By Niall Gartland
THE Tyrone minors begin their three in-a-row quest in the Ulster Championship away to Cavan this Saturday, but let’s not get too carried away with idle talk of titles just yet as it’s a marathon not a sprint.
There’s a new group stage format this season, and if Tyrone are to complete a trio of Ulster Minor titles for the first time in their history, they’ll have to play six – yes six – games.
Here’s the deal: the Red Hands have been pitted in a four-team group alongside Cavan, Armagh and Antrim. They’ll play three games and all four teams will progress to the quarter-finals no matter what happens, but it’s a seeded system so it’s not as if the group stages are completely insignificant.
Stewartstown manager Gerard Donnelly is back in charge for a third season.
He’s known nothing but success at provincial level during his tenure so far, albeit the All-Ireland title has proven elusive so far.
Last year they fell short against a dogged and defensive Kerry team in the All-Ireland semi-final, and as heartbreaking as that was, he’s enjoying working with a mostly new crop of players this year.
“That’s what happens with minors. It’s the beauty and it’s the pain of it.
“I said last year after Kerry beat us that that’s the real pain about minors, that that’s us done with those boys. You build that bond with them for a few months, and then it’s gone.
“But that’s the beauty as well, that you’re not coaching the same people all the time. You have new boys coming in and you’re trying to get your ideas and your philosophies into their heads, and seeing how they adapt and respond to it.
“That’s a beautiful thing as well, to be working with young people like that, who are ready to listen, want to learn, keen to play for Tyrone.”
There are a scattering of players back on board last year, including their captain Conor O’Neill from Donaghmore, Loughmacrory sharpshooter Ruairi McCullagh and Trillick’s Nathan Farry, who played alongside McCullagh on Omagh CBS’ Hogan Cup winning team.
O’Neill likewise has been busy as he played his part in St Joseph’s, Donaghmore’s run to the All-Ireland ‘B’ title.
Tyrone have to plough on without them in their Ulster League campaign, and Donnelly isn’t for complaining about the situation.
“I had a good relationship with the Omagh CBS coaches and the Donaghmore (St Joseph’s) coaches, but it was a Wednesday or Thursday when you actually realised who you would have this week.
“That was a wee bit unsettling, but we had a big panel picked, and we were totally confident that every lad we put out on to that pitch was capable.
“We weren’t saying we were weakened this week, we were different, is what we said, and we went out and our lads gave a really good account of themselves (in the Ulster Minor League).
“Donegal deservedly beat us in the first game, and they went on to win the competition.
“So we knew Donegal were really strong. They’re a super team this year, along with Derry.
“We had lads go out every week and give their all for the jersey and that’s all we ever ask.”
As for his thoughts on the new, rather elongated format, Donnelly says it’s grand as it saves the hassle of organising challenge matches.
“Last year’s system was fine, because everybody had a second chance anyway.
“There have been a lot of games. From the end of February, we have been going week on week. Derry and Donegal, because they got to the final, have had one week off since the end of February, and they have another week off and then it’s straight into championship. It’s hectic.
“I would have had challenge matches arranged, because I had heard whispers that there would be no league happening this year, and then the league came on.
“And managers from other counties will be saying to you, you’re lucky, because we have only got his game or that game.
“At the end of the day, it’s competitive games, it saves us having to go and organise pitches and refs. The organisation is all done for us, and as long as you don’t have too many injuries, it’s competitive games for lads.”
Tyrone got the better of their round one opponents Cavan when they met in the group stages. They eventually won out by nine points but the game hung in the balance with 15 minutes remaining.
“It’s a tough one”, said Donnelly. “In the league game, there was nothing in it for 45 minutes, and we expect the exact same in Breffni Park.”