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McKenna success would be perfect start to the season, says Tyrone boss Harte

By John Campbell

Not so long ago the Dr McKenna Cup competition was regarded as something of an irritant, a competition to be got out of the way as quickly as possible.

Shadow teams were fielded, crowds were measured in hundreds rather than thousands and media interest bordered on the apathetic.

But when the Ulster Council launched a robust marketing campaign and captured new sponsorship, the tournament suddenly acquired fresh status.

The advent of floodlit matches, the inclusion of the three university sides and the commitment of managers to building towards their best possible line-ups for the National League have all combined to give the event considerable lustre.

Few people have greater enthusiasm for the McKenna Cup than Tyrone manager Mickey Harte even though the competition provides him with one of his most poignant sporting memories.

It was in 2004 that Cormac McAnallen led the Red Hands to glory just before his untimely death at the age of 24.

That was Harte’s second year in charge of Tyrone — he had piloted the side to the All-Ireland title the previous year — and they have now reached eight finals in all.

No wonder the O’Neill County boss is hoping that his side can further embellish their record when they meet Derry in the McKenna Cup final at the Morgan Athletic Grounds, Armagh tonight (7.30pm).

“We like being in finals,” smiles Harte. “This would be our eighth in maybe 10 years and obviously when you get this far you want to win the trophy.

“This has been a hugely competitive tournament to date and we feel that a good performance might not only bring us silverware but also set us up for our National League opener against Kildare next weekend.”

Harte’s combative approach has been sharpened by the fact Derry beat his side in last year’s decider.

“They got a goal in the second-half that proved crucial and this helped to take them to victory in what was a good game.

“Now we are getting the chance to turn the tables and we want to take it. It should be a very interesting contest,” muses Harte.

He may have lost a battery of experienced players to retirement but he is not short on talent as he continues to fashion a new-look side.

Ronan O’Neill, Niall McKenna, Conor Clarke, Patrick McNeice, Ciaran Gervin and Aidan McCrory are among the players who have come to the fore since the start of the new season.

And with Peter Harte, Colm Cavanagh, Justin McMahon, PJ Quinn and Stephen O’Neill thriving on the game time accorded to them, it’s hardly surprising the Red Hands are in another decider.

But Harte is taking nothing for granted as he prepares for anoth

er battle of wits against ebullient Derry boss John Brennan.

“John will be keen to see Derry hold on to the cup and rightly so.

“For our part it’s very important that we are competitive at this time of the year,” maintains Harte.

Tyrone’s 2-12 to 1-4 win over Fermanagh in last Sunday’s semi-final did scant justice to the Ernesiders’ honest effort but it nonetheless highlighted the scoring power contained in the Red Hands attack with Ronan O’Neill bagging 1-4, Owen Mulligan flashing in a trademark goal and sub Michael Murphy impressing with a brace of points.

Stephen O’Neill, Mark Donnelly and Kyle Coney are all certain to get game time as Harte bids to copper-fasten his forward division for the Kildare tie.

“This will be our fifth game in the McKenna Cup and this will stand to us.

“There is no substitute for playing competitive matches — they let you know just where you stand in terms of fitness and stamina,” stresses Harte.

Old hands Davy Harte, Kevin Hughes and Conor Gormley will again be conspicuous by their absence but Joe McMahon and Mark Donnelly could have big roles.

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