Killyclogher boss Henry reflects on a season settled by shoot-outs
A SEASON of shoot-outs swung both ways for Killyclogher.
Championship defeat to Trillick on penalties dealt a devastating blow, and they faced double despair when the League final came down to spot kicks as well.
This time fortune favoured the men from Ballinamullan as they ended their campaign on a silverware high.
That's how a crazy campaign played out in Tyrone in 2020, with sudden death drama peppering a remarkable Championship series, right through to the final, which Dungannon won on penalties for a first title in 64 years.
"We knew before we went into the season that games were going to be decided on penalties, so you just accept that," said Killyclogher manager Mark Henry.
"There was nobody in Killyclogher grumbling when we got beaten by Trillick on penalties, because we knew that was how it was to be decided if it ended up a draw.
"Whilst that was very disappointing, we were delighted with the way the thing turned out in the league final against Dromore."
Extra-time and penalties laid on thrills and high drama in abundance last year, and the protocol is expected to be approved for the 2021 season as well.
It's a system that has divided opinion, but Henry feels it may be the best solution in a situation ruled by time constraints.
"I'm torn on it, to tell you the truth, but when games have to be decided that day, with no replays, there is no ideal solution to it.
"I fully understand why matches had to be completed on the day.
"The other solution that was mooted – to play for one more score – but how long could you end up playing?
"You could have players maybe trying to buy a free kick, then the pressure on referees.
"To play on for that extra period looking for that winning score is far from ideal either, having played extra-time."
The player who misses that vital penalty kick has a burden to carry, particularly if it's a youngster, but in Killyclogher's case, the fate befell an experienced campaigner.
"I'm sure Niall McFadden won't mind me saying this, but in many ways I was relieved that it was an experienced player like Niall that missed the penalty against Trillick.
"It would have been far harder for a young player to have carried that burden.
"Niall has been around the block and was able to deal with it, and then he went on to make a big contribution after that game in terms of the League final as well.
"It's tough on the individual who misses the penalty."
The Derry native believes that, with so many teams of a similar quality involved in a Championship famed for the ferocity of its competitiveness, more draws and shoot-outs are inevitable in the season ahead.
"I was well aware of how competitive the Tyrone league and championship was when I came in last year.
"We twice went to extra-time in championship and then in the league, and penalties.
"But there were so many other games that did as well.
"There were six or seven teams all of a very similar standard, and any one of them could have ended up winning the championship or the league.
"And I would expect that the same thing will happen this year, whatever time we do get back to it."
A split season which gave clubs uninterrupted access to their county players provided a positive departure last year, and a similar format is planned this season.
With four Tyrone panellists attending every training session, Killyclogher's preparations for matches were significantly enhanced.
"Other clubs, as well as ourselves, benefited enormously from that last year.
"It's not just about having the county players available for games. To have them about training Tuesday and Friday night, and the leadership and the example that they showed, that was massive for us last year.
"The two McCanns, Mark Bradley and Matthew Murnaghan, to have them about, leading at training and setting example, that was as important for us as having them for games."
Equally important to the success of a memorable club season was the thoughtful and innovative approach adopted by the county's fixture-makers, who put in place a programme of games that made light of the challenges they faced.
"I think the Tyrone county board and those who look after fixtures deserve huge credit for the way they got their competitions run last year," Henry said.
"We got loads of games, whereas some other counties didn't have as many games.
"I'd expect that this year we may have an even shorter window, depending on how things pan out.
"We'll be looking to get as many games, league and championship, within that window as possible.
"But there's no doubt, it's going to be very challenging. Ourselves and Dromore were the last two teams to play last year, and we have done nothing now since October."
Exciting young players such as John Rafferty, Oisin McCann and Mark Hayes made their mark in 2020, and with a year's experience under their belts, greater things are expected of them in the months ahead.
"The difficulty is that because we haven't been able to get together and do anything, we are almost starting from scratch again.
"But I would hope that the experience that those lads have gained from playing in big games last year will stand to them as this season unfolds."
At the other end of the age scale, experienced campaigners like Danny Gorman, Martin Swift and Niall McFadden still have plenty to offer, and the manager is hoping that retirements do not intervene to tinker with his plans.
"I would be very keen that there will be no retirements. There is a good balance, a good mix.
"There's a group of guys at one end of their career and a few guys still coming in, but they all get along very well, they mix very well, they socialise together.
"There's a real good mix there, and I would be very keen that everybody remains on board.
"I don't know anything to the contrary, so I would be assuming that when we get back at it, we'll all be back out again."
Fine margins defined Killyclogher's 2020 season, both in victory and in defeat, and the levels of performance attained by the team were as impressive as any other in the county.
But Henry is looking for that vital edge that will make all the difference, and he's targeting a more clinical approach.
"That will be the challenge for all cubs when we get back, to get building towards championship, whatever time it comes, August, September, and to try and get back to those levels.
"But I don't think it will even be enough, to get back to the levels we were at last year.
"The levels we were at last year made us very competitive, but I would expect that there will be a number of teams that will improve a little bit moving into this season.
"So we are going to have to build on what we did last year. If we want to get a really good run in the championship and a really good run in the league, we'll have to build on it.
"The level of competition is absolutely huge, and every club will be doing everything in their power to improve that little bit to get them over the line, and we'll be trying to do that to give ourselves every chance."
The manner of Championship exit on spot kicks would have crushed the spirit of most teams, but there was a League title to be played for, and the honour of the club was to be upheld.
The St Mary's players had resolved, before they walked off the Healy Park pitch that evening, that they would stick together, fight on, and their faith was rewarded back at the Omagh venue several weeks later as they won the League final in a penalty shoot-out victory over Dromore.
"That was a devastating defeat. To have taken Trillick into extra-time, and then gone to penalties and lose it in that way, it was a tough one to take.
"But before we left Healy Park that evening, the fellows got into a huddle themselves, and they insisted that they weren't going to allow that to be the end of their season.
"To a man, they turned up at training the next week, and we set our sights on trying to get to a League final.
"Thankfully a couple of things went our way to make that happen, but the players deserve huge credit.
"The disappointment that they felt at the defeat to Trillick, to have resolved that evening, before they left Healy Park, to have a rattle at the league, I thoroughly believe that they deserved that League success and it's a reward for their efforts all year."