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Holders Tyrone return to the Bogside

Cathal McCarron, Ronan McNabb and Niall Sludden celebrate last year’s Ulster Championship success.

UNDERSTANDABLE optimism at the outset of another Tyrone Championship journey is tempered somewhat by questions over the county’s current standing in the All-Ireland shake-up.

The Red Hands begin their quest for back-to-back Ulster senior crowns at Celtic Park this Sunday, scene of their resounding first round victory over hosts Derry twelve months ago.

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That 3-14 to 0-12 triumph provided the springboard for an ultimately successful provincial campaign, as the Anglo-Celt Cup was annexed for the 15th time later that summer.

Tyrone’s All-Ireland hopes were dashed the next day out by Mayo at Croke Park, and the subsequent failure to beat the westerners in the 2017 league, and other big hitters such as Donegal, Dublin or Kerry, have cast doubts over the side’s ability to challenge for the main prize.

Paltry scoring returns of 1-7, 0-6 and 0-12 in three of those Division One contests against the big hitters (they also scored 2-11 vs Kerry, thanks to two late Peter Harte consolation goals) has brought into sharp focus Tyrone’s struggles to balance a cohesive defensive strategy, with a potent attacking threat.

The pace, power and precision with which they counter-attacked from deep during their zenith, has all too regularly in recent times morphed into a plodding, ineffective short-passing game.

No doubt during the eight week gap since Tyrone’s league campaign ended in limp fashion at Fitzgerald Stadium, Mickey Harte and his troops will have been honing their preparations for this Sunday’s encounter, and looking to iron out those shortcomings in the process.

Injury concerns in defence over the availability of seasoned operators Justin McMahon and Cathal McCarron leave Harte with plenty to ponder before finalising his starting fifteen.

The Red Hands swarming defensive style always ensures that the rearguard is well-fortified, but despite Derry’s current plight, venturing into the Bogside venue remains a true test of character and temperament for opposing players.

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The manager is therefore likely to opt for plenty of experience in his line-up, though a leftfield selection like a Lee Brennan or David Mulgrew shouldn’t be ruled out.

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