Padraig Hampsey hoping Tyrone can deliver knockout blow on the biggest stage
HEADING into the Championship summer, he was one of the success stories of an otherwise underwhelming National League campaign for Tyrone – yet things could have been very different for Padraig Hampsey.
Gaelic football may have been his first love, but boxing was always pushing hard for his affections.
Nine years spent under the tutelage of revered trainer Frank Gervin led him to two Ulster titles and a national final before, at 17, a decision had to be made.
Football was the unanimous winner, but it wasn’t an easy call.
“I boxed from I was about 10 years of age, from boy one right up until under 18s,” recalls Hampsey.
“I was playing football that whole time. I got on the under 17 development squads with Tyrone and then I got a bit more serious with the football – it was a case of picking one or the other.
“Boxing was very serious with the dieting and all that, and I enjoyed football a bit more. Frank was a good skin, he’s very well respected around Ireland, even around the world of boxing. He was a good man.”
Hampsey still follows the fight game closely, and the fighter whose progress he monitors with the greatest interest is former Clonoe ABC team-mate Conrad Cummings, who was crowned WBO European middleweight champion back in March.
The pair were part of the same Ulster select that travelled with Gervin to Florida in 2011, and die-hard Tyrone fan Cummings has fond memories of watching Hampsey in action.
He said: “I trained with Padraig for a few years during our time at Clonoe and he was always a very strong, game lad. He definitely knew how to throw a punch or two and the fact he won a couple of Ulster titles speaks for himself - he was no mug.
“I boxed over in England with him too, we had some great times with Frank, but you could tell from early on his passion was always football.
“Padraig always wanted to play for Tyrone, and that's what he’s doing. A great lad with plenty of talent.”
It sounds like the stuff of fairytales, but Hampsey’s rise to prominence hasn’t been without its challenges.
Playing full-back, he was a cornerstone of the Red Hand team that landed an All-Ireland U21 title in 2015 and was tipped to make a smooth transition into Mickey Harte’s senior set-up.
Yet, although he was included in last year’s panel, Hampsey had to sit by and watch as contemporaries like Rory Brennan, Kieran McGeary, Cathal McShane, Conor Meyler and Mark Bradley were given their chance to shine.
By the time of their All-Ireland quarter-final exit to Mayo last August, he had played the sum total of 99 minutes between League and Championship, starting just one game (against Armagh in the League) and making two brief cameo appearances during Tyrone’s Ulster title-winning campaign.
Lesser man might have thrown the head up, but Hampsey is made of sterner stuff.
“It can be hard but at the same time, the way I look at it, if you’re not getting game-time there’s obviously a reason so you need to go and ask questions and see what you have to work on.
“When you get that chance, take it because there’s players around you who are ready to step in any time.
“The thing is you will get a chance, everybody gets a chance, so while it’s hard sitting on the bench, you just have to wait for that right time and make sure you grasp it when it comes.”
That patient approach paid off.
Hampsey, playing mostly around midfield, was inspirational as Coalisland Fianna reached the Tyrone SFC final.
By the time the new year came around, he had forced his way into Mickey Harte’s first 15 thoughts. Handed a starting berth for the Division One opener against Roscommon, this was the chance he had been waiting for.
When the Red Hands came off the field following their final game against Kerry in Killarney, Hampsey had played every minute of every game barring the defeat to Donegal, when he came on as a half-time sub.
From 88 minutes of League action the year previous to 455 – it is quite a turnaround, and the 23-year-old looks likely to start the Ulster Championship opener against Derry on May 28.
Not that Hampsey is getting carried away with his shift in fortunes.
He doesn’t believe there was a particular turning point that cemented his place in one of the toughest back lines in the country but, now that he has the jersey, he’s determined to hold onto it.
“This year I had a good run with the club in the championship and I’ve progressed on from there, but I’m not getting complacent.
“Last year I hardly featured in the National League at all, but I was in the Championship squad. I was happy with that but it’s always your goal to break on through to get starting.
“You’re just sort of biding your time waiting for your chance and I thank God I got my chance. I’m just happy with the game-time I’ve got this year and I’m taking it onboard that you just have to be a team player - it’s not all about yourself.
“You have to adapt to the style of football we’re playing.”
And that style of play has come under increasing scrutiny as, following a strong start, the Red Hands finished with a whimper, losing three defeats on the bounce.
They were never in danger of dropping back down to Division Two, but losing to rivals Donegal, Mayo and Kerry in consecutive weeks isn’t exactly a confidence booster with Championship on the horizon.
Much of the focus has been on Tyrone’s lack of cutting edge, particularly among their forward line, with the 15 wides kicked against Mayo setting alarm bells ringing.
With a system based on runners coming from deep and forwards working back, Hampsey feels the criticism aimed at the Red Hand attackers is misplaced.
He said: “Even for the likes of forwards who are getting the hit, I don’t think those boys really take that on board, who’s talking about them in the outside circle, and that’s probably the best way to be.
“Those boys are there for a reason, so it’s not something that has crept in at all and I don’t think it will.
“It’s not just up to the forwards because they’re putting in the work coming back and tackling. There’d be no blame on anybody really, it’s just practising and getting better at it. That’s what’s emphasised at every training session - adapt to different styles and different roles depending on what situation you’re in during a game.
“It’s not down to anyone in particular, it’s just something we have to work on as a whole - and it will come.”
Damian Barton’s Oak Leafs lie in wait, hoping to pull off an unexpected ambush at Celtic Park, but Red Hand ambitions extend towards the later months of the summer. Only then will we find out if Tyrone possess a knockout blow when it really matters.
TYRONE are defensively sound and boast a team full of exceptional athletes whose counter-attacking can be a joy to behold and a nightmare for opponents to get to grips with.
Depending whether he is stationed at wing-back or wing-forward, Peter Harte’s surging runs forward can unlock any defence, although the Errigal Ciaran man wasn’t at his best during the League.
Tiernan McCann covers ground as though his boots aren’t touching the earth, while Niall Sludden often provides the greatest attacking threat in a team not overburdened with forwards of the very top level.
At Croke Park back in February, Dublin couldn’t handle the Dromore man as time and again he slalomed through from deep. Sludden finished that game with three superb points from play.
Against Mayo too, he was the only Tyrone player breaking the lines and putting the westerners on the back foot until his unfortunate black card 15 minutes in.
Colm Cavanagh plays that deep-lying midfield role to perfection, while centrefield partner Mattie Donnelly is one of the most dynamic players in the country.
In an ultimately disappointing Division One campaign, one of the positives for boss Mickey Harte were the performances of new boy Declan McClure, whose mobility and work ethic could be of major benefit to the Red Hands this summer.
THE lack of a marquee forward. Kerry have Paul Geaney and Dublin have so many they can’t fit them all onto the one pitch, but Tyrone – like last year’s All-Ireland finalists Mayo – really lack that oomph up front.
The likes of Ronan O’Neill, Darren McCurry, Lee Brennan and Mark Bradley all possess undoubted quality, but have yet to make the difference for the Red Hands when it really matters.
This issue is not lost on Mickey Harte, having watched on as Tyrone’s lack of firepower contributed to their All-Ireland quarter-final exit against Mayo last August.
Against the same opponents in the League, they kicked 15 wides en route to losing by a single point again.
Earlier in their Division One campaign they led Dublin by five heading down the strait before retreating into their defensive shell, allowing the All-Ireland champions to pick them off and snatch a draw.
In mitigation, they had lost Bradley to a red card around the hour mark. However, the point remains that they lack the killer instinct to put teams away when the going is good, with their play becoming too lateral and predictable at times.
Through the National League Harte tried Sean Cavanagh and Mattie Donnelly in the square, even Peter Harte and Niall Sludden at different stages, but they head into the Championship without having found the answer.