GAA Football

Niall Sludden has taken his time to become a key player for Tyrone

NIALL Sludden has been making a name for himself in recent years – he's just not sure which one.

Sweating slightly, eyes flittering around with an air of panic, his nerves aren't about being involved in an All-Ireland Senior Football Final media conference but rather because he's been asked about his new nickname.

"Really? Who has been telling you that? Which nickname is it? There has been so many of them."

You tell us first, comes the demand. We ask the questions here, son.

"The most common one of the last few years has been 'Wicky Woo'. That one, is it?

No. But where did that come from?

"That came from me and Ronan McCabe. It's a Tyrone thing from back when we were U21. I don't know if I should go into too much information about it. It might not be good for my teaching career.

Tyrone players always behind Mickey Harte, insists Niall Sludden

"Ah no, it was just a wee bit of craic and a name that stuck. They call me other things too. Everyone has a nickname, really, don't they?", he asks plaintively.

We put him out of his increasing misery.

All-Ireland semi-final goal

'Bergkamp' is the new one, after the goal you scored against Monaghan to decide the All-Ireland semi-final in Tyrone's favour:

"I've heard that," he says, with a relieved smile. "I'm a big Arsenal fan so I would certainly take that. Bergkamp was a player that I admired. He was a classy guy, now. That's not a bad nickname."

Someone – ahem – suggests that the brilliant Dutchman could have been known as 'Dirty Den' as he had a bit of 'edge' too, that ability to protect himself from his markers that all the best attackers need.

"I think that's something a person from Dromore would say as well," concedes Sludden, in an apparent reference to former Tyrone player Ryan McMenamin.

"When you're playing football I can't always be smiling in front of youse boys and everyone as well. You certainly need to mix it as well coming up against the Dubs and all these teams. It is a physical game."

Preferred role

Interestingly, although he scored that decisive goal against Monaghan, and has also netted in this Championship campaign against Carlow and Roscommon, and added 13 points from play to boot, Sludden says he doesn't regard himself as an out-and-out forward:

"I don't know, I like defence. I play defence a lot with my club. I like breaking lines and from the half-back line it is sometimes easier to do that because you are coming on a run and when you are up in the half-forward line you are a bit easier marked there.

"I do feel that consistency is important and I have been up in the half-forward line playing there a lot of the time. I am happy, I don't care where I play.

"If Mickey [Harte] said I had to drop back to half-back for the final, I would do that. The good thing about our team is our versatility and I suppose you need that in the modern game."

Yet Sludden hasn't always done what Harte wanted.

Saying 'no' to Mickey Harte

The Tyrone boss wanted to include the 2010 All-Ireland Minor winner in his senior set-up in 2012, after his club performances culminated in kicking the winning point in the 2011 county final.

However, the Dromore lad turned down that invite – and didn't actually make his senior debut until 2016.

"Physically the demands of the game over the last number of years have gone up and I felt I was not doing that.

"I was at St Mary's College [Belfast] so I was very lucky, I was under Paddy Tally and I have been under a number of great trainers; Ryan Porter, the Monaghan trainer, was with my club Dromore. As I went along I felt the time was now when I was about 24."

He recalls that he had to choose his words carefully in saying 'No. but thanks' to Harte:

"I was young back then and speaking to Mickey Harte, you were very much in awe of the man and of what he had done, so when the 'phone call came I had to be very careful in making sure that when I was talking to him of not giving the impression I was coming across as saying 'Hold on now, Mickey, I don't want to be part of your squad and I don't care about the Tyrone team.'

"Mickey would have been on to me about coming onto the squad but I felt that I wasn't physically ready for the demands of the game at that age. I just wanted to wait and, to be fair to Mickey, he respected that and said that he would still keep me in his thoughts."

"I was saying 'I am not ready, but if you give me the call and I keep playing well for my club, no doubt I will come back in'. I was leaving a reminder - and thankfully he made that call." Calls, to be accurate.

Sludden points out that current captain Mattie Donnelly did something similar, as did Kieran McGeary, and he explains his own thinking:

"There have been a few Tyrone players of that age who were brought in but I was very lucky in that I played on big days with my club Dromore and I had Ryan McMenamin and Colm McCullough around me. I saw boys like that, I watched a lot of football and you just know."

Patience required

Seventeen players have come off the 2015 All-Ireland U21 winning squad into the senior panel, but Sludden says: "They have had to be patient to wait and bide their time and not a lot of people do that sometimes.

"Especially sometimes when your club might be putting a bit of pressure on you and you might feel it is not going for you, but that 17 have come in is a remarkable stat.

"Even for older players like ourselves and particularly Colm [Cavanagh], Mattie and all those boys, the energy of those younger boys bring rubs off of them as well.

"I probably knew back then that if I went in I would have been patient as well but I just felt that if I gave it another couple of years I would benefit from playing at a high standard. Tyrone club championship and Tyrone league football is of a very high standard so I just felt my transition would work a lot better that way."

Broken leg

Sludden's step up to the senior scene was hampered by a badly broken leg in June 2013:

"An accidental injury. A boy came through, followed through and it was just one of those things. You see someone like the Galway player Paul Conroy there, it does bring it back, memories like that. You remember the hard work you have to do to get through that stage. The rehab and everything…"

He doesn't forget that he spent his 21st birthday, in June 2013, in Altnagelvin hospital theatre in Derry: "I remember they brought me a cake. They were nice enough.

"At that stage you are thinking will you come back from it? It was definitely a key moment in my life but a lot of the boys in the squad and around football have had major issues, especially the cruciate.

"Look at Connor McAliskey there: he was only coming back from it last year and he is flying again this year. A lot of people will say that an injury like in your career does stand to you.

"That was a massive part of my development because I really appreciated my football. Then when Mickey did come with the call [again] I felt ready.

"I had a good pre-season. I came in at 24, not at 18 or 19 like some of the other Tyrone lads had. I would have felt that hard to do.

Ready for the step up

"I was ready at 24, not just to be part of the squad but to come in and make a start. I had that confidence in myself from the injury and from playing a few bigger games with the club.

"Mentally and physically it meant I was doing rehab and in the gym and it kept this thing very strong up there [in the head] and it meant that I appreciate my football a lot more and opportunities like this don't always come about.

"If you have a bad game or a good game, it is all part and parcel of it. I am just lucky enough to be on the field because sometimes people don't get that opportunity."

He insists he never doubted his ability to make the highest grade: "No. I was always of the belief that if I kept performing well for the club Mickey would give me the call.

"I suppose in the back of your mind you are thinking 'Has he forgotten about me?' because in Tyrone there is so much youth coming through from under-21 teams, you can start thinking that he is looking at those players.

"But, no, I always had the ambition I would be here and that one day I would be playing at the highest level so I was hoping Mickey would give me the call and I remember when he gave me that call it was a great feeling."

Taking on Dublin

Now he's looking forward to an All-Ireland Football Final, perhaps again up against Dublin's sticky man-marker Eoin Murchan, who kept him fairly quiet in the 'Super Eights' game in Omagh last month:

"I would have been aware he picked up Ryan McHugh against Donegal, I did not really see much of that game but you came out and you were thinking he is obviously in here for a reason, to do a job.

"Whatever player comes to you, you have to adapt. It is about bringing your own game too because Dublin have a wealth of options as well and have the players, so you have to expect that.

"I don't really worry about things like that, about who I am marking or about who is going to mark me. It is a one-on-one battle with that person, really."

Sludden's patience and perseverance have paid off. When he did join up with Tyrone, it was initially as a number six, but he switched to the attack last season.

On his form this year, he could kick another winning point in a final – or maybe even another Bergkamp-esque goal.

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