THE opportunity to clinch a third Ulster Senior Championship medal isn’t to be sniffed at, according to Tyrone captain Mattie Donnelly.
The provincial championships regularly receive a kicking from high-profile figures in the media, and supporters appear to be voting with their feet with overall attendances in Ulster dropping from a total of 124,921 in 2017 to just 88,845 last year, a reduction of almost 30 per cent in a single season.
Just last week everyone’s favourite bespectacled Kerryman Pat Spillane described the Munster and Leinster Championships as ‘dead in the water’, but the Ulster Championship is still perceived as one of the most prestigious tournaments in the GAA, even if it isn’t always to everyone’s taste.
The post-match euphoria in the wake of Tyrone’s provincial triumphs in 2016 and 2017 is still fresh in the memory, and Mattie Donnelly would dearly love to add another medal to his collection in the next few months.
“You look at all the great Tyrone teams throughout the years and all those great Tyrone players who have Ulster medals.
“You want to add to your own collection and be able to dine at the same table at those teams. That’s the great satisfaction we got from those wins.”
Donnelly will step forward for the toss before Tyrone’s Ulster Championship preliminary round clash against Derry at Healy Park on Sunday.
It’s his second year as captain but he says he doesn’t spend time dwelling on the role.
“When you’re in the midst of it you never think about that. I just see myself as one of the players on the team trying to push it forward.
“The only time there’s any difference is when I take the toss, that’s literally only time you think about it. Maybe when I look back in later years I’ll think more about it – obviously it’s a great honour but I try to do what’s best for the team.”
Mattie’s deployment in a more advanced role in alignment with Cathal McShane was arguably the catalyst for Tyrone’s strong finish to the league, but the
Trillick man describes the tactic as very much a work-in-progress heading into the Championship.
“I saw an opportunity to stay up the pitch more in training and it went alright. That sparked a conversation with Mickey and Gavin, and they said they saw value in me playing further up the pitch.
“Cathal was going very well and that sparked another conversation where they said I could stay closer to him and we could see how that would go.
“It’s still a work-in-progress, there’s tougher tests ahead but it’ll be interesting to see how we get on.”
The undoubted highlight of a topsy turvy league campaign was Tyrone’s first win over Dublin since 2013.
It was nice to get the long awaited win, says Donnelly, but the match was memorable for another reason as well.
“At our time our mindset going into the match was that we had a slight tweak in tactics, and we were really keen to test that out against the best team in Ireland in Croke Park.
“It was satisfying to come out of that match with the win but we’re under no illusions that there are bigger tests ahead.”
There’s barely a living soul who thinks that Tyrone will fall to defeat against Derry on Sunday, but Donnelly is conscious that his opponents will have derived confidence from their perfect record in Division Four which culminated in a league final win over Leitrim.
“I said before the season even started that we’ll probably get Derry at their more dangerous.
“They’re coming off eight wins and I always respect the talent Derry have, they’ve some great players. Tyrone have come out on the wrong side of games against Derry in the past so we’ll be prepared.”
Donnelly also says that enjoyed the club-only month of April lining out for Trillick, who sit fourth in the table after five matches
“It’s a different focus, club football in Tyrone is intense and very physical so you do come out of the weekend with a few knocks and it’s just managing that and getting through each week. That’s really the main thing, managing the intensity of the club football.
“We love playing with our club and it was great to get back and training with the boys. You always try to keep closely aligned with what the club’s doing.
“You take great pride, that’s always been the way with Trillick players.”