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Tyrone experience can achieve a perfect 10 in Dr McKenna Cup

FAMILIAR FOES: Aidan McCrory and Ryan Bell will line out for Tyrone and Derry respectively in tonight’s Dr McKenna Cup final at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Padraig Kelly

Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup final: Derry v Tyrone (tonight, Pairc Esler, 7pm)

EVER since Mickey Harte and the Tyrone players went to Ballybofey and ripped Donegal to shreds in front of 12,000 people in February 2004, the Red Hands have held an aura over the Dr McKenna Cup.

Tyrone won 1-22 to 0-7 that night, but it is a match more remembered as the last game played by Cormac McAnallen with the Eglish man passing away just a few weeks after captaining the side to victory.

Harte has always strived to treat this competition seriously in his honour, and he’s achieved that goal 10-fold.

A further eight titles have followed since that night, ensuring that this evening’s clash with Derry at Pairc Esler presents Harte with the chance to make it a perfect 10.

Also chasing a notable record is Sean Cavanagh who, if he comes off the bench during a Red Hand win, will have won his eighth title on the field of play. The Moy man has contributed 2-14 in previous finals, so his absence would be a surprise.

The two finals he missed – 2012 and 2016 – were both against tonight’s opponents, but it’s unlikely that the Oakleaf county will be spared a third time.

Damian Barton’s side enter this match as big underdogs, and understandably so.

Given the heavy number of withdrawals from the panel and the amount of game time given to younger players, this was meant to be a month to sharpen the skillset, but a long overdue piece of silverware is now just 70 minutes away.

It has been the young blood that has got them this far, and Barton has acknowledged that by naming many of them in the starting side.

Conor McGrogan, Oisin Duffin and Michael McEvoy, set to make his debut, all started in Derry’s Ulster Minor triumph two years ago, Ben McKinless was on the bench. All four are down to start tonight.

Peter Hagan has also been included in Derry’s starting team after recovering from injury. Hagan and Carlus McWilliams have both been used already this year in the role that Danny Heavron has almost perfected in recent times. McWilliams, still troubled with a hamstring strain, is only named on the bench so it will be Hagan that will drop in behind the defence to make the hard carries when the turnovers are won off Tyrone players.

Also coming into the first 15 is Mark Lynch with Emmet McGuckin making way as Barton realises that he needs a few of his key men in the side if they are to win their first McKenna Cup since 2011.

Most of the team’s experience comes in attack with Enda Lynn and James Kielt joining Lynch in offering plenty, but there are no huge appearance numbers elsewhere.

The same cannot be said for Tyrone. The named 15 have 751 appearances between them, an average of over 50, with Justin McMahon, Peter Harte and Colm Cavanagh all in the centurion club.

Ominously for Derry, the appearance average of Tyrone’s 11 named substitutes jumps up to 57.Take Sean Cavanagh (226) out of it and it still stands at over 40.

That is one of the key reasons why Tyrone will win this match, and last year’s final is the perfect example of it.

Derry had them on the ropes for long periods in that game, but Harte was able to introduce players like Connor McAliskey, Darren McCurry and Conor Meyler to force extra-time before the Red Hands triumphed 1-22 to 1-17 after 90 minutes.

If, like last year, Derry exceed expectations and Tyrone are staring a rare McKenna Cup loss in the face, Harte will turn to a bench featuring Cavanagh, Tiernan McCann, Cathal McCarron, McCurry, Ronan McNabb and Ronan McNamee amongst others.

It means that Tyrone have a safety net and in a way, it takes some of the pressure off the starting 15 knowing that there are players there that can replace them.

For some counties that could lead to players fumbling their lines as they look over their shoulders or showing their disapproval when taken off, but in Tyrone it’s all about the collective.

Whether it is in the dark cold days of January or the white heat of the summer, Tyrone players have always demonstrated that quality while Harte has been in their eyeline.

That has allowed the manager to produce a phenomenal record in this competition, and he should add to his reputation as the McKenna Cup master in Newry tonight. Number 10 is on its way.

Derry: B McKinless; C McGrogan, C Nevin, R Murphy; N Forrester, O Duffin, M Warnock; C McAtamney, M McEvoy; E Lynn, J Kielt, P Hagan; M Lynch, R Bell, N Loughlin

Tyrone: N Morgan; A McCrory, J McMahon, P Hampsey; J Munroe, M Donnelly, P Harte; C Cavanagh, P McNulty; D McClure, N Sludden, C Meyler; M Bradley, C McCullagh, R O’Neill

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