Belfast Telegraph

Tyrone on road back to the top

By Declan Bogue

Without games to play, being part of a team can be a draining experience.

If 2012 was the year we finally said goodbye to the Ricey, Mugsy and McGuigan era of Tyrone football, 2013 was the year of the Morgan frees, the drowning in Ballybofey, the Facts sheet, five trips to Croker and Sean Cavanagh's second-best season ever.

What Mickey Harte knows is that players prefer playing to training. They learn more lessons out there. Because Tyrone don't play friendlies, they put massive importance on every game they play; it becomes the only opportunity to impress for players.

As All-Ireland champions, Donegal took a very old-fashioned approach to the league and adopted a blithe attitude to relegation.

Although that seemed to work when they defeated Tyrone in Ballybofey, the All-Ireland semi-finals contained three league semi-finalists. One for you to chew over.

In winning the McKenna Cup and losing the National League final and All-Ireland semi-final, Tyrone played a total of 21 games, a phenomenal figure.

Compare that to Armagh for example, who played 12 games. For two teams supposedly in transition they are poles apart, Tyrone having crammed two years development into one.

During the final couple of seasons of Brian Dooher's career, he would attend a private gym on the outskirts of Omagh each lunchtime to go through his core exercise routine, before a training session later that night.

In the squad fitness tests his readings were always said to be off the charts and his dedication was a marvel.

Yet when he played football in his last season of 2011, it was clear that his best days were long behind him.

For the past two winters Sean Cavanagh has put himself through the wringer in getting back from a snapped shoulder tendon. His commitment puts even Dooher in the shade with daily squash games at 6am, a lunchtime gym session, followed by a longer stint that evening.

The shoulder injuries have cleared up, but his knee is full of arthritis and steadily his injuries are entering Dooher territory. Yet the football he played should make him a certainty for an All-Star.

He started the first game of the year against Derry and played a total of 336 minutes over five games. In the National League and Championship he started every game and remained on the field until the final whistle. He gave everything to the cause and looked superhuman at times, yet this year will be remembered for how his manhood was questioned on live television.

No wonder he said prior to Sunday's game, looking ahead to his retirement: "Whenever I do walk away from football it's probably one thing I'll enjoy the most. No-one can hurt your family any more."

How sad that anyone playing county football can feel like that, yet given the past month he has endured, his resentment is understandable.

With an autumn spent in the gentler environs of club football, followed by a well-earned rest over the winter, Cavanagh's feelings will soften. What will tempt him to return to Tyrone training in December is multifold.

The credit column is well stacked. Tyrone moved into Garvaghey this year and already there is a special energy to the place that will only grow with history.

At underage level, the science and the application is there, and so too are the staff, with no less than senior selector Gavin Devlin taking a strong role with one of the development squads.

Underage teams are still winning. Crucially, Mickey Harte will still be there. Back in 2004 we thought Armagh would be around forever after they won the All-Ireland Under-21 Championship with a host of talent that would later play senior football. A couple of managerial appointments later and look at them now. Continuity matters.

Yet, Mickey has still a job ahead of him.

With Stephen O'Neill's withdrawal last Sunday, the full-forward line read Darren McCurry, Ronan O'Neill and Connor McAliskey. Kyle Coney later came on.

Tyrone need two, if not three, of that quartet to establish themselves as replacements for Stephen O'Neill.

Coney and Ronan O'Neill have had rotten luck with injuries but 2014 could define the rest of their careers.

Then, there is the motivation within the Tyrone squad.

Privately, they feel there is an agenda at play against them. If you were in that bubble and influenced by the cognition process of that group, you would feel the same.

An All-Ireland title takes years of building and Tyrone are at the start of that cycle.

The transition years are at an end thanks to perceptive management.

The next step, however, has to come from the players.

Belfast Telegraph

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