Could it pay for Tyrone to unleash McShane on Kerry again?
Cathal McShane ripped the Kingdom apart for long swathes of the All-Ireland semi-final two years ago, and Neil Loughran believes Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher should bring him back into the starting XV after a long battle with injury...
DARREN McCurry has had his fair share of ups and downs, and ins and outs, through his time with Tyrone. The All-Ireland semi-final of 2019 will be chalked down as one of the more frustrating afternoons endured.
He had started the two Super 8 games that mattered, victories over Roscommon and Cork sealing a last four spot before an experimental side took the field for the final day dead rubber against Dublin.
For the semi-final showdown with Kerry, McCurry was named to start - only for Mickey Harte to opt instead for Richard Donnelly, whose older brother Mattie would act as the foil for the on-fire Cathal McShane in a two man full-forward line that wreaked first half havoc.
By the time McCurry entered the fray in the 64th minute, the Red Hands trailed the Kingdom by five. A score deep into added time cut the gap to three, but the damage was long done over the course of a second half that left scar tissue to this day.
Fast forward two years, and a rivalry that defined the Noughties will be renewed on the same stage this afternoon. Provided he was one of those fortunate enough to escape the effects of the Covid-19 virus that has ravaged the Tyrone panel in recent weeks, McCurry need not worry whether or not he will start this time around.
A man who thrives on maximising any yard of space, he toiled at times under a counter-attacking system that could become laboured during the final years of Mickey Harte’s reign.
Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher haven’t reinvented the wheel, but an increased urgency and the swifter movement of the ball into the forward line has been manna from heaven for McCurry.
He hasn’t looked back since a scintillating display against Armagh in the League, landing three from play and taking two marks against Monaghan in the next game before providing the focal point for Tyrone’s Ulster Championship success.
McCurry has always been a confidence player, and it has surely never been higher as the leader of the line heading into today’s All-Ireland semi-final. Which leaves Logan and Dooher with a dilemma.
Two years ago, Cathal McShane absolutely ripped Kerry to bits for 45 minutes. Like, to the point of near embarrassment.
With Mattie Donnelly drifting between the edge of the square and the Kerry 45, and with sweeper Paul Murphy completely at sea, Tyrone rained diagonal balls into McShane at will.
It took six minutes for the 6”2 colossus to nip out in front of Jason Foley to land his first of the day after a Frank Burns ball in. A Niall Morgan 45 put Tyrone 0-4 to 0-3 ahead after a long ball towards McShane caused panic in the Kerry square.
Niall Sludden was next to find McShane with a long ball four minutes later, the Owen Roe man holding off Foley before playing in the advancing Sludden to slot over. In the 23rd minute Sludden kicked a cross-field pass to McShane, running away from goal. With Foley a yard off again, he pushed off Adrian Spillane before turning and curling over.
The Mattie Donnelly score that made it 0-8 to 0-4 for the Red Hands came from another long diagonal Burns pass into McShane, who played in the Trillick man to leave Tyrone well in the driving seat.
After continuing that form in the opening 10 minutes of the second half, two bad wides – one from a handy enough free – knocked McShane’s confidence. Kerry boss Peter Keane finally put Foley out of his misery, moving Gavin Crowley onto McShane as the Kingdom comeback gathered momentum.
Unfortunately for Tyrone, and for McShane, the distraction of a possible move to the AFL, a serious ankle injury and the onset of a global pandemic have restricted him to just 126 minutes since – with that All-Ireland semi-final the last time he started a game in county colours.
The 25-year-old looked rusty after coming off the bench against Monaghan too – landing one score but sending another wide and twice being dispossessed by Conor Boyle.
Yet, given Kerry’s scoring potential, can Tyrone afford to keep McShane in reserve in the hope they are still in the game after half-time?
If they do, does it disrupt the side that brought them to this stage? And how might it impact McCurry, who has flourished in McShane’s absence?
Given his form to date, Kerry will be sure to try and bottle up McCurry as soon as possible. If that is even partly successful, Tyrone simply do not have the scoring potential elsewhere to live with Kerry should they hit the kind of purple patches that have illuminated their year.
McShane offers another attacking dimension - the destruction he caused two years ago, the attention he would receive as a result and the presence of another ball-winner inside could be to McCurry’s benefit.
If Mattie Donnelly and Conor McKenna are also fit to start, with Donnelly potentially operating around the middle third, the Red Hands would carry a serious physical edge, and give Kerry ’keeper Shane Ryan plenty to consider before pushing out to close the space on Niall Morgan’s restarts.
Conservatism has only taken Tyrone so far in the past. With so many already writing off their chances, the potential rewards of starting McShane surely outweigh the risk of unsettling the pack.