Devlin taking his chance at senior level

By Niall Gartland

FLOURISHING at underage level isn’t always a guarantee that senior success will follow suit, but Niall Devlin showed that he’s in it for the long haul with a sublime performance in Tyrone’s group stage victory over Clare nearly a fortnight ago.

The Red Hands scored 2-3 in the first-half and Devlin was responsible for 2-2 of that tally, even though he didn’t neglect his defensive duties in the full-back line alongside his Coalisland clubmates Padraig Hampsey and Michael McKernan.

He wasn’t afraid to link up with the attack and his endeavours were rewarded with two championship goals and a scattering of points against a plucky enough Clare side that nicely sets up their round three clash with Cork.

Speaking after the game, Devlin was self-deprecating about his personal performance against the Banner County, but he’s certainly making his mark and has started all of Tyrone’s championship games thus far this year.

He said: “It’s nice to get a couple of goals, it’s my first time doing so in championship but they were probably put on a plate for me and I didn’t do much in the second half.

“But it was good overall, we showed our strength in depth at the end and we got a few nice points at the end to get us over the line.”

Devlin captained Tyrone to All-Ireland u-20 honours in 2022 and he was drafted into the senior panel last year, making his debut against Fermanagh in the McKenna Cup. He picked up bits of game-time here and there but now he’s firmly established himself as an important member of the squad.

He played in the half-back line in Tyrone’s All-Ireland u-20 success of two years ago but was named in a new position in their group stage opener against Donegal, lining out in the number two jersey.

And while the corner-back role mightn’t be the most glamorous of positions, he said he’d be happy to play anywhere for Tyrone.

“It’s really enjoyable, I was moved there for the Donegal game, and it’s been enjoyable having Michael and Paudie beside me. It’s a different chemistry in the full-back line and I’ve enjoyed it so far.”

“I played a wee bit in corner back for the club last year doing man-marking jobs so it wasn’t completely new to me, and to be honest I’d be happy to play anywhere for Tyrone.”

Tyrone take on an in-form Cork side in their third and final group stage game this Saturday at Tullamore. It’s a tough one to call and Cork were full value for their surprise win over Donegal a fortnight ago, but Devlin is looking forward to it.

Asked how he finds the new group stage format more generally, he said: “I’ve known nothing else, I don’t mind it. People talk about the quick turnaround and the amount of games, and there’s a bit of chat about spectators maybe not coming out in force in various counties, but I enjoy playing football every week so the format doesn’t bother me in the slightest.”

On the prospect of facing Cork, Devlin added: “They’ll not be fearing anyone after their win over Donegal so we’ll need to get ourselves ready for it. We’d a difficult defeat to Donegal ourselves so that tell its own story, so we’ll really have to be at our best against Cork.

“They’ve had some good underage teams in the last few years, a bit like ourselves, so it’s no surprise to me that they’re going well.”

Tyrone have been bolstered by the addition of four members of this year’s All-Ireland u-20-winning team, and one of those players, Shea O’Hare, got game-time in the final quarter against Clare and did extremely well.

Devlin commented: “It’s been a big lift for us, the energy they’ve added in the last few weeks has been unreal. Shea came on and got a lot of touches which is brilliant. Then you’ve Eoin McElholm, Ronan Cassidy, Michael Rafferty, I’m buzzing for those boys. They’d a class run in the All-Ireland and they’re adding a lot of energy already to the senior set-up.”

Devlin is also confident that the aforementioned names and perhaps more to come can make a real impact in senior intercounty football, even if it is a different ball-game to the underage scene.

“There’s no point hiding it, it’s a big step up but those boys are well for it. This year’s Tyrone u-20s were one of the best teams I’ve seen coming through so I feel really optimistic about their chances.”

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