Kicking Out: Niall Sludden surpasses them all as Tyrone's most important player
KEVIN Hughes was one of the most recognisable, important and yet understated figures on the Tyrone team of the noughties.
Killeeshil’s finest was man-of-the-match in the 2003 All-Ireland decider, dominant against the Armagh pairing of Philip Loughran and Paul McGrane.
Sean Cavanagh rightly picked up an Allstar that year but the other midfield slot went to now-Galway boss Kevin Walsh.
Hughes decided to go travelling to Australia in 2005 and missed that year’s triumph.
He wasn’t selected to start the 2008 decider against Kerry at the expense of Collie Holmes, but was called for at half-time and went on to dominate none other than Darragh Ó Sé in the second half.
In 2009, he was back in the Red Hand starting team and walked away with The Irish News’ Ulster footballer of the year award, but despite defending their title to the All-Ireland semi-final stage, Tyrone got just one Allstar that year, which went to Stephen O’Neill.
Over the five-year period of success from ’03 to ‘08, Tyrone had 12 players decorated but Hughes was hardest done by in missing out.
How you view their last three seasons is subjective but the bare facts are that they have won back-to-back Ulster titles, reached two All-Ireland semi-finals and been beaten by a point by Mayo in a quarter-final.
It is not the level of success that will see them sweep up at the Dublin Convention Centre in early November, but it has them in the mix.
That’s led to deserved honours for Mattie Donnelly (2015 and 2016), Peter Harte (2016) and the long overdue recognition of Colm Cavanagh last year.
On the last two nominee lists, Niall Sludden’s name has also appeared. But sometimes the face just doesn’t fit.
He is so quietly spoken that he is seldom even heard in the Dromore dressing room, where the young players hold him in adulation, but get their example from deed rather than word.
The truth is that the selectors didn’t consider him as a serious option for an Allstar. There was very little discussion on the subject of including him on the team.
The list of nominees in 2016 offers you a clue. In the order that they were publically released, five of the first six names ended up with Allstars that year. Niall Sludden’s name was 18th of the 18 forwards.
That is certainly no indictment of his deserving to be there, rather a mark on how badly understated his performances over the past two years have been.
Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly received Allstars that year and over the course of the season, they were probably marginally better than Sludden.
On the whole he was shy of being Allstar material in 2016, though certainly not 18th out of 18.
The mind is always drawn back to that horrid day they endured against Mayo, when the world and his wife was tipping Tyrone against their better judgement, but they looked flat in the face of an aggressive and organised defence.
In a game where Mickey Harte’s side continually struggled for pace and energy to break the line, it was the softly spoken primary school teacher that provided it.
All afternoon, he was the one that broke the Mayo defensive line and got Tyrone inside the cover. He was the one man that brought the energy and pace an All-Ireland quarter-final demanded.
His short-stepping style may not always be as eye-catching as others but to this observer’s eye, he has overtaken them all to become Tyrone’s most important, consistent and effective player.
His conceding possession with a loose handpass that led to Dublin’s game-ending early goal in Croke Park completely blinded some to his whole year, having been superb through the National League – ironically, probably at his very best in Croke Park the night Tyrone drew with Dublin.
Yet even in the total systems failure last August, and despite having that mistake hanging over him, Sludden finished as their joint-top scorer from play.
He hit 0-4 from play in the win over Donegal in his best provincial display.
You will only find a portion of the story in his scoring stats, but an important portion nonetheless. Since moving to the half-forward line from wing-back for the 2016 Ulster final against Donegal, he has regularly hit two, three, four points per game.
But Saturday night in Omagh was the prime example of what he gives to Tyrone that the scoreboard won’t measure.
On the half-hour mark, he made a brilliant block 25 yards from his own goal to stop Michael Murphy from registering a score. 15 seconds later, he had outworked the entire Donegal team to sprint 80 yards right in behind their cover and get on to Conor Meyler’s pass, and ultimately win a penalty.
That chance missed, four minutes later, he came steaming off the shoulder, rounded two covering defenders and, with his weaker left foot, found a way through Shaun Patton to turn the whole momentum in Tyrone’s favour.
Excellence is what one repeatedly does.
It’s easy seen now why Mickey Harte rang him in 2013 to join the panel, which the then-21-year-old turned down because it was “too soon”. A broken leg that summer robbed him of two years but he came back flying in the summer of 2015 and Harte had kept his phone number.
He’ll be glad he did. Just like the team of the 2000s and Kevin Hughes, whether he’s an Allstar or not, Tyrone would not be half the side they are without Niall Sludden.