GAA Football

Depth of club quality keeps Tyrone ahead of the pack

Omagh were last year's champions in Tyrone, but like the rest they fell short in retaining it. Picture by Bill Smyth

I HAVE a confession to make.

Truth is, it’s been hiding in the background for a few years. Unspoken, but always hovering like a black cloud, ready to unload itself at any moment.

It is very difficult to admit this publicly. Particularly as a Derry man, the likelihood is that it will bring shame upon not only me, but my family and my club.

I haven’t even been able to bring myself to tell them.

But I cannot keep it in any longer.

The truth is, I love Tyrone football.

At the weekend, it was a choice between Antrim hurling and Tyrone football. I deliberated, if only to create the illusion of equality in my mind. Even got Kenny Archer to toss a coin. Best two out of three, and the football won.

I enjoy a bloodthirsty game of Glens hurling as much as the next man, but secretly I was pleased to be dispatched to the warmth of Carrickmore’s clubhouse rather than the exposed surroundings of a rain-lashed Ballycastle.

It’s because you know you won’t be disappointed.

I can only ever recall being let down by a Tyrone championship game once. Me and the good lady decided one free Sunday afternoon to head for Dunmoyle. Dromore were playing Ardboe in a first round tie a few years ago.

Martin McKinless was in charge of Ardboe and, having won four county titles with his native Ballinderry and a Tyrone intermediate with Derrylaughan (where he was again this year), he was protecting a proud record of never having lost a county championship game as a manager.

We managed to make a hames of getting there and arrived shortly after throw-in. But Dromore cruised to victory and, unusually for the Sunday evening billing, the place felt decidedly flat all evening.

That was the sole exception. And it’s no wonder when you look back through the recent history of their club championship.

For one, no team has retained it since Carrickmore in 2005. Only Dromore have made it back to a final the year after winning it.

Tyrone became a force on the All-Ireland stage at the beginning of this century. Since 2000, some 14 of its county finals have either ended in a draw or been decided by two points or less.

Three have been drawn and seven of them have been one-point games.

And it is far from restricted to finals. Look at the last few years alone. Go back to 2014 and Omagh’s habit of late fisted goals that took them to the county final.

In last year’s first round, Clonoe came from four down in the last five minutes to beat Dromore.

Two of the quarter-finals needed replays, with rank underdogs Pomeroy shocking Clonoe after one of them, and they were only denied a surprise place in a final by a late goal from Errigal Ciaran in the semi-final.

In the other game, Omagh were six down and came back to clip the 2015 champions Trillick with a late Joe McMahon 45’.

This year’s seen Ardboe emerge as a force once more, and Coalisland have regrouped since Damien O’Hagan came in as manager to rejoin a pack that they’d seemed to have lost touch with.

Tyrone’s senior championship is so full of surprises that nothing is a surprise.

But the strength of a county is not at the top. It’s from the bottom up.

The best game on Sunday wasn’t Coalisland’s win over Errigal, but rather a gripping curtain-raiser that saw Tattyreagh come from eight points down to beat Dungannon in the intermediate.

Not only was the second half laced with drama that included a missed chance to seal it for the Clarkes in stoppage time before Tattyreagh broke the length of the field to score a goal and steal it, but there was a notable quality about the whole of the last 35 minutes that I witnessed.

As a county, Tyrone is mad about football. Obsessed by it. And contained within that is a natural order that seems to suit everyone’s ends.

Mickey Harte likes control, but he knows too the value of his players getting regular football with their clubs. They still play 11 of the 15 club league games in Tyrone.

That keeps the standard of the club leagues high, and makes promotion and relegation that bit more difficult to attain. So the levels have to go up.

Other counties have similar structures, but few have that insatiable appetite for the game at all levels.

It’s a huge part of what keeps them consistently ahead of the rest of Ulster at inter-county.

You can have all the development squads you like, but there is only limited success that will ever come of pouring a huge percentage of resources into a small number of players.

The rising tide in Tyrone has lifted all boats. They may only have those Errigal Ciaran success of ’93 and 2002 to show at provincial level, but part of that is down to just hard it is to win the O’Neill Cup first. Ulster is an afterthought.

Their record there should not be mistaken for a lack of quality.

If you’re in any doubt, just go and watch a few of their club championship games.

It may leave you harbouring a deep, dark, shameful secret for years. But you’ll learn to live with it.

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