GAA Football

Kicking Out: Balancing success and succession vital for Tyrone

Peter Harte (left) and Mattie Donnelly (right) are now in their 30s. While they have plenty more to give, they are the big leaders in this Tyrone team, and having a succession plan in place for when they go will be vital to how the second half of this decade goes for the county. Picture by Philip Walsh

WHEN Dessie Farrell gave Michael Shiel two games in goal for Dublin during this year’s National League, he was playing chess two moves ahead.

Before Stephen Cluxton’s replacement had even bedded in, they were starting to groom the replacement’s replacement.

Evan Comerford had played three early-season championship games in recent seasons, to go along with 13 starts in the league since 2018.

They knew the day was coming that Cluxton would no longer be there, they just didn’t know when.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that the same Dublin team had won eight All-Irelands in ten years.

39 different players have featured in All-Ireland finals for the Dubs since 2011.

35 of them – all except Kevin Nolan, Barry Cahill, Bryan Cullen and Eamon Fennell – played in at least one of the six-in-a-row successes between 2015 and 2020.

It was the golden generation that kept on producing once-in-a-generation players.

Their succession plan was key to their success, and will remain so.

Their subs used against Mayo were Colm Basquel, Tom Lahiff, Sean Bugler, Philly McMahon, Sean McMahon, Robbie McDaid, Adam Byrne and Cormac Costello.

It was Dublin’s worst championship performance in a long while but at some point, they had to turn to youth.

The core of the early six-in-a-row years is breaking up.

Expect to see a much younger, fresher Dublin team in the next 18 months. Their depth of resources mean theirs will be a shorter transition than for most counties. They won’t always win, but they’ll remain at the top table.

The footballers of Tyrone had been craving an All-Ireland for 13 years.

Having won one when nobody expected it, Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher have now reset the county’s ambitions.

In one sense, it came from nowhere. In another, it had been building over almost a decade.

Mattie Donnelly, Peter Harte and Ronan McNamee have been ever-presents in the team. Niall Morgan came along a bit later but is the same age and feels like he’s been there for a lifetime.

Whatever about Meyler and McGeary and McCurry and McKenna, the single biggest factor in Tyrone’s success this year was the return to fitness of Padraig Hampsey.

An Allstar on their 2018 run to the All-Ireland final, when he was fit to play at all in the following two seasons, it was through injury.

As the sands of time ran away on Mickey Harte’s reign, the second big man-marking role became a huge issue. Ronan McNamee took on the most dangerous inside forward but beyond that they often struggled.

Tyrone won’t go on to dominate football for the next decade the way Dublin did but they are capable of adding to their one All-Ireland, though.

Logan and Dooher do not have the depth of playing resources that exist in Dublin.

Their biggest task over the next two years is to balance success against succession.

Rory Gallagher’s work as Donegal manager won’t be remembered in terms of trophies won, but the Ulster titles they’ve won under Declan Bonner owe a lot to the previous boss.

He could have resisted the deconstruction of the 2014 team a little longer but instead threw in youth. There were days they definitely didn’t look ready.

It has paid dividends since he left, although not of the Celtic Cross kind they might have hoped at this stage.

Mayo’s policy of constantly rotating their league team in James Horan’s second term is what has enabled them to stay competitive.

The quality and experience they’ve lost over the last 18 months was expected to sink them for a while as a top-end force.

Instead, they beat Dublin and went into this year’s All-Ireland final as favourites.

In 2020, Horan was making an average of five changes to his league team every single week. He built a bank of experience among young players that enabled them to take the reins.

The last two All-Ireland finals have been lost by a completely different Mayo team than lost in 2016 and ’17.

Just three of the starting 2017 team played this year’s final.

Mayo will remain at the top table for a while to come.

The last decade had been a bit of a barren spell for Tyrone in terms of underage success. The conveyor belt looked in need of some WD40.

2021’s Ulster minor title was a first in nine years, leading to a one-point loss in the final. They didn’t win a provincial U21 title from 2006 until 2015, but have since won three and an All-Ireland.

In the 2010s, Tyrone won the McKenna Cup almost every January. That was because their first team of the year could bear a striking resemblance to their championship side.

Tyrone jerseys weren’t given out freely. They were harder earned than any other.

Does that policy stand to them, or does it prevent the development of a greater pool of talent?

Niall Morgan is Tyrone’s number one for the foreseeable future. He can comfortably play for a handful of years yet.

But what happens when he goes?

It was notable that last year’s U20 goalkeeper Lorcan Quinn was named at number 16 for the All-Ireland final ahead of 30-year-old Darragh McAnenly, who had been sub goalkeeper since Benny Gallen departed.

Neither man really stood any chance of playing that day barring a catastrophe but the experience will have done Quinn no harm. He is the future.

They must start to give him games next year, as Dublin have with Comerford.

Other than the dead rubber Super 8s game against the Dubs in Omagh, which Gallen played, Morgan has played every league and championship game in the last three years.

Like Cluxton, that’s grand until the day he’s not there.

If Covid had wiped him out of one of Tyrone’s big games, they were screwed. It would have meant throwing a rookie into a big championship game and inviting almighty pressure upon completely untested shoulders.

Sub goalkeepers don’t get 10 minutes here or there. They either start or they don’t play. The danger is that unless the path in front of them is very clear, you lose them.

Darragh Canavan and Tiarnan Quinn have already graduated from the U20 team that won Ulster last year.

Harte, Donnelly, McNamee, Tiernan McCann, Niall Sludden will all figure on Tyrone’s championship team again in 2022, and 2023.

But because of their age profile, be it in two, three, four years’ time, Tyrone will lose all of that experience in and around the same time.

Where do they go then?

Tyrone will never fall off a cliff face. The club scene produces too much quality, and there is a longing desperation among young lads to play for their county.

Those are strong foundations for a county that will never go too far away.

There is more success still in the tank for today’s team, but if 2022 was to give tomorrow’s team a proper taste of things, they could reap rich rewards down the line.

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