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Top flight can propel Tyrone to success: Sludden

By Declan Bogue

Tyrone's versatile All-Star nominee Niall Sludden has stressed the importance of playing league football in the top flight to help the Red Hands to challenge for an All-Ireland title.

Last year Tyrone beat Division Two sides Derry and Cavan on their way to the Ulster final, which they won with a late scoring burst against Donegal, before falling at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage to Mayo.

The concentration required to thrive at that level — which for Tyrone begins on Sunday week with a home game against Roscommon — is cited by manager Mickey Harte as essential in preparing for football in Croke Park during August and September.

“I’m not sure if it’s the missing piece but I definitely think we need to be competing against top tier teams,” said Sludden in the wake of their three-point victory over neighbours Fermanagh in Sunday’s Dr McKenna Cup semi-final.

“It’s very important intensity-wise and you can see even out there, if we take our foot off the pedal like we did, the Division One teams are going to punish you.

“There’s plenty of learning to be done in Division One and we can take that forward for the rest of the year if we can push on.”

While in recent weeks Harte has lamented the fact his fast-breaking Tyrone side did not get a chance to make it to the All-Ireland final and a showdown against Dublin, his 24-year-old forward-cum-sweeper has already moved on and is thinking about the first day of the league in Healy Park on February 5.

He said: “Our focus isn’t on Dublin at the minute, we only really focus on ourselves. The first game is against Roscommon at home and we’ll concentrate on that because you have to take every game as it comes in Division One.

“We weren’t there last year so we’ll focus on that and take it from there but we’re going to be looking forward to those bigger challenges too. First game first, that’s the main thing.”

Rather surprisingly given their disappointing outing in the first game of 2017 — the opening group tie defeat to Cavan that also brought a cruciate injury for Connor McAliskey, a shoulder problem to Rory Brennan and a hamstring issue with Michael Cassidy — Tyrone have recovered to make it to the Dr McKenna Cup final once again and have a night against Derry to look forward to this Saturday in Newry.

Sludden agrees that the outlook as the Tyrone bus pulled out of Kingspan Breffni Park that day was bleak, but that a renewed focus has brought them back to within 70 minutes of making it six consecutive Dr McKenna Cups.

“The first game didn’t really go for us and there was a couple of injuries too,” recalls the Dromore man.

“You could have looked at it as very much doom and gloom but we just got the head down and a number of boys have come in there, stepped up to the plate, especially the new boys who have come in and integrated well.

“We’re always going out to win our next game — it’s nice setting records as well. It’s going to be a good challenge (against Derry).”

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