Tyrone NFL Preview: A momentous season off the pitch for Red Hands

2020 was a hugely significant year for the Tyrone senior intercounty team.

Yes, no silverware was won, and yes, they were knocked out of the championship in the first round by Donegal in Ballybofey, but a few things happened that simply can’t go unmentioned.

We’ll take them in chronological order. First of all, it emerged that 2019 All-Star Cathal McShane had impressed in trials with Aussie Rules outfit Adelaide Crows.

The towering Owen Roes forward, who made the number 14 jersey his own in a sensational 2019 season, mulled over a decision for some time, but in the final reckoning, he decided back in February he’d stick with Tyrone.

Unfortunately, he suffered a serious ankle injury just weeks later in a horrible league defeat to Galway, but the important thing from a Tyrone perspective is that he’s committed his future to the Red Hands.

Second of all, in another huge boost to the county, AFL star Conor McKenna decided he had enough of representing Essendon and announced his retirement in September.

He’s an absolutely sensational prospect and it didn’t exactly take long to adjust to playing Gaelic football again, scoring goals in Tyrone’s final league fixtures against Donegal and Mayo. If he stays fit, one assumes he’ll be an automatic starter for years to come as he’s still only in his mid-20s.

And finally, 2020 turned out to be the final year of Mickey Harte’s historic stint in charge of the Red Hands. His request for a one-year extension was turned down by the county board in November, and he announced his departure a couple of days later on November 13. He’ll always be associated with the biggest moments in Tyrone GAA history, though a sizeable contingent in the county felt that the time was ripe for change.

As for what happened on the actual field of play – well, Tyrone had a mixed league campaign but ultimately did enough to stay in the top flight with a fantastic victory over Mayo on the final day. They also had memorable victories over Dublin and Kerry during the lockdown – but the less said about their defeat to Galway down in Tuam, the better.

Their championship outing against Donegal didn’t really go to plan either. It was a close-fought contest in torrential conditions at Ballybofey, but Declan Bonner’s side played that bit better on the day and emerged with the victory.

It turned out to be Mickey Harte’s last game in charge, and the ramifications of that will be felt one way or the other in the upcoming season, although it has to be said there’s much positivity about the potential of the new dispensation headed by Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher.

Stacked attack 

TYRONE’S new management team assembled a hefty new panel prior to Christmas, but the opportunity for further trials was curtailed by the latest lockdown.

They’ll probably have to whittle it down further at some stage, and that won’t be an easy ask as there’s an abundance of talented players ready to represent their county this season – including a raft of new faces and some old friends, so to speak.

In particular, there’s going to be serious competition for starting jerseys in the forward line. Lee Brennan and Connor McAliskey have returned to the fold, Darren McCurry is in top form, Darragh Canavan is an incredible prospect, and that’s without mentioning Conor McKenna, Cathal McShane, Mattie Donnelly and a host of others, including Ronan O’Neill, Dungannon star Paul Donaghy, Coalisland youngster Tiarnan Quinn.

They’re not shorn of options anyway – and for the first time in a while, Tyrone could have a front six that’s the envy of the rest of the country.

Midfield has been a somewhat problematic area for Tyrone in the last couple of years, although Derrylaughan’s Brian Kennedy seems to have nailed down a starting berth. Richie Donnelly is most likely to get the other slot, unless the new management throw us a curveball.

In defence, there’s a few new faces as well, including Carrickmore’s Jonathan Munroe, another man who left the panel a few years back after a lack of game-time. His talent isn’t in question, and it’s understood that he was one of the best players in the pre-Christmas trials. The natural replacement for Colm Cavanagh? We shall see. Meanwhile, Galbally’s Liam Rafferty, who was a revelation last year, and 2019 All-Star Ronan McNamee will likely hold onto their starting berths in the full-back line, and Niall Morgan will get the number one jersey, although he has able deputies waiting in the wing, namely Benny Gallen and Lorcan Quinn.

Survival key 

IT would be a disappointment if Tyrone don’t manage to stay up in Division One. They have three matches – against Donegal, Armagh and Monaghan – with the trip to Armagh their only away encounter.

Staying up does seem like an eminently achievable prospect; Tyrone have enjoyed an excellent record against Armagh in the last decade or more, and they’d fancy their chances of doing the business against

Monaghan in the final group stage match.

The Donegal game is a tough one, and almost impossible to predict, though. As for the championship, they have a hugely appetising clash against the reigning champions Cavan on July 11/12 at Healy Park.

NEW joint-managers Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher have been very measured in their pre-season interviews, and that’s perfectly understandable.

They’re replacing the most successful manager in Tyrone’s history, and they’ve also had little time to get to grips with their new team ahead of the start of the league and championship. All the same, there’s a groundswell of goodwill towards the new men in charge; sometimes a change is as good as a rest, and many are hoping that they adopt a more attacking brand of football than during the twilight years of Mickey Harte’s tenure.

They will, no doubt, enjoy a period of grace, as Tyrone fans understand that it might take a while to leave their imprint on the team especially in the current climate, but nonetheless it’s exciting to see how they’ll fare in the coming weeks and months. They’ve also assembled a highly impressive backroom team, most notably coaches Collie Holmes and Joe McMahon and strength and conditioning supremo Peter Donnelly.

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