It’s not often that Tyrone’s much-vaunted half-back line finds itself burdened by considerable pressure entering an important game.
But tonight when the Red Hands renew their rivalry with Derry for the second time within a week in the Barrett Sports Lighting Dr McKenna Cup Final at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh (7pm) this particular unit of their side will face a particularly stiff examination.
Manager Mickey Harte has amended this sector as the McKenna Cup has unfolded but the ongoing absence of the inspirational Philip Jordan who is recovering from surgery and the fact that Conor Gormley has been hampered by a niggling injury has left the defence overall rather more fragile.
The Derry half-forward line of Declan Mullan, Sean Leo McGoldrick and Mark Lynch have been particularly prolific lately — McGoldrick’s stunning goal in the opening stages of last Sunday’s league game proved a mortal blow to the Red Hands.
And that’s why Harte’s half-backs know that the heat will be turned up again tonight.
Indeed, the Derry half-forward line has been singularly unproductive for the past couple of seasons but new manager John Brennan has succeeded in revitalising this sector of his re-vamped side.
Davy Harte, Gormley and captain Ryan McMenamin look set to form the Tyrone half-back line tonight and their input will be crucial to the team’s chances of success.
Brennan — growing ever more comfortable in his role with each passing week — acknowledges that his half-forwards have been “doing the business” lately and he wants it to stay that way.
But he makes the point that Tyrone will have absorbed lessons from last Sunday’s contest.
“The early goal we got last weekend helped us but we might not be so fortunate this time,” said Brennan.
“We will certainly have to take our chances — when Tyrone reach finals they like to win them.”
Eoin Bradley is available again following his 24-week suspension but Brennan is likely to keep faith with the players who have helped Derry to enjoy an unbeaten run since the start of the year although Bradley could well be deployed as a substitute.
Last year’s skipper Gerard O’Kane and the vastly experienced Kevin McCloy along with new captain Barry McGoldrick will again underpin the Oak Leaf defence while PJ McCloskey and James Conway will form the midfield partnership.
McCloskey has been particularly consistent since having been introduced into the side by Brennan.
And with keymen in the middle of the park Enda Muldoon and Patsy Bradley hoping to return shortly, the Oak Leaf boss will not be too short on engine-room options.
Tyrone’s Aidan Cassidy and Kevin Hughes found McCloskey and Conway a hot handful last Sunday and they are likely to require assistance from Sean Cavanagh tonight, although the latter has been seen more in the role of marksman lately.
While the Red Hands have won four provincial titles since Mickey Harte assumed command, Derry have endured a trophy famine.
That’s why they will be very anxious to become reacquainted with some silverware again tonight.
To win the Dr McKenna Cup would be an early-season bonus but to mark such a success with a second victory over Tyrone within a week would be doubly satisfying.
Next weekend Derry are due to meet Kieran McGeeney’s upbeat Kildare side while Tyrone will receive Donegal at Omagh.
The outcome of tonight’s contest will almost certainly provide a further pointer as to how the sides will fare in what is a hugely competitive Division Two of the Allianz League.