By Niall Gartland
IT’S a measure of Tyrone’s progress under Michael McShane that they will field in the Christy Ring Cup for the first time in Sunday’s group stage opener against Derry, one of the traditional heavyweights of Ulster hurling.
Last year’s Nickey Rackard Cup triumph was rewarded with promotion into the third-level competition at national level (behind the All-Ireland and Joe McDonagh tournaments) and league form suggests that Tyrone may indeed be able to hold their own over the upcoming weeks.
The devastating death of Damian Casey will always be felt among the proud Tyrone hurling fraternity, but their performances on the pitch haven’t dipped, narrowly missing out on a semi-final spot in Division 2B. Manager Michael McShane, now in his third season in charge, says that Casey is a continual source of inspiration.
“We were always going to miss Damian, not only his ability but his qualities as a person.
“In terms of talent it was always going to be a massive hole to fill, but we’ve had players who have stepped up and taken more responsibility.
“Our league win on our first day out against London was massive to us, that’s maybe when the lads came of age.
“Coming into the final minutes we were a couple of points down. In other years that’s when we’d have naturally looked to Damian, but now everyone else has to put their hands up to go and do it, and that’s what they did. Players young and old have taken on the mantle of responsibility that Damian carried for so long, and he’s the driving force for what we’re trying to do this year. We’ll miss him every day as a player and person but there’s also a big onus to keep pushing the thing on.”
The Oak Leafers had a poor league campaign, dropping out of Division 2A and failing to win a single game, but that comes with the caveat that there has been a major turnover in the Derry ranks this season. Their performances haven’t been bad by any means, however, and they’ll still be hotly tipped to fare well in the Christy Ring tournament, and possibly go all the way. Benefiting Tyrone however is the insider knowledge McShane will bring to the table as he has been manager of Sleacht Néill for years now.
“I’d still say it’s Derry’s game to lose. They’re a Division 2A team and they were one puck of a ball away from staying up.
“Their young lads have done very well and obviously they still have some brilliant talents like Cormac O’Doherty, Meehaul McGrath and Richie Mullan. They’re going to be a step above what we’d faced in the league, but hopefully I can help as I know every one of their players. What we have to do is see if there’s any weaknesses we can expose and also try to negate their strengths. It’s a shot to nothing in a way, we can’t go and have a crack at it, I don’t know if anyone’s actually expecting us to beat them.”
Sunday’s game will be played as the curtain-raiser the Tyrone footballers’ Ulster Championship quarter-final clash against Monaghan, so McShane hopes there’ll be a decent crowd in attendance to cheer on the hurlers.
“Our game is the curtain-raiser so it’ll give the lads the chance to go out and play in front of a decent crowd. We’re all looking forward to it, and the weather is starting to turn so the ground is firming up a bit. We’d a good summer last year on the field of play so let’s hope it’ll be another one this year.”