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Red Hands becoming serious contenders: Enda McGinley

 

By Declan Bogue

Once the #Newbridgeornowhere campaign got its desired result of a home game for Kildare this weekend, it threw the mind back 10 years to a similar situation involving an even bigger team than Mayo, against a smaller team than Kildare, in one of the smallest stadiums of all.

And what happened? They all just got on with it.

Tyrone had been ejected from the 2008 Ulster Championship by Down after an extra-time replay in Newry. The playing panel was threadbare as a lot of the frontline players had been injured for the Ulster campaign.

Redemption came in a round one qualifier draw. Louth came out of the hat first. Tyrone followed. The fixture was set for the Gaelic Grounds in Drogheda. An Armagh referee was given the job.

The crowd figure was set at 4,500 and all-ticket. The dinky surroundings of the stadium caused a little ripple in Ulster when Sean Cavanagh likened it to a tricky trip to play Accrington Stanley. His team-mates grimaced and thanked him sarcastically when they met up in training. They didn't need any more attention brought on them.

"As a Tyrone team, we weren't in the position to say we shouldn't be playing there, we should be playing on a pitch more suiting our image! We were a team that needed to earn our way back to the top and so if we had to go to a pitch that was thought of as being poor quality, well then so be it," says Enda McGinley now, his first half goal establishing a 1-10 to 1-0 half-time lead that they coasted home on.

That year the Red Hands ran all the road the qualifiers had and captured an All-Ireland. They have been trying to do the same thing for six seasons since.

Of the frontline counties, no team have played more backdoor games in the last decade. Dublin have played just two, winning both in 2010. Kerry also have a flawless record with six from six.

Despite all the talk of Mayo and their long, meandering journeys around Ireland in search of Sam, they have only played 10 backdoor games over the last decade.

Tyrone, however, have played 19, winning 17 of them. Their two defeats were a 10-point trimming to Kerry in Killarney in 2012, and the day Armagh bullied them around their home patch of Omagh in 2014.

Their sheer tally of games played in the backdoor demonstrates their potential to leave the Ulster Championship early too. Despite varied criticisms, it is still the competitive province.

"Tyrone, and this goes back to the team that I was a part of too, sometimes don't hit the form we should be hitting in the earlier rounds of the Championship," admits McGinley.

"We tend to save our bigger performances for the bigger games and Croke Park in particular. We are certainly more vulnerable in the early stages of the Championship than a team of that quality maybe should be, and it was true through my time as well."

Those two games aside, it probably says something about the continuity of their work under Mickey Harte and their powers of recovery in the back door.

The only other top level counties that have anything like the same number of games are Monaghan and Galway, with both curiously having the same brutal record of 13 games and seven wins prior to this season.

Both have been badly caught. Galway were humiliated by Antrim in 2012. Monaghan have had plenty of them, defeat to Longford in 2016 just the latest.

This week there was some uncertainty over the venue for this weekend's qualifier against Cavan. Central Competitions Control Committee figures indicated to county board officials in Tyrone and Cavan that their game was going to be played in Croke Park no matter the outcome of the Kildare dispute.

When their resistance finally caved in, they knew that a Tyrone-Cavan game would look desperate in the cavernous Croke Park and therefore switched to Brewster Park, a venue that attracted just 3,278 last week for Cavan's win over Down.

A Tyrone crowd, in a semi-local venue, should add another few thousand on the turnstiles at least.

Unlike last year, there is little talk of Tyrone. The nature of their defeat to Dublin last year has made them an easy target for criticism and their prospects in the All-Ireland Championship are barely raising a flicker.

But as ever, they are progressing.

"Typical of backdoor progress, it is not grabbing any attention, it is not making anybody talk about them," says McGinley.

"Tyrone had plenty of chat about them last year, they don't need any more chat. They just need the challenges, and to meet the challenges.

"Mickey is still very much working on the balance of that team and getting players without much gametime throughout the National League in.

"I think the nature of the two games, particularly the Meath game with the way it took on a life of its own and the Meath crowd and the players, how much energy they brought to it, I think that was a brilliant test for Tyrone."

Meath was a test. Carlow a chance to get more out of the Richie Donnelly experiment at full-forward.

Cavan are another step up. The nature of their struggles against a poor Down team, coming late to snatch the win, suggests a Tyrone triumph and another step towards the Big Dance of the Super 8s.

"Tyrone would be happier with their games than I would think Monaghan are with their games," says McGinley, Monaghan having seen Waterford off by a 27-point margin and now facing fellow Division Four strugglers Leitrim.

"Tyrone can be gaining confidence, feeling they are testing their squad and sorting out a few things and learning things. Cavan is another step up but a manageable step up so it is all going nicely for Tyrone if they can continue to avoid injury. And Mickey will feel he has had his run of injuries.

"Monaghan on the other hand, they have had two really weak teams. Leitrim this weekend. What really has Malachy O'Rourke learned or been able to try out?

"The backdoor is that balance, getting an easy draw, but you need a progressive level of difficulty to make sure you are doing the right thing, otherwise you are just playing a series of glorified challenge matches and you are not really in any way becoming more confident or more sorted come the final tests."

And the final tests will start with three games in the Super 8s, a new experience for everyone, but it will also suit Tyrone's tuning-up process.

Right now they are 20/1 for an All-Ireland. Make of that what you will.

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