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27th May 2016

#TheToughest Issue: Are Tyrone now the best team in Ulster?

Conor Heneghan

Is this their year?

There’s been plenty of talk about Tyrone as potential All-Ireland contenders and their comprehensive victory over Derry did nothing to dampen the hype around Mickey Harte’s side.

Have they now eclipsed Donegal, Monaghan and the rest as the best team in Ulster?

Conán Doherty says: Abso-bloody-lutely

Not only are they the best team in Ulster, but they are the biggest threat to Dublin’s title defence.

It’s only nonsense talk, this lazy notion that they don’t have that forward you’re supposed to need to win the All-Ireland. Has no-one seen Seán Cavanagh play this past 14 years? Did no-one see him spearhead the attack against Derry last weekend with all the frightening menace of a five-time All-Star? Strong, bullish, quick hands, quick side-step, an outlet for any sort of ball. Clinical. Relentless. Another Seán Cavanagh performance.

Ronan O’Neill and Conor McAliskey aren’t recognised superstars the island over yet but, Jesus, they are fine footballers and they are whippets on the end of Tyrone’s lightning quick counter-attacks. Those attacks that Mickey Harte has down to an absolute tee and the same ones that annihilated Derry in the first half at Celtic Park.

It’s built on a rock solid defence, a mean defence that Dublin really have not faced yet.

Lining the core of that rearguard is strapping, merciless men who just so happen to be fine footballers in the bargain too. Ronan McNamee is becoming a renowned number three, Mattie Donnelly’s biceps are getting bigger by the second and Colm Cavanagh is manning the edge of the square with all the conviction and authority of some fella with a high-vis jacket on anywhere in Ireland.

The Moy midfielder sets the tone then when Tyrone inevitably turn the ball over and, along with Cathal McCarron’s and Tiernan McCann’s surging raids out of defence, Cavanagh lifts the siege and opposition teams face a whitewash of jerseys piling at them.

Then you have Peter bloody Harte. A man who could solo a ball across a tight-rope. A man who’d find a passage to goals even it killed him. A man who’d run, kick it long, curl it over or rattle the net whenever it tickled his fancy. A man who has been given a licence to roam around the field almost testing the pressure at different angles to see which barricade is going to give way first. And he finds it every time.

Justin McMahon didn’t even play against Derry. Neither did Rory Brennan. Mark Bradley went off injured in the first half. Darren McCurry started on the bench.

Sure, Michael Murphy is a once-in-a-generation player and Conor McManus is the best footballer in Ireland at present but Tyrone aren’t exactly short of star individuals. And their biggest strength is that they have a manager who is getting the very best out of every one of them in a system that is perfectly designed to elevate what he has.


For a few years now, the legendary boss has been tweaking and tinkering and, alas, Tyrone not only have a style of football that makes them virtually impenetrable and cut-throat going forward, but they have a philosophy that is designed specifically around each of their talents.

They also have the added bite of having been starved of Ulster success since 2010. That’s too long for a Mickey Harte team. And it’s definitely too long for a team this good.

But, God, as a Derry man, it’d be nice if they missed out again. It’s just very damn hard to see that happening.

Conor Heneghan says: No, they’re not the best

Back in 2014, Donegal suffered a six-point defeat to Monaghan in the Division 2 League Final at Croke Park.

With six points between them, it was hardly a comprehensive defeat, but the manner of Donegal’s performance that day suggested that the writing was on the wall for a team that had been slowly spiralling downward since their All-Ireland win in 2012.

Epitaphs were written and it was predicted that Monaghan, who had defeated Jim McGuinness’ men in the Ulster final the previous summer, had assumed the mantle of top dogs in the province.

As it turned out, Donegal, who had just returned from a punishing training camp before the league final and could care less whether they won it or not, accounted for the Farney men in the Ulster final.

Jim McGuinness celebrates with players 20/7/2014

They then went on to blitz a supposedly unbeatable Dublin side in the All-Ireland semi-final before a costly mistake handed Kerry the final on a plate.

Any of this beginning to sound familiar?

We’ll have to wait and see whether the current Donegal outfit are capable of proving themselves all over again this year, but the point here is to prove that in the GAA, like most sports, the narrative is very much in the present. Recent history is quickly forgotten.

It’s not even been two years since their shock defeat to Donegal, for example, and suddenly Dublin are unbeatable all over again.

And despite three Ulster titles, two All-Ireland final appearances and an All-Ireland title in five years, Donegal no longer have the right to call themselves the best team in the toughest province in the Championship.

Rory Gallagher and Donegal won’t care what the public perception of them is, of course.

Rory Gallagher 10/4/2016

Jim McGuinness might be gone but few teams do siege mentality like the men from the hills do and they probably have a scrapbook worth of newspaper clippings ready to pin to the dressing room wall at this stage.

To borrow the most overused cliché in the GAA, they’re waiting in the long grass.

But to be fair, if Donegal are to retain their mantle as kings of Ulster they’re going to have to earn it because Tyrone do look in fine fettle right about now.

Make no bones about it, Derry were awful against them in Celtic Park but Tyrone butchered them and the scoreline would’ve been far more comprehensive had they not (almost deliberately?) eased up in the second half.

The biggest compliment I can pay the current Tyrone outfit is that they remind me of Donegal in their pomp.

Their age profile is just about perfect; their best and most important players – Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly, Colm Cavanagh – are mid to late 20s and they’ve nice blend of youth (Mark Bradley, Ronan O’Neill et al) and experience (Sean Cavanagh, the McMahons) to complement them.

Peter Harte celebrates scoring a goal 22/5/2015

They make it almost impossible for the opposition to penetrate them, they attack in numbers, with terrific pace and Colm Cavanagh sees to it that scoring a goal against them is like trying to access Fort Knox.

What they don’t have is a Michael Murphy up front.

Donegal do and while some of his colleagues may be a little bit past their best, the best footballer in the country on his day is at his peak and will be for a few years yet.

So is Ryan McHugh, who, during the league, was being talked about as one of the top three footballers in the country. Odhrán McNiallais is another deserving of mention in Gaelic Football’s elite.

Only the championship will tell whether Donegal have what it takes to reach the heights required but recent history has taught me not to write them off just yet.

That’s before we even get to the current Ulster Champions, Monaghan, whose main ambition should probably not be a provincial crown, but to show that they can go to Croke Park for a big game and not freeze.

The evidence that Tyrone are the best team in the north and that they might be best placed to take Dublin’s All-Ireland off them is mounting, but they’ll have to do a bit more than win Division Two and beat a bad Derry team before I’m ready to declare them as Kings of Ulster.

Maybe they will be. Just not yet.

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