GAA Football

McKenna's decisive impact shows differing levels to Tyrone's depth

Fermanagh's Richard O'Callaghan and Tyrone's Conor McKenna in action during the 2022 Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Preliminary Round between Fermanagh and Tyrone at Brewster Park Fermanagh. Pic Philip Walsh

Ulster Senior Football Championship preliminary round: Fermanagh 2-10 Tyrone 2-17

AT the high point of the career he’d always longed to come home and have, Conor McKenna admitted outside the Croke Park changing room last September that he hadn’t had a particularly good championship.

There were flashes like his goals against Kerry and the vital assist for Darren McCurry’s final nail in the newest Mayo coffin.

Throughout this spring his form had offered him just bits of game time here and there. A single start against Kildare, only the cameo minutes against Dublin, Mayo and Kerry, even in a Tyrone attack that wasn’t functioning.

But in coming off the bench in Brewster Park on Saturday evening to break the game open and pack Fermanagh off to the Táilteann Cup, the explosive Eglish man had a big hand in 1-4 and hauled himself back up the pecking order.

Much of the pre-match debate centered on the Tyrone well-established defections and the impact it would have on their bench.

Their subs’ contribution on Saturday was very decent but McKenna is an interesting case study.

As a starter last year, he would have been on the A team for in-house games.

At full tilt, the B team’s attack in those games would have contained Cathal McShane, Mark Bradley, Darragh Canavan, Ronan O’Neill, Paul Donaghy and maybe Richie Donnelly.

This year, with Mattie Donnelly injured in recent weeks, McKenna would be leading a second-string attack with most likely Emmet McNabb, Mickey Conroy, Joe Oguz, Nathan Donnelly. All fine club players finding their feet but without a single championship appearance between them.

Even if Peter Harte, Mattie and Richie Donnelly make it back for Derry on May 1, McKenna will be a big loss as it stands.

The Irish News understands will be cited in the referee’s report for contributing to a melee following his stoppage-time sending off.

Tyrone know from very recent experience how difficult that particular rule is to find a way around.

TV pictures suggested that James McMahon was lucky to avoid censure for grappling with Conn Kilpatrick’s face in the beginning of what was a very minor skirmish, but one that could have unduly rough consequences for McKenna.

Yellow cards for Ryan Lyons and Brandon Horan were dished out at the same time. Their contribution obviously wasn’t deemed enough of a contribution.

That’s for another day.

What they’ll also be looking at is Fermanagh’s creation of so many goal chances - seven in total.

There was never any great sense Kieran Donnelly’s side would win. Brewster Park, with just under 8,000 people in, didn’t feel like a place bubbling for a shock.

When the hosts went 0-5 to 0-2 ahead, faint disbelieving murmurs started to rise.

From then until ten minutes into the second half there was work for Tyrone to do, and they did it well.

Conor Meyler’s goal just before half-time was brilliantly taken after James McMahon did great work to force the Omagh man to shoot rather than square. There was a question mark over the steps taken – “very evident” that he’d taken too many, said Donnelly – but none about the right-footed finish.

Fermanagh had passed up their two brilliant goal chances. Their sharp hands cut Tyrone open to put Conall Jones in but his shot went so far over that it was hard to tell if it had even gone between the posts as the umpires agreed it had.

The big chance was just before Meyler’s goal. In fairness to Declan McCusker, who had a fine game, just looking at his run to create it would send the lactic acid burning. He covered 100 yards at full tilt. But while his final pass to Sean Quigley was the right one, it was played too far behind his team-mate. Quigley had to check and take his point.

Not getting Quigley, and to an even greater degree Ciaran Corrigan beside him, into the game was part of why you felt they’d never win it.

They failed to make the ball stick against Ronan McNamee and particularly Michael McKernan, who marked Corrigan so well that Fermanagh couldn’t even kick it to him.

It meant that for all the Ernemen were causing trouble through the excellence of Ryan Lyons and James McMahon coming from deep, repeating that over the course of 70 minutes was an enormous physical ask.

Darren McCurry was outstanding yet again. Johnny Cassidy had the odd good moment – and broke forward for his own goal chance, cleared off the line by his opposite number McNamee – but he found the Edendork man’s sharpness hard to live with.

Darragh Canavan started well but faded, though Cathal McShane’s continued struggles will be of concern to Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher.

His late curling effort in the first half was just his second score from play all season, and he struggled to shake makeshift full-back Richard O’Callaghan, who did well.

Fermanagh had matched up as best they could to Tyrone’s legs across the park. Conor Meyler was already taking the scissors to them from deep. The last thing they needed was McKenna coming on as part of a half-time reshape.

Tyrone went for the throat. Rory Brennan stopped sweeping and pushed on to Lyons. They went after Sean McNally’s kickout and started to force mistakes with a much more energetic, high-pressing game.

Fermanagh continued to create goal chances. Darragh McGurn was on the end of two but blazed one over and palmed the other wide.

Just as with the first half, they were punished.

McKenna’s one-two off the outstanding Conn Kilpatrick opened the gap. The base of the post denied him but the ball spun up for Liam Rafferty to bundle home.

Tyrone led by 2-16 to 0-10 soon after that but two goals that the hosts probably deserved over the 70 minutes gave a fairer complexion to the scoreline. Largo-Ellis’ pace and fine finish made the first, with Quigley’s quick-thinking free dropped into Conall Jones creating the second.

But it’s the Tailteann Cup now for them and with five weeks to stew over it, Kieran Donnelly has to fend off the twin threats of club football and America.

What their panel looks like when they’re next out on the last weekend of May will tell you a lot about where their 2022 is headed now.

Tyrone’s ship is eternally pointed towards the Anglo Celt Cup. Whatever questions hang over them, it’s for others to prove they have the answers. They’re not that easy found.

S McNally; J Cassidy, R O’Callaghan; J McMahon (0-1); A Breen, L Flanagan, D McCusker; R Jones, B Horan, C Jones (1-1); R Lyons (0-3, 0-1 free), D McGurn (0-1), J Largo-Ellis (1-0); C Corrigan, S Quigley (0-3, 0-1 free, 0-1 45’)
Subs: O Kelm for O’Callaghan (54), G Jones (0-1 free) for Corrigan (57), J McDade for Breen (57)
Yellow cards: D McGurn (23), R Lyons (74), B Horan (74)

Tyrone: N Morgan; M McKernan, R McNamee; R Brennan; F Burns, M O’Neill, P Hampsey, C Meyler (1-0); C Kilpatrick (0-1), B Kennedy (0-1 mark); K McGeary (0-1), D Canavan (0-1), N Sludden (0-1); D McCurry (0-6, 0-2 frees, 0-2 marks), C McShane (0-3, 0-2 frees)
Subs: C McKenna (0-2) for O’Neill (HT), L Rafferty (1-0) for McGeary (49), M Conroy (0-1) for McCurry (57), B McDonnell for Kennedy (60), C Shields for Canavan (68)
Black card: M O’Neill (2-11)
Yellow card: C McKenna (46)
Red card: C McKenna (74, straight red)

Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan)

Attendance: 7,839

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