Tyrone midfielder Brian Kennedy says best yet to come with Conn Kilpatrick
THE best is yet to come from Tyrone's exciting young midfield pair, according to Brian Kennedy, who believes his partnership with Conn Kilpatrick can grow stronger and flourish for many years.
Their first season together in the Red Hand engine-room ended in emotional triumph on All-Ireland final day at Croke Park as the Sam Maguire Cup was claimed for a fourth time.
However, Derrylaughan man Kennedy believes they still have to prove that they are the real deal.
"It's only the beginning for the two of us, we're 23 and 24, so there's a lot more to be done," he said.
"We'll be getting no more pats on the back now, we'll have to go out and prove that we can do it season-in, season-out."
The 6' 7'' Kennedy has been around the squad for a while, but it was only when Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher took over as managers that the Kevin Barry's club-man really established himself in the starting side.
"Brian and Feargal placed a lot of trust in me. In some of the matches they gave me a man-marking job, trusted me to go out there and do a job on some of the midfielders or whoever it was that needed clamped down on, they gave me the licence to do so.
"When I was given that job, I didn't want to let them down, so I went out every day and tried to give my best for them."
A string of outstanding performances made a massive contribution to Tyrone's success as he became the first player from any of the five clubs in his parish to win an All-Ireland medal.
And there was more to follow in the shape of an All-Star award, with his final performance in over-shadowing fellow first-time All-Star, Mayo midfielder Matthew Ruane, helping to swing the selectors’ voting in his favour.
However, the modest Kennedy feels that Kilpatrick would have been more deserving of the accolade than himself.
"I thought Conn probably did more than me to deserve it, but it's just the luck of the draw and you take things as they come. It was much appreciated and a big honour.”
Kennedy pointed to Edendork lad Kilpatrick’s key role in Tyrone’s second goal against Mayo in the ultimate match, soaring to fetch a kick-out from his club-mate Niall Morgan before delivering the ball to Conor McKenna, who supplied yet another St Malachy’s man, Darren McCurry, to find the net.
"He's a seriously athletic player. That catch in the All-Ireland final was unbelievable, and maybe overshadowed all the rest of the good work he did throughout that final and the whole year.
"He was exceptional himself, and hopefully he can build on it this year."
Kennedy believes Tyrone have what it takes to retain the All-Ireland title, something that no previous Red Hand side has been able to achieve.
The first attempted defence in 2004 was overshadowed by awful tragedy, the sudden death of new captain Cormac McAnallen, and the Championship campaign was ended by Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, having earlier exited Ulster at the semi-final stage, beaten by Donegal.
In 2006 Tyrone were held scoreless in the first half at home by Derry, ending up with a shock six-point defeat, then went out of the All-Ireland qualifiers in round two away to Laois, the joint-earliest finish of the Mickey Harte era.
The third attempt to retain ‘Sam’, in 2009, was the best, with the Ulster title regained by comfortably beating surprise finalists Antrim, but Cork proved too strong in the All-Ireland semi-final.
"That's our number one goal this year, to go out and retain Sam,” admitted Kennedy. "It was unbelievable last year to win it, and it would be even better to do so again.
"We have the talent there definitely to do it, we have strong new players coming in to the panel, a big of youth and a good blend with experience.
"Winning it last year will do everybody's confidence the world of good, so it will definitely be an interesting 2022.
"Every other team will be gunning us down, and it was shown in the McKenna Cup even, there's a target on our backs early doors and everybody wants to take our scalp."
That has been doubly demonstrated, with Cavan stuffing Tyrone on their return to competitive action, winning by 15 points in Kingspan Breffni, before Armagh edged a closer encounter in Healy Park, prevailing by 2-15 to 1-15.
If they are to hold on to the Ulster crown, the Red Hands will have to do it via the longer route, having been drawn in the preliminary round and a tricky away tie against Fermanagh.
The Ernemen are under the new management of Kieran Donnelly, who knows plenty about Tyrone football as a teacher at Omagh CBS and a past coach of Errigal Ciaran, where he worked alongside club and Tyrone legend Peter Canavan.
Tyrone will still be strong favourites to progress, but that would only take them into a quarter-final against up-and-coming Derry, while a semi-final would be against Monaghan or Down.
With that path in mind it’s understandable that Kennedy insists: "There's never anything easy in Ulster. Every team is stepping up a grade, and you need to be at the peak of your powers early on in the Championship.
"If you go out there and have a bad day, you could be nipped by any team.
"Fermanagh are a very big, imposing team. We saw Derrygonnelly this year, they reached the Ulster Final [in senior club football] and a lot of those players have serious capabilities.
"We'll take one step at a time, but it's definitely a big task."
The serious business of building back towards the dizzy heights of 2021 begins this weekend when Tyrone face Monaghan in their NFL opener at O'Neills Healy Park.
It's an Ulster derby that never fails to produce a close and fiercely competitive encounter, with just a point separating the sides over the two games in League and Championship last year.
"Monaghan are an excellent team. We played them twice last year, and it was a draw in the League and them we won by a point in the Ulster Final, so there's a flip of a coin between the two teams over who comes out on top.
"It's been that way for years now. They have looked impressive in the McKenna Cup, something we have failed to do.
"It's going to be a massive game, and hopefully we can get a few more experienced heads out on the pitch and really push it to them and get that first win, which would be vitally important to stay safe."
Tyrone then travel to take on old rivals Armagh, and later will face the Ulster side they've clashed with most in recent times, Donegal, in another away match in round four.
The Red Hands have three more home games, against Kildare, Dublin, and Mayo, before concluding with a trip to take on Kerry, whom they overcame in the controversially postponed All-Ireland SFC semi-final last season.
The Kingdom men had thrashed Tyrone in the Division One semi-final last June, putting six goals past them in a 6-15 to 1-14 humiliation in Killarney.
Yet only 77 days later Tyrone turned the tables on Kerry in Croke Park, and went on to collect ‘Sam’ for the fourth time.
With Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick in the engine room, they are setting out on the road to the ‘Drive for Five’.