By Barry O’Donnell
A PROLONGED spell of introspection over the off-season among the Tyrone players was necessary to try and avoid a repeat of 2022, Matthew Donnelly believes.
With Tyrone set to meet Derry yet again in the final of the Dr McKenna Cup this Saturday evening in the Athletic Grounds, the match will provide an early opportunity for the Red Hands to capture some silverware.
The side have rediscovered the winning feeling in the first few weeks of 2023, a marked contrast to 12 months ago when the then reigning All-Ireland champions suffered two heavy losses in the same competition to both Cavan and Armagh.
That set the tone for a fairly miserable season, especially in the championship, with Tyrone ushered through the exit gates before summer had even kicked in.
Mattie Donnelly admitted that it was important for every player in the squad to take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror given the shocking fall-off in standards from 2021.
“Whenever you don’t do yourself justice, or you don’t do the jersey justice, which is ultimately what happened last year, there’s obviously going to be a degree of hurt there.
“There are 31 counties in the same boat, essentially, so we’re all in it for the same reason across the country, and we’re no different. Everyone bar Kerry is in the same boat. We came back, we reflected, and we just got stuck into it again.”
The Trillick ace has noted a difference in terms of mindset since the County panel regrouped for the outset of a new campaign.
“Everyone is working hard and everyone has a good body of work behind them. With the way the split season and the schedule went last year, boys have had a bit of time to reflect, a long time to reflect actually with the way last year ended.
“We have reaped the benefits of that. And boys have come back keen and eager, and are working hard.”
Tyrone secured their slot in the McKenna Cup decider with a five point victory over Cavan at Breffni Park last Saturday.
For Donnelly, it was satisfying the set the record straight given the canning they had suffered 12 months ago, and he also spoke about the feel-good factor within the dressing room right now
“The first game against the same opposition last year sorta set the tone for the year, for what was to come, and we were keen to not make that the case this year, and so far, so good.
“Whilst we’re working hard, we’re enjoying it too. It’s a good environment up there, it’s a great group to be involved in.
“And having been involved in teams for a long time, I don’t take it for granted, especially when you don’t have many more years in those changing rooms.
“I’m just enjoying it, and I know on behalf of the rest of the boys, they’re enjoying it too. It’s a good place to be at the minute.”
Tyrone have given competitive debuts to a whole raft of newcomers in their three McKenna Cup matches to date, and Donnelly has been impressed with their attitude and application since joining the fold.
“It’s nearly history repeating itself every year in Tyrone, because there is so much talent there, there are so many young boys that are keen to come through.
“The boys that are there at the minute have serious pedigree, serious pedigree, and most importantly, there’s a serious want in them to play for Tyrone.
“Obviously they’re going to have to fight for their place, but so far they have done everything that has been asked of them, and it’s a real energiser for the boys that have been there, and it keeps us honest too.”
In recalling his own introduction to the Tyrone senior ranks Mattie states that he was able to avail of the wisdom and experience of more seasoned operators in the camp, and with the shoe now on the other foot, he is cast in the role of footballing ‘sage’ tasked with passing on advice to the rookies.
Players at the end of their careers have to guide the younger players coming through. There are things that stick out in my mind from when I first came on the scene, you had the likes of Enda McGinley, Dermy Carlin, big Joe (McMahon) and those boys, how good they were to me.
“They mightn’t have been aware of it at the time, but those sort of things stick with you throughout your career, and obviously it’s something that we have to be aware of too.
“Thankfully we’re all very, very close, young and old, and there’s no disconnect between the two. It’s a good group to be part of and I’d like to think that we’re good at that aspect.”
However Tyrone fare out against Derry on Saturday, Donnelly cautions that everything right now was about honing their preparations for the start of the National League in a fortnight’s time.
“The squad is very competitive at the minute, and while these games are important for you to put your hand up, the League is the priority down the track.
“It’s always been in the back of our minds, to really get a good start there.
It’s a lot easier getting to that break with two performances than it is with no points to show, so the first game in Roscommon is very much our priority and focus.
“Whilst we want to present in a good manner in these McKenna Cup games, that is what we’re building towards.”