Tyrone built on solid foundation but room for a wildcard in Ulster Allstar shake-up
WHEN an Ulster county wins the All-Ireland, Allstar selections can very quickly become monopolised. Throw in another year with the back door on the backburner and the forum for debate narrows further still.
Following Tyrone’s momentous All-Ireland triumph back in September, that is exactly what we are left with this year. Plenty could, and likely will, argue that an entire Red Hand 15 should be named. They could make a convincing case too.
The brilliance of their goalkeeper and defenders provided a solid foundation stone on their way to Sam, therefore seeking out alternatives can seem an almost churlish pursuit – especially when most other Ulster counties played only one or two games.
Looking at the six defensive spots, four are absolute cast-iron certainties. We’ll start with Michael McKernan.
The Coalisland man mamde a solid start against Cavan before using his pace to augment the attack against Donegal, and was typically energetic in the Ulster final victory over Monaghan.
Like so many, though, his season really clicked into gear once the All-Ireland series (eventually) came around. Barely gave Kerry’s Paul Geaney a kick in the semi-final and eventually got on top of Ryan O’Donighue in the final – popping over scores in both those games.
Ronan McNamee’s campaign followed a similar trajectory, seeing a harsh red card against Cavan overturned before keeping Donegal’s Jamie Brennan to two points. Struggled on Jack McCarron early on in the Ulster final but eventually got on top of the Monaghan forward.
Mitigation, meanwhile, is required for any defender marking David Clifford. The Kerry sensation might have finished up with eight points before hobbling off but Aghyaran battled gamely all day, as well as striding forward to score in the first half.
Was beaten to a couple of early balls into Aidan O’Shea before getting on top of the Mayo talisman as Tyrone gradually ground James Horan’s men down.
And then there’s captain fantastic himself – Padraig Hampsey. Endured a tough first evening as Tyrone captain when the National League resumed against Donegal, struggling to control the influence of familiar foe Michael Murphy.
Yet by the time he was walking up the steps of the Hogan Stand six months later, Hampsey was being heralded as the best defender in the country. The Coalisland man led by example throughout, using his strength, pace and nose for danger to limit the influence of Thomas Galligan, Murphy (while he was on the field), Conor McManus, Sean O’Shea and Tommy Conroy.
The last of the four certainties is Peter Harte. Just when you were starting to wonder exactly where the Errigal Ciaran man’s county career was headed, he enjoys his best season with Tyrone.
For so long charged with being one of the main attacking weapons in Mickey Harte’s counter-attacking game, Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher deployed him as a tough, tenacious part of the defensive unit – and it worked a treat.
Harte chose his moments to go forward, best evidenced by the brilliant mark he took and converted in the All-Ireland final. But, having spent so much of his career being tightly marked, appeared to revel in those roles being reversed – while his breathtaking block on Kerry’s Killian Spillane was one of the moments of a showreel summer.
Now, this is where the fun starts.
With two spots remaining, few could argue with either – or both - Ardboe’s teak tough Michael O’Neill or the elegant Frank Burns adding to the Red Hand contingent. But there are other options worth considering too.
Monaghan’s buccaneering full-back Conor Boyle had a stormer against Fermanagh and did well in the Ulster final, although he was a clear second best to Armagh’s Rian O’Neill in the semi. Fellow Farneyman Ryan Wylie also had a solid year, while Karl O’Connell and Dessie Ward showed their class at times.
Ryan McHugh ripped Down to shreds but was unable to impose his will on Tyrone as he has done so many times before. Antrim’s Eoghan McCabe performed manfully as he took the fight to Stefan Campbell in their Ulster Championship showdown, with James Laverty also impressing.
Derry have a couple of contenders too – Chrissy McKaigue was left with his head in his hands when Patrick McBrearty curled over Donegal’s last-gasp winner in Ballybofey, yet that was the only time he let the Kilcar man out of his sights all day. Padraig Cassidy was excellent that day too.
And then there’s Gareth McKinless. The Ballinderry man has been one of the top players in the county for years, but hasn’t always been available to Derry. Rory Gallagher made his return a priority, and it paid off handsomely.
A driving force from centre half-back, the marauding McKinless was awesome as the Oak Leafs blew beyond all before them to seal promotion to Division Two. Up against Ryan McHugh in Ulster Championship battle, McKinless held the edge as Derry took the fight to their north-west neighbours.
For the quality of his distribution under intense pressure against Kerry, and the way he led the counter-attacking charge in victory over Mayo, Burns gets my vote out of the two remaining Tyrone backs – with McKinless the wildcard on the strength of his overall importance to Derry’s renaissance under Gallagher.