GAA Football

Tyrone using pain of 2022 to be better this year: Mattie Donnelly

Mattie Donnelly (right) of Tyrone in action against Shane McGullion of Fermanagh in this year's Dr McKenna cup game at Healy Park, Omagh.
Francis Mooney

Mattie Donnelly believes the hunger has returned to the hearts of a group of hurting Tyrone players, and they're ready to re-emerge as a force in 2023.

As reigning All-Ireland champions, the Red Hands suffered a spectacular systems failure last year as their reign was brought to a crashing end by Derry in the provincial series and Armagh in the Qualifiers.

But a solid pre-season and an unbeaten run to the final of the Dr McKenna Cup has laid a solid foundation for a renewed challenge.

"Everyone is working hard and everyone has a good body of work behind them," said Donnelly.

"With the way the split season and the schedule went last year, boys have had a bit of time to reflect, a long time to reflect actually with the way last year ended.

"We have reaped the benefits of that. And boys have come back keen and eager, and are working hard."

The hurt from last year's failed defence of the Sam Maguire Cup will drive the Tyrone players as they search for atonement, according to the Trillick man.

"Whenever you don't do yourself justice, or you don't do the jersey justice, which is ultimately what happened last year, there's obviously going to be a degree of hurt there...

"There's 31 counties in the same boat, essentially, so we're all in it for the same reason across the country, and we're no different. Everyone bar Kerry is in the same boat.

"We came back, we reflected, and we just got stuck into it again. We all come from families who are steeped in Tyrone football, and we're well aware of what playing for Tyrone means.

"We owe it to ourselves, to our own families, we owe it to our own clubs that have given us the opportunity to play for Tyrone.

"We're well aware of that every year, but when you don't have the work done, or be as focused as you should be, you'll get caught at the top level, and that's what we have to guard against every week."

The signs are positive in the dark days of January, with an unbeaten three-game run to this weekend's Dr McKenna Cup final and a title decider against Derry on Saturday.

Last year they crashed to a 15-point defeat to Cavan in their opening game in the series, but turned that around by beating Mickey Graham's side by five points in last weekend's semi-final.

"The first game against the same opposition last year sorta set the tone for the year, for what was to come, and we were keen to not make that the case this year, and so far, so good.

"Whilst we're working hard, we're enjoying it too. It's a good environment up there, it's a great group to be involved in."

Donnelly (31), with more than a decade of service in a career that has seen him win an All-Ireland title and two All-Star awards, admits he is coming towards the end of the road, and wants to make the most of what is left of his time as a top level Gaelic footballer.

"Having been involved in teams for a long time, I don't take it for granted, especially when you don't have many more years in those changing rooms.

"I'm just enjoying it, and I know on behalf of the rest of the boys, they're enjoying it too. It's a good place to be at the minute."

While a handful of high profile names have reached veteran status, the famous Tyrone conveyor belt continues to roll out exciting new talents.

"It's nearly history repeating itself every year in Tyrone, because there is so much talent there, there are so many young boys that are keen to come through.

"The boys that are there at the minute have serious pedigree, serious pedigree, and most importantly, there's a serious want in them to play for Tyrone.

"Obviously they're going to have to fight for their place, but so far they have done everything that has been asked of them, and it's a real energiser for the boys that have been there, and it keeps us honest too."

Some of the newcomers who have impressed in the McKenna Cup are likely to get their chance on a bigger stage when the Red Hands travel to Roscommon for their Allianz League Division One opener at the end of the month.

"The squad is very competitive at the minute, and while these games are important for you to put your hand up, the League is the priority down the track.

"It's always been in the back of our minds, to really get a good start there. It's a lot easier getting to that break with two performances than it is with no points to show, so the first game in Roscommon is very much our priority and focus.

"Whilst we want to present in good manner in these McKenna Cup games, that is what we're building towards."

GAA Football