Only large Cavan win will prevent Tyrone's ninth semi-final in a row
Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup Section A: Cavan v Tyrone (Wednesday, Kingspan Breffni, 8pm)
CALCULATORS required – but only to work out the unlikelihood of Tyrone not topping this section.
You first have to factor in the chances of the Red Hands losing, then of them losing heavily, against an under-strength experimental Cavan side.
Mickey Harte’s men did suffer a shock defeat at tonight’s venue last year, but that was in the opening round.
Even though Tyrone have probably already done enough to win this group, with a scoring difference of plus 20 giving them a very positive scoring average, their attitude is always about improvement and keeping on winning.
Harte himself made that approach clear, saying: “We want to keep winning games and leave the qualification to the semi-finals in our own hands and we have that at the minute.
“We need a result on Wednesday night to put that beyond doubt but it is good for the McKenna Cup that this is a serious game on Wednesday night again. The winners will be guaranteed to be in the semi-finals.”
In fact Cavan will probably have to win by at least NINE points in order to overtake Tyrone in terms of scoring average, although such calculations are much more complicated than working out scoring difference.
As suggested, any win at all would be a considerable achievement for Mattie McGleenan’s makeshift side which is missing its Cavan Gaels contingent among a number of other more established players.
That means the likes of Killian Clarke, Seanie Johnston, Gearoid McKiernan, Dara McVeety, Cian Mackey, and Martin Reilly have been missing so far, while Conor Moynagh only played a few minutes against St Mary’s as a sub in the opening game.
Consequently the Eglish man made just three personnel changes from the team that edged out the student side to the one that lost against Antrim in Belfast on Sunday.
In contrast, Harte altered almost everyone from Tyrone’s first game to their second, apart from corner-forward Connor McAliskey, who is working his way back from a serious knee injury. The Clonoe man sits out tonight, though, after the tragic sudden death of his brother-in-law Christopher Colhoun.
Harte has made 12 changes in all, with only Ronan McNabb, Peter Harte, and Ronan O’Neill retained from the line-up against St Mary’s.
Niall Sludden starts in the attack again and is aiming for greater accuracy, even though the Red Hands have registered 5-36 in two outings, after spurning a few openings for goals against St Mary’s:
“We have to be a wee bit more clinical, choosing the right option, because, let’s be honest, when we come up against Cavan on Wednesday night, we’re going to have to be taking those chances.”
However, he was impressed by some of the newcomers against St Mary’s, a game he mostly watched from the subs’ bench, and also against Antrim:
“Cavan is a tougher one, another step up, but we’re looking forward to it, especially going up there. It will be a big challenge, but you saw a lot of boys stepping in, the likes of Ciaran McLaughlin and Ben McDonnell. Different boys came in, and the last day as well, so it’s a great opportunity to blood those players.”
The 25-year-old added: “Someone was saying that Mattie Donnelly was one of the oldest boys at training, so it just shows you that boys like myself, even though I haven’t been that long here, we’re the more mature players on the team.
“But when you have boys like that who came in and offer that injection of pace, it rubs off on the team too.”
Sludden insists that the Tyrone squad are not focussed on `catching Dublin’, responding to that suggestion: “Not really. Mickey just says to us to focus on the next game.
“That was 2017, we’re in 2018 now, so it’s a fresh start and we’re just looking forward to the next couple of McKenna Cup games, and obviously our first game in the league, Galway away.”
That mention of ‘the next couple of McKenna Cup games’ can’t be construed as over-confidence.
Tyrone have not only reached the semi-finals in each of the last eight seasons, they’ve also made it to all eight deciders, winning the last six of those finals. Indeed since the competition’s revival in 2003 the Red Hands have only failed to make the final, never mind the semi-finals, twice – in 2008 and 2009.
So it’s completely understandable that Dromore man Sludden says: “We’re well placed for the semis and more games…That’s what you want, especially with the league starting earlier this year.
“It’s good to get those games and get a bit of fitness, and match fitness under the belt as well. It’s a big game on Wednesday night and we’re looking forward to that.”
Tyrone: N Morgan; B Burns, P Hampsey, HP McGeary; M McKernan, T McCann, R McNabb; C McShane, P McNulty; M Donnelly (capt.), N Sludden, P Harte; L Brennan, F Burns, R O’Neill
Subs: M O’Neill, M Cassidy, R Donnelly, C McCann, C McCarron, D McClure, A McCrory, B McDonnell, R McHugh, C McLaughlin