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How did Tyrone get here?

Red Hands' unlikely All-Ireland journey

By Declan Bogue

Published 12/08/2015

Turning point: Tyrone’s Mattie Donnelly takes on Mark McHugh of Donegal in the Red Hands’ 1-13 to 0-6 defeat in the Allianz League
Turning point: Tyrone’s Mattie Donnelly takes on Mark McHugh of Donegal in the Red Hands’ 1-13 to 0-6 defeat in the Allianz League

It was on March 29 that reporters gathered around Tyrone's Tiernan McCann (yes, the very same) in Ballybofey, and asked him to pick through the bones of a pitiful Allianz League performance that ended Donegal 1-13 Tyrone 0-6.

Unsure of voice and more than a little shell-shocked, McCann muttered: "It's going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of looking hard at ourselves for six weeks."

The ease by which Donegal cut lines through the Tyrone defence was alarming as they attacked in clumps of twos and threes.

By contrast, Tyrone were hitting short kick-outs, taking ages to work it upfield and then finding their decision-making scrambled when it came to creating incisions in the defence.

They have adopted an ultra-defensive system this season, with Donegal and the preliminary round of the Ulster Championship in mind. Six weeks out, the dress rehearsal told them they had major issues.

"We have to just keep going with the system. Because it didn't work against Donegal, it doesn't mean it can't work the rest of the year," said McCann to a press corps that could scarcely believe what they were hearing.

"They just seemed to come straight through us a number of times, with men off the shoulder."

It has been said that Tyrone teams of old would never have suffered such a surrender.

When former Red Hands ace Owen Mulligan's autobiography was released, one of the more revealing insights was how he described the attitude of a number of the younger brigade on the panel. They were just happy to be there for the ride, content with their expenses and their tracksuits, Mulligan maintained.

That kind of criticism seemed to be what McCann addressed next. He said: "It's very hard to replicate what the teams that came before us have done, but we're not trying to let anybody down, we're just going out to represent our families, our clubs and our county."

Before it sounded like a pity party was being thrown, there was a contradiction in there. Sean Cavanagh was only able to come on at half-time as they sought to manage his knee condition.

McCann was offered Cavanagh's bit-part as a straw to cling to. He answered: "He's our leader, he's our 200 appearances man, but we can't keep going back to the same people.

"There's a group of lads there, and we need to step up and we're trying to. We're doing our best."

The thing is, McCann is definitely a player who has stepped up since that defeat to Donegal.

During the league, he struggled to become a 70-minute man, while his brother Conall was introduced as a sub in practically every game.

With Paddy McNeice, PJ Lavery, Emmet McKenna and Shay McGuigan all leaving the panel after the league campaign, Tyrone seemed to have a problem holding onto half-forwards.

Look beyond the face value of the stories of panel defections and it tells you much about how the system you play dictates the players you should carry in your panel.

Since Red Hands boss Mickey Harte adopted the Jim McGuinness model, a lot of tidy, busy forwards that Tyrone have tended to produce over the years have become defunct. This was acknowledged by one of their finest-ever centre-forwards, Brian McGuigan, when he questioned whether he as a player might fit into the modern-day system.

Nowadays, a half-forward is seen as a line-breaker to cover ground fast while Tyrone launch a counter-attack. For a while during the league, this writer found it difficult to see the charms of McCann, given that he would drift in and out of games.

After the clash with Meath, though, those doubts were shelved. He repeatedly tore through the middle to create openings and chances for others. Against Monaghan, he looked every inch the Croke Park player.

As a result, it's a shame that it had to be McCann caught up in the vitriol pouring down on Tyrone over the last few days.

Distasteful as his dive was, it was an example of a player getting caught up in a moment. Such behaviour in the past was memorably captured by former manager Art McRory. He said in 2001: "There's no point in me putting manners on my boys if the fella up the road isn't putting any on his."

And yet here Tyrone still stand. Defiant. Up against reigning champions Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final.

To think how Harte was underestimated after Ballybofey in late March…

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