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Donegal skipper Michael Murphy targets a fast start for 2014

john campbell GAA

Two of the best full-forwards in the country embark on 2014 from markedly contrasting backdrops.

While Donegal captain Michael Murphy is flexing his muscles in anticipation of a rare diet of action in the Power NI Dr McKenna Cup, Tyrone's triple All-Ireland winner Stephen O'Neill must continue to exercise patience before he returns to inter-county action.

Murphy is a virtual stranger to the competition but right now he is hoping to get game time when Jim McGuinness' side take on Tyrone in their opening joust on Sunday.

And even though he has pocketed two Ulster championship medals, an All-Ireland gong and skippered Ireland to success in the International Rules series, Murphy's enthusiasm for the early-season 'warm-up' tournament is obvious.

"I have been based in Dublin for the past few years and had been playing for DCU there in the early part of the season so I missed out on the McKenna Cup," explains Murphy.

"Donegal are keen to make a good start to the new season after what was a disappointing 2013. The players are in very positive mode and although we have injury concerns, there is still palpable optimism within the squad."

Murphy, who won a Donegal championship medal with Glenswilly back in October 24 hours after he led Ireland to victory over Australia, will again be the fulcrum of his county's attack as manager McGuinness seeks to inject added power to his forward division.

But while Murphy aims to streak from the starting blocks, O'Neill's return to the Red Hands side will be delayed as he continues his rehabilitation following injury – and manager Mickey Harte is prepared to exercise patience as he awaits the re-emergence of one of his most distinguished.

O'Neill has been in the squad since 1999 and his consistency, skill and commitment have long since transported him into the annals of Tyrone and indeed Ulster GAA history.

In 2013, he succumbed to injury on three occasions, most notably in the All-Ireland semi-final loss to Mayo.

Questions have been raised in relation to his continuing involvement with the Tyrone side but it is understood that his appetite for action is still sharp even if he is more vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous sporting fortune in terms of injuries.

And, typically, he was more disappointed for his fellow-players than for himself when Tyrone were unable to get their hands on major silverware last term.

"There were no medals won. I suppose like any player, it doesn't matter what age you are, if you don't get to the final and get a medal it's an unsuccessful season," he frankly concedes.

Tyrone may currently be bereft of many familiar faces, although it is expected that slowly but surely several will be re-introduced to the side particularly when the Allianz League swings into action at the beginning of next month.

It goes without saying that the inclusion of a fully-fit O'Neill in attack would not only offer a significant morale boost for the Red Hands but, irrespective of his longevity, would still provide opposition defenders with much food for thought.

Belfast Telegraph


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