total a 25-year service with Tyrone, between playing and coaching.

“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Knowing I’d have to put a new management place was a bit of a potential challenge too but that was put in place very, very quick, the lads were all eager to get involved.”

Many of Devlin’s players over the course of the last number of years have now made the step up to senior inter-county football, including 2022 All-Ireland u-20 winners Niall Devlin, Ruairi Canavan, Ciarán Daly and Seanie O’Donnell, all of whom featured in last Saturday’s league encounter away to Kerry. Particularly pleasing from Devlin’s perspective is that they haven’t lost touch since making the big step up.

“I see them in Garvaghey and it’s pleasing personally that the lads go out of their way to speak to me. It’s not that I’m looking praise, and I just want them to do well but it’s really nice that the lads go out of their way to pass themselves.

“I was looking at the panel the other day and there must’ve been around 20 lads who came through our hands in recent years. It’s pleasing for the likes of myself, Dermy [Carlin] and Owen [Mulligan]. That’s primarily what we’re here from, the biggest picture of all is bringing lads through to senior intercounty level, but there’s nothing like winning Ulster and All-Ireland titles at a young age to give lads the encouragement to push on.”

Tyrone have been pitted in a tough group – following Saturday’s opener against Antrim, they have games in the pipeline against Derry, Down and Monaghan. However, they have an extremely talented group with lots of leadership in their ranks, including their captain Rafferty, who Devlin tips to have a big future with Tyrone.

“Leadership is massive, the way they can themselves. Michael Rafferty, you talk about a lot of forwards being freak players but Michael Rafferty is a freak player. The dedication and everything he puts into it, when you play a training game it’s win at all costs, he leads the way and the lads all look up to him.

“He’s an out and out top quality player and we’re going to see loads and loads of him in the next ten years in my eyes with Tyrone senior county football because these type of players don’t come around too often, he’s something special and we’re blessed in Tyrone to have him.”

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