Tyrone manager Mickey Harte expects tough tough test from Derry in Dr McKenna Cup semi-final
Dr McKenna Cup semi-final: Derry v Tyrone (tomorrow, the Athletic Grounds, 2pm)
AT tea-time on Wednesday, Tyrone would have expected to be in action tomorrow and they duly topped their section with three wins out of three.
Meanwhile, Derry could only have hoped to reach this stage but their impressive 16-point win over Ulster University saw them slip into the semi-finals as best runners-up and, now they are here, they'll be determined to close the gap on their neighbours.
Christmas lights twinkled from Bogside homes when the sides met at Celtic Park in their season opener in December and the Oak Leafers were well beaten by Mickey Harte's men that night. The game finished 0-20 to 0-11 in the Red Hands' favour but Derry's spirits have been lifted since thanks to the win over UU and the victory in Enniskillen which preceded it.
Speaking after Tyrone's win against Fermanagh on Wednesday night, Harte acknowledged that Derry should be a different proposition tomorrow.
“Obviously Derry have picked up their form since we played them,” he said.
“They have had two very good results since that, so it's not going to be the same Derry team that we played before.
“We have to be ready for something very different and something much more competitive.”
Ryan Bell top scored for Derry with three points in last month's game but the Ballinderry forward is ruled out of tomorrow's rematch – and the early stages of the League – after he injured his ankle against Fermanagh.
Meanwhile, Harte has rung the changes after what he described as “a bit of a war of attrition” against Rory Gallagher's Ernemen. The sides were level at 0-2 apiece at half-time before Tyrone pulled away to win comfortably.
“I suppose Fermanagh came with a particular plan and way of playing the game, and they played it to the full that they had prepared for obviously,” he said.
“It was difficult to break down, and we didn't help ourselves by getting turned over too often. It wasn't pretty for the first 35 minutes.
“It was a question of damage limitation was what they were trying to do, and that was very successful for the first half.
“We still felt we needed to open the game up a bit, and when we did open the game up and got those few points ahead, I suppose it gave us the confidence to be more in control of the game than chasing the game, and ultimately that's' what told out in the end.”
UU students Michael McKernan, Lee Brennan and Frank Burns have returned to the Tyrone fold. McKernan and Brennan will start tomorrow and are two of the five players – the others are Declan McClure, Cathal McShane and Ronan O'Neill – who featured in last year's All-Ireland final.
Harte, as usual, has used this competition to blood emerging talent, and he has been encouraged with the performances of several up-and-coming young players.
“The people who have come in have shown that they're capable of playing at this level,” he said.
“I suppose the problem is that we can't keep everybody.
“We have too many at the moment to be able to keep for the whole year, so there's a few choices to be made when the McKenna Cup is over, and that's unfortunate in one way, but I suppose it's positive in another way, in that you have that many people knocking on the door to be with this panel.”
Derry begin their Division Four campaign with a potentially pivotal Ulster derby against Antrim while Tyrone start Division One with a trip to the Kingdom on January 27.
Competitive games are the best preparation for those clashes and Harte – like his counterpart Damian McErlain – wants to get to the final.
“We want games at this time of year, we want competitive games,” said Harte.
“We have three at the moment and we're now guaranteed a fourth, and we'll do our very best to get a fifth.
“We have done that for many years now and have been quite successful in getting the five games, so I hope that we do get the fifth, but that remains to be seen, we have to repeat the job we did at Celtic Park, and it won't be the same job, because obviously Derry have picked up a lot of form since we played them.”
Tyrone: B Gallen; A McCrory, HP McGeary, M McKernan; B McDonnell, R Brennan, M Cassidy; D McClure, B Kennedy; C McCann, K Coney, C McShane; L Brennan, R O'Neill, R Sludden
Subs: N Morgan, F Burns, D Canavan, R Gray, C Grugan, P Harte, C McLaughlin, L Rafferty, N Sludden