It's only January, but Tyrone look in good shape.
Having said that, this is Tyrone we are talking about. Their record in early-season football over the last decade has been astonishing. In the ten McKenna Cup campaigns that Mickey Harte has presided over, the Red Hands have been in the final eight times, winning five of them.
This weekend, that run continues when they face Monaghan at the Athletic Grounds [throw-in 7.30pm].
Their McKenna Cup run can be attributed to a number of different factors. Top of the list must be their refusal to play challenge matches. In the absence of more relaxed surroundings, Harte auditions a host of fresh faces throughout the tournament in an attempt to see how they handle the pressure of making their debut in front of a decent crowd.
“There's no secret to the fact that Mickey doesn't play challenge matches and I would fully back him in that,” says long-serving goalkeeper, Pascal McConnell.
“Challenge matches, what good do you get out of it when teams aren't going at 100%?”
He continues, “Ok, [in the] McKenna Cup there is a lot of chopping and changing and there is a lot of game-time given to newcomers and that, but what better place to get newcomers in? I think the benefit of getting to so many finals gives more chance to work on things during the league.
“With the turnaround in personnel on the Tyrone team, that has been vital this year, especially with 12 or 13 newcomers in, giving you more time to look at them and get them up to speed with the National League coming up. Each year we have done that with the McKenna Cup and there is no secret we have always enjoyed going the distance and getting to the final. It's definitely key preparation for the National League.”
And while there is license to experiment, the team is normally nursed through these tests by a strong spine of experienced players. There are those that may think a player like Conor Gormley should be spared the rigours of January football at his stage of career, but even Gormley rejects the notion of forced resting.
Sean Cavanagh is said to be 'on his way back' from two shoulder injuries but has been the most impressive player in the tournament by some distance.
While he needs the minutes on the field, the likes of Plunkett Kane has benefitted enormously from having the former Ireland International Rules captain alongside him.
After Dublin humbled Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-final of 2011, a number of experienced players such as Brian Dooher, Philip Jordan and Enda McGinley drew a veil over their inter-county careers. It was suggested that Mickey Harte had not sufficiently blended young players onto the team, and all of a sudden they had grown old together.
In November of that year, McConnell tried to put his finger on why the team hadn't evolved sufficiently, saying, “There are fellas who have experienced success at county minor level, at schools level and at college level. Now is the time for them to step up. Why settle for having an All-Ireland minor medal when you can have an All-Ireland senior medal to go alongside it?”
McConnell added: “You can sense that these boys are grasping the nettle.
“With the changes that have come about in Tyrone now there are definitely places up for grabs compared to young lads coming in years gone by and seeing there were a lot of older heads about and they were probably in pole position for the places.
“They knew that there was still a strong chance that Tyrone would keep on winning and getting more and more success.”
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte has made nine changes from the side that started against Fermanagh in the Dr McKenna Cup semi-final, to start against Monaghan in this weekend's final.
Conor Gormley is out injured after receiving a blow to the eye during the semi-final and although he was back at training on Tuesday night, he did not take part. Barry Tierney comes in for him.
TYRONE: Niall Morgan; Aidan|McCrory, Conor Clarke, Barry Tierney; Ronan McNamee, Joe McMahon, Danny McBride; Plunkett Kane, Sean Cavanagh; Tiernan McCann, Peter Harte, Matthew Donnelly; Conor McAliskey, Stephen O'Neill [Capt.], Mark Donnelly.