By Niall Gartland
The dream is over for another year as Tyrone crashed out of the championship with a narrow defeat to Donegal on Sunday. It’ll be a long and tedious winter as a result, and while it’s natural to ask what went wrong against Donegal, it’s also worth asking what exactly can be done to rectify things in 2021.
Here’s five talking points for starters…
1. A shake-up of the squad
Conor McKenna and Darragh Canavan have been a breath of fresh air in the last few weeks, but why stop there?
The Tyrone club championships were unbelievable this year – the envy of the rest of the country – but many were surprised that nobody was drafted in from senior kingpins Dungannon. There may have been calls made behind the scenes we don’t know about, and intercounty football is on a different level, but it’d be good to see the panel freshened up ahead of the 2021 season.
The return of some familiar faces would be welcomed – Connor McAliskey and Lee Brennan may be interested in a return, though one suspects that Dungannon captain Padraig McNulty’s race is run with Tyrone.
There isn’t a shortage of talented club players in Tyrone, and one wonders whether the likes of Tiarnan Quinn, Paul Donaghy, ,Mark McKearney, Ethan Jordan, Matthew Walsh (the fella who shackled Mattie Donnelly in the county final), a few Galbally players etc etc will get their chance next year. We could do with finding a new midfielder or two as well although Brian Kennedy showed up extremely well in the league.
2. Let the forwards off the leash
It’s worth reminding ourselves what Tyrone have achieved in the last five years: back-to-back Ulster titles in 2016 and 2017 and an All-Ireland final berth in 2018 are not to be sniffed at, but there was always something so deflating by the manner of their eventual championship exits – a feeling that if they REALLY went for it, it would’ve been a different story altogether. The same applied last Sunday. Most of the Tyrone players actually played really well, but the ball fell to the wrong men in the closing stages and that was that for another year.
It’s easy to suggest that Mickey Harte should play Lee Brennan, Darragh Canavan, Conor McKenna, Darren McCurry and Paul Donaghy all at once but it’s obviously a bit more complicated than that. If things go to plan Cathal McShane will return next year and that alone should help matters, but it’s hard to know whether Tyrone will finally get that long-awaited Championship victory against Kerry, Dublin or even Mayo without a significant change in tactics, and in mindset as well.
3. The defence needs tightened up
Sweeper extraordinaire Colm Cavanagh retired last month and it’s safe to say it’s left a void in the Tyrone defence. There are a lack of natural man-markers on the team and they really paid the price for some rash tackling and back-chat on Sunday (although the less said about the performance of referee Joe McQuillan, the better).
Things should be a bit better in this respect next season, all being well. Padraig Hampsey has had a torrid time with injuries but looked mobile enough when he came on against Donegal, Rory Brennan will return from suspension and Michael Cassidy should also be available. Ardboe’s Michael O’Neill has also made a really good impact and has the potential to nail down the centre-half back position, while Liam Rafferty looks excellent. We could still do with another sticky corner-back or two, and some of the half-backs and half-forwards need to work on their discipline.
4. Does the team need a new manager?
It’s the hot topic at the moment and there’s no getting away from it. Mickey Harte’s three-year contract extension at the end of 2017 is now up, and opinion is divided on whether or not it’s time for a change. A number of former Tyrone players have already come out and given their backing to Harte – Joe McMahon alluded to the fact that we beat Dublin, Mayo and Kerry in the league this year – while others have been a little more circumspect. Harte himself is yet to divulge his plans, but one imagines he’ll want to have another crack at it in what should be a more straightforward season (a backdoor would be nice). A forward line of McKenna, McShane and Canavan whets the appetite, and a few others will have returned from injury and suspension, so you wouldn’t blame him for seeking a new contact. On the flipside, Tyrone haven’t beaten a top-three team in the championship since 2008 and 17 years is a long time to be in charge. The question we’ll pose to the reader is this: is there a better man for the job out there?
5. Learning from the Dublin model
Unfortunately we’ll probably never know how our minors would have got on in this year’s championship as all underage games were postponed a few weeks back. Elsewhere, the Tyrone U20s did well to reach the All-Ireland semi-final for the second year running, but it’s still worth asking whether improvements can be made.
Dublin seem to prioritise bringing through players to senior level above all else, and their U20 team that did the business against Tyrone was effectively an U19 development squad. It’s a model worth looking at – it’s certainly working for them anyway – and from reading about it, it seems like there’s a heavy emphasis on skills training above all else.
It does help when you have 70 paid coaches scattered around the capital, but it’s always worth trying to emulate what the very best are doing, especially as there hasn’t been a major influx of fresh talent since the 2015 All-Ireland U21 team came on the scene.