Tyrone star McMahon looks beyond McKenna decider
There may be another McKenna Cup final to be played and defended, but it's away down the line Tyrone are looking and they make no bones about it.
Joe McMahon is standing in the tunnel following their straightforward win over Fermanagh in the semi-final. He's making all the right noises about finding them difficult opponents and covering all the bases with gracious comments.
Then he is asked straight out. Is there a Sam Maguire in this team, Joe?
“Absolutely,” he replies.
“I suppose that's always the target at the start of the season among others. In saying that, the boys that have come in have had success at underage and they would be no different when they come up to senior level.
“That, mixed with the elder folk in the squad, would definitely keep us on our toes and keep the thing hungry.”
Prior to the league last year, Red Hands boss Mickey Harte identified promotion as absolutely crucial to their hopes of playing football into August and September. They blitzed their way through the 2012 McKenna Cup and league programme, only for the shortcomings of their gameplan to be exposed during the league final against Kildare.
Maybe it was the nature of the result — how Kildare took over as the game entered the business end that dealt a blow to the Tyrone confidence. Either way, the moment they walked into division one opposition in the Championship - Donegal and Kerry — they fell short.
There can be no doubt that the master has handed this lesson down to his pupils, as McMahon explained; “If you look at years gone by and the most recent years, the teams that have been in the last eight [the All-Ireland quarter-finals], the majority of them are division one teams and that's where you want to be playing your football.”
He continued, “It is a reflection of where you really are, in terms of your fitness even. Obviously a few tough games against Kerry, Cork and a few other sides as well, it will work well for the young boys.
“The McKenna Cup is at a level, but National League is another level again. I'm sure there will be tough times ahead.”
With Down, Mayo and Donegal — incidentally the game that the All-Ireland champions target as the comeback game for the recuperating Karl Lacey — up in their first three encounters, the league will become an instant battle for survival first, and honours after.
Should they take five points from those encounters, they stand a good chance of making it to the league semi-finals. Either way, Mickey Harte is feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
“It's brilliant to be back in division one, maybe a bit scary at times too, because you know the standard of football that is played there,” Harte comments.
“You can't afford to have days when you don't perform well or else you are going to be in the relegation zone straight away. It's a daunting task as we go into it but it is the only place to be, if you want to be contesting later on in the season for major honours.”
A number of players such as Plunkett Kane, Darren McCurry and Conor McAliskey have auditioned well off-Broadway in the McKenna Cup, but Harte is aware that Championship is two steps up from that and the only way to acclimatise is by putting in a good league campaign.
“I suppose considering the transition that has taken place within our team it will be new territory for a number of our players. We will have to see how we handle that and that would be a good learning experience as the year evolves.”
He continued, “Teams change, players move on and new players come in and players have to find their feet at the next level. This is what this time of the year is for, and I am grateful that the McKenna Cup exists to give us football at this time of year. You can't learn as much as you would learn in a competition like this, as you would in challenge matches. “
Now that Sean Cavanagh is back, Tyrone have more star quality about them. He will be joined shortly by Kyle Coney, and Ronan O'Neill, who has been given the all-clear to resume full training this week.
“I have the great privilege of playing alongside him in club football for Omagh,” enthuses McMahon. “Ronan's a class act and he would be a good addition to the team. You have seen him at underage and what he can do, hopefully he can carry that through to senior level.”