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New recruits offer Mickey Harte's Tyrone quality in depth

By John Campbell

There are two important conclusions to be drawn from the outcome of Sunday's Ulster Championship blockbuster between Donegal and Tyrone at Ballybofey.

The first and most obvious is that Rory Gallagher's side will be difficult to separate from their provincial title now that they have the bit firmly between their teeth.

The second and perhaps equally pertinent in an All-Ireland Championship context is that no team of sound mind will welcome the intimidating prospect of crossing swords with Tyrone in the qualifiers.

At the weekend, the Red Hands blooded a new goalkeeper to championship football in Michael O'Neill, left rapidly-emerging midfield player Padraig McNulty on the bench and gambled on youth by plunging Rory Brennan and Cathal McShane into key roles and yet came within an acrobatic last-gasp Paul Durcan save of living to fight another day.

For some time, manager Mickey Harte has been making the point that his team's performances in the league afforded him cause for satisfaction even though relegation proved unavoidable but if the cynics have been hard to convince on this score, they have had ample cause for a re-think since the events that unfurled at MacCumhaill Park on Sunday

Not only did Tyrone's new championship recruits step up smartly to the mark against a fiercely-driven Donegal side but in doing so they ensured that competition for places in the qualifiers will be hotter than ever.

Players like Joe McMahon, Conor Clarke and Peter Hughes never kicked a ball against Donegal yet they would walk onto most county teams.

If a fully-fit Morgan is available for the opening round of the qualifiers and Sean Cavanagh is perhaps free to play after his dismissal at Ballybofey and with the distinct possibility that McMahon and Clarke in particular will benefit from the squad's rigorous training in the interim, Harte will be confronted by rich selection options.

Even though he did not actually line out at full-forward on Sunday, reverting instead to midfield, Cavanagh joined Darren McCurry and Connor McAliskey in racking up 1-8, with three of his own four points coming from frees.

Given the plus factors which he can take from the bruising contest, Harte is understandably upbeat as he now focuses on the All-Ireland qualifiers.

"I have been confident about the quality of this team and I think that if we get a favourable draw in the qualifiers we will be a match for many in that department," observes Harte.

Referee Joe McQuillan has come in for considerable criticism for his handling of Sunday's game and indeed some of his decisions, especially some of those late in the match, had an impact on Tyrone's ability to pull the contest out of the fire.

While the route through the qualifiers may hold fears for many teams, Tyrone will undoubtedly re-ignite their Championship journey buttressed by some stunning statistics.

They won the All-Ireland title in 2005 after playing an incredible 10 games in all. This is in sharp contrast, for instance, to the fact that Kerry won many of their All-Ireland crowns by playing precisely half that number of matches.

More recently, the Red Hands reached the All-Ireland semi-finals in 2013 only to lose to Mayo on a scoreline of 1-16 to 0-13 after beating Offaly, Roscommon, Kildare and Meath in the qualifiers following their exit of the Ulster Championship at the hands of Donegal.

When it is considered that teams such as Carlow, Louth and Leitrim will be going into the hat with the Red Hands for the first round draw, it can be safely assumed that an awful lot more is going to be heard from Harte's storm troopers before the summer has run its course.

And don't rule out the possibility of another Donegal v Tyrone clash further down the Championship line.

Stranger things have happened, you know.

Belfast Telegraph


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