By Niall Gartland
TYRONE minors topped their group in the new-look Ulster Championship but manager Gerard Donnelly is acutely conscious that the serious business starts now with Saturday’s quarter-final clash against Fermanagh.
The Red Hands have a 100 per cent record heading into the knock-out rounds and have been handed home advantage and a place as the top seeds as a reward for their strong showing in the group stages.
The danger heading into this weekend’s contest is complacency – Fermanagh have won one win from their four games to date and were demolished by Derry in their final group stage clash – but Donnelly is experienced enough by now to know that Tyrone can’t afford to take their eye off the ball if they’re to progress deeper into the competition.
Donnelly, a teacher at St Michael’s Enniskillen, said: “We played Fermanagh in the minor league, it was nip and tuck in the first half and one of their best players, Michael Burns, wasn’t playing that day. They’re a couple of big men around the middle and a few good forwards. I’ve coached a few of their players at Rannafast level and I know how good these lads can be if we stand off them.
“The reality is that we’ve got to the point where week-by-week your season could be over. There’ll be only four teams remaining by the end of this week so it really is proper championship football now.”
Tyrone’s initial preparations for the championship were hindered somewhat by the progress of school teams in the county with Omagh CBS and St Joseph’s Donaghmore claiming All-Ireland titles in the middle of March. Having those lads back made the group stages a particularly useful exercise even though progression to the quarter-finals was a formality.
“It probably suited us to get those extra games this year. We’re now three games in and we’ve done what we can, we wanted to finish up as high as we could and we’ve done that, and the serious business starts now.”
The Red Hands stuttered to a one-point win over Cavan on their first day out, finished strongly to get the better of Armagh on their second, and absolutely blew Antrim out of the water on their third day out. It was the type of match that’s barely worth analysing given the gulf in class between the opponents (Antrim only mustered two points in the entire game).
“We certainly didn’t go into that match intending on doing that. I chatted to the Antrim manager (Laurence Higgins) that evening, he’s a great lad, he’s brother-in-law of Jeremy Logan, Feargal’s bother so I’d been chatting to him since the start of the year. The boys knew going into that game it was all about preparation for two week’s time and that’s where our heads are at heading into this weekend.”
Competition for places has also ramped up in recent weeks and there’s also good news on the injury front as Liam Lawn got game-time against Antrim a fortnight ago while Loughmacrory ace Ruairi McCullagh has come back into contention after sitting out the Saffrons clash.
“It’s something we’ve stressed to the lads since our first day out against Cavan. We felt we didn’t get enough of an impact from the bench, so lads know when their number is called that we want to see them making an impact and putting their hand up for selection. Competition has been brilliant and we’ve some tough decisions to make this week.
“Liam was the numbr 15 on the Holy Trinity team, he played a few league games and then missed a few weeks in the championship, so it was good that he got a bit of game-time against Antrim, he’s been training flat out, and hopefully Ruairi will be okay for this Saturday as well.
“Somebody said to me ‘maybe you’ll rest him’ but this is knock-out and if Ruairi McCullagh can play, Ruairi McCullagh will be playing please God.”