Pomeroy's finest Frank Burns keen to make his mark with Tyrone
FRANK Burns played like he'd been there for 10 years. From the press box on the far side of Healy Park, it was as if Conor Gormley had dyed his hair and was 25 again. That's how good Burns was against Kerry in Tyrone's final National League game this year.
Nobody got past the Pomeroy man.
The 23-year-old sent Kerry forwards down corridors they didn't particularly want to go down. At other times he insisted they go back to where they came from, forcing countless Kerrymen to think again about trying to go down Tyrone's centre.
Gavin ‘Horse' Devlin was heard purring along Tyrone's sideline every time Burns forecast danger.
“Anticipating – not reacting. Anticipating – not reacting…”
If Burns has heard those words once from ‘Horse', he's heard them a million times.
“Years ago watching ‘Horse' play he wouldn't have been the fastest but he read a game so well,” says Burns.
“I've learned a lot from him by just watching his play. It's all in the head, isn't it? As Pirlo says: ‘Your feet are only your tools.' ‘Horse' always talks about ‘anticipating and not reacting'.”
But even Tyrone's assistant manager would concede that reading the game the way Burns did against Kerry is virtually uncoachable.
You either have it or you don't. ‘Horse' had it. Conor Gormley had it. And Frank Burns has it.
Mickey Harte decided to withdraw Burns in stoppage-time against Kerry.
As the 2015 U21 All-Ireland winner made way for his brother, Brendan, the Tyrone supporters gave him a rapturous ovation for an outstanding display.
Never predisposed to hyperbole, Harte was gushing in his praise for Burns.
“It was as good a performance that we have seen from a Tyrone player at any level over the years,” said the Tyrone manager.
All he has to do now is repeat the dose on the Championship stage.
In his last two years at school, Burns moved from St Patrick's Academy, Dungannon to Holy Trinity Cookstown where he won two Markey Cups and an All-Ireland crown under Peter Canavan and Adrian O'Donnell.
Canavan also coached him at U21 level for a couple of seasons.
“His talent was obvious to begin with,” Canavan says.
“He's a superb athlete and covers a lot of ground. In terms of skill he has the full repertoire. He's strong off either foot and he has a good pair of hands on him.
“At that stage it was a case of finding his best position and there was a time I felt he was going to be like a few players, thrown into a number of different positions and would maybe struggle to nail down one position on the county team because from minor football up he was playing the role of sweeper.
“He also played midfield for a number of underage teams and in the half-forward line as well. On some occasions he would have been used as a target man at full-forward.
“He was often a player who was left filling in the gaps because he was so versatile.”
It depends on who you talk to in Tyrone.
For Pomeroy, he plays a lot of his football in attack and is a regular scorer.
For Tyrone, Harte feels he has the defensive skills to play at number six.
“He's football mad, very enthusiastic,” added Canavan.
“He won the All-Ireland U21s with Tyrone and had a fantastic campaign and was central to us winning it. Such was his impact he was made captain the following year.”
It's a bright Thursday morning and we pick a quiet corner in The Skinny Kitchen on the Boucher Road.
Burns orders poaches eggs on sardough bread. Most of the time he minds what he eats - but admits he's a prisoner to pizza.
Currently studying civil engineering at Jordanstown, he's debating whether to stay on for a Masters degree next year.
Burns is quietly spoken and easy company.
Just turned 23, he's a big Conor McGregor fan.
A few weeks has passed since the colourful Irishman attacked a coach with some of his UFC rivals on board.
“He's maybe not the best role model at times but I still love him!” Burns smiles.
“He has some belief in himself.”
The fiery MMA superstar's name pops up in conversation when you ask Burns is he the superstitious kind.
“I used to be, but not now. I follow Conor McGregor and I've picked up a lot from him.
“He's mad but he's very intelligent at the same time. McGregor used to say: ‘Superstition is another word for fear'.
“In my minor days I was really superstitious but that has changed now.
“Back then I would have had a set routine before each game, and still do to a certain extent, though back then it would have had to be exact, but then all of a sudden if something changed before the match and I couldn't keep to that exact routine it would have messed with my head coming up to the game.
“I have let that go now. If you're really superstitious then I feel you can have something silly to blame a bad performance on. I would believe in that philosophy now.”
Burns had hoped to move up to the senior ranks with a clutch of Tyrone's all-conquering U21s in the summer of 2015. Mark Bradley, Conor Meyler, Cathal McShane and Kieran McGeary were among those who gave the senior squad a much-needed shot in the arm.
Burns, though, was held back a year and still had another year at U21.
“I was mad to get into the seniors. I was actually captain of the U21s that year . We were beaten in an Ulster final by Monaghan. I didn't get a call-up until after that and came on in the National League final against Cavan.
“I always dreamt of playing for Tyrone and as I got older I realised I was getting better.
“I suppose it's having belief in yourself as a player.”
Plus, there was the Kieran McGeary factor. The pair grew up together and always drove each other on.
“We would have been the same age. We've always been best friends. From a young age, we got the best from each other. In primary school, if he won the long distance run in the sports day I'd have to win the long jump. That sort of thing. We were always very competitive but in a good way.”
Burns had to wait over a year before he made his Ulster Championship debut, coming on for McGeary after 29 minutes. A black card followed in the 55th minute and although it was only May, Burns didn't kick another ball for Tyrone for the remainder of that summer.
“Although I felt I was going well in training I never got a look in last year… There were times when you get angry and frustrated when you're not playing, especially when you think you should be.
“I was always sitting on the sideline watching. You put all that hard work in on the training ground, it's all about getting game-time.
“In saying that, I'm young and never thought for a second of giving up. I was always going to stay and give it my all because I knew I'd get my chance some day. You have to believe in yourself. If you don't believe in yourself nobody else will.
“The management would have been in your ear separately at different times and telling you that you're training well and stuff, and it's always good to hear that.”
At club level, Pomeroy Plunkett's were going from strength to strength.
In 2016, the club's centenary year, they defeated Derrylaughan in the Intermediate decider with Burns helping himself to 1-6.
An Ulster title followed but an All-Ireland crown was just beyond them, falling at the semi-final hurdle to St Colmcille's of Meath.
“There is no feeling like winning with your club,” says Burns, “just seeing at first hand the joy and lift it gives to your community. Whether it's somebody belonging to the club who is sick or one of their family members are sick, you see the lift it gives them. It's very heart-warming and makes you proud.
“It's just a pity we didn't go all the way last year. I'd like to think we learned from it because we got a good run in the senior championship.”
Of course, with the incredible highs the Plunkett's experienced in 2016/17, they suffered a shocking low when their prolific goalscorer Christopher ‘Cricko' Colhoun died suddenly after a brief illness in January of this year.
Burns says the club is still reeling from the loss of one of their favourite sons.
“It was devastating obviously for his family, friends and the community. He was such a leader on and off the field. He was a goal machine. He carried us through the intermediate championship because whenever there was a goal needed he always got one. ‘Cricko' is irreplaceable.
“Training,” Burns says, “would have been very tough after his loss. There was a lot of emotion. He was just a devastating loss. I can only imagine what his family are going through. It's a hard one to get the head around but his memory will always live on in Pomeroy. We owe it to ‘Cricko' to do well at both club and county...
“His number was 23. I don't know why he wore 23. It was just his number. There was a row one year when he was wearing number 15 in the Championship and he had to get 23 on him. That was the type of him; he was that particular. So we retired the number 23 jersey this year.”
‘Cricko' would have been proud to see so many Plunkett's men making the breakthrough with Tyrone over the last two seasons with the Burns's and the McGearys firmly on Harte's radar.
Burns earned League starts against Donegal, Mayo and Kerry earlier this season which turned out to be all good days for the Red Hands.
Barring injury, the mercurial Pomeroy man is favoured to nail down the number six jersey ahead of next week's Ulster opener against Monaghan.
“I'll play where I'm put," he says. "But I want a starting 15 jersey and I won't be happy until I get that.
“I put in good performances in those three League games but I won't get too hung up on that. It's the League. The Championship is a different level of football. Everyone is fitter, stronger, faster and hungrier so I'll need to keep that going into the Championship. I'll keep working hard and try and keep that starting spot.”
THE depth of the Tyrone panel in 2018 is as strong as it has ever been which is a huge plus for Mickey Harte going into this year's Championship.
Frank Burns was brilliant at centre-back in the last three League games, particularly against Kerry and looks more than capable of becoming the fulcrum of Tyrone's counter-attack. A big criticism last year was the lack of a prolific scorer in their ranks.
U21 All-Ireland winner Lee Brennan looks to have ticked that box. The all-conquering U21 side of 2015 has really come to the fore with Cathal McShane going from strength to strength, while Mark Bradley is likely to be less lonely in the full-forward line as Tyrone have been stationing two men inside this term as opposed to one.
Even so, Tyrone's spread of scores was very impressive until they ran into Dublin last August. Against Dublin in the League this year Tyrone were successful in kicking the ball into their inside forwards. Tweaks have been made from last season. Expect to see a Tyrone team less reliant on their running game.
BASED on last year's displays, Tyrone relied too heavily on their running game and as a consequence they never looked comfortable – or natural - kicking the ball into their full-forward line, probably because they didn't have a lot of options to hit.
Given Mattie Donnelly's scoring ability off either foot and the ease with which he can beat an opponent, playing the Trillick man in a deep-lying role doesn't get the best out of him. Too often Donnelly was found in his own half of the field last season and while he knitted play well, he was far too passive.
It may sound strange to suggest that Tyrone need a bit more aggression in their game. Only Collie Cavanagh displayed any kind of anger when Dublin were steamrollering Tyrone last August.
The way they are calibrated Tyrone are inclined to struggle when they're chasing a game.
Their full-back line has loads of experience but they're not the most fleet-footed and it's perhaps why they have a vigilant defensive screen in front of them.