Tyrone are ready to make their mark, says Mattie Donnelly
It's hard to believe that Mattie Donnelly is only going into his fourth season as a regular Tyrone starter.
Having watched him come on at half-time of the Dr McKenna Cup final, it was instantly clear that Tyrone had missed his presence.
With Barry Tierney and Ronan McNabb either side of him, the Trillick man refused to let anything past him as Tyrone rendered Cavan scoreless for the entire second half.
His importance to Tyrone is only superseded by his importance in the Jordanstown camp.
As captain of the team, the 24-year-old Business Studies student plays the lead role in an All-Star cast.
A photocall for the their Sigerson team recently captured their quality. From right to left in one picture was Derry's Cailean O'Boyle, Antrim captain Niall McKeever, Donnelly and Down's returning Aussie Rules player Caolan Mooney.
You can add Cavan's Killian Clarke, two-time Young Player of the Year Cillian O'Connor of Mayo, Ronan O'Neill and Donnelly's younger brother Richard.
His involvement in Jordanstown has led to a hectic month.
After playing the group stages with his college he had to instantly switch back into Tyrone mode as they won their fourth consecutive McKenna Cup.
He has a bit more to give to Varsity sport later this month, and admits that January had plenty of novelty value.
"It was unusual, because you were mentally preparing yourself for games with the college, and at the same time having to keep on top of the fact that you had to be prepared to go and slot into the county set-up, if that situation arose," said Donnelly.
"You were keeping in tune with what both set-ups were doing, and what both sets of management teams were wanting and expecting from you. It wasn't extremely demanding, but it was certainly unusual."
In the middle of the last decade, Tyrone were stripped of a McKenna Cup (later re-instated on appeal) for playing their college players.
This new arrangement of letting players go back to their counties after the group stages appears to be more workable, and while Donnelly was only back for a week in the squad, he has picked out a number of areas of concern.
He commented: "There are a lot of positives to take, a lot of things we need to work on.
"The things we need to work on were exposed in those high intensity games against Armagh and Cavan, in particular.
"They brought to the surface, a lot of things which we need to improve on.
"But the key thing for me is that we found ways to win all of those games, and we got the five competitive games we wanted to get in preparation for the National League."
Self-improvement is something Donnelly has nailed. When he was merely a fringe player on the Tyrone team he devoted himself to the gym, and has equipped himself with a power-packed frame from serious hours at weights.
Then comes the diet, and regular anecdotes of steak for breakfast most days.
Although his physical transformation has been as remarkable as it has been impressive, he has not lost sight of what's the really important part of football.
During an interview with this writer in the summer of 2013, Donnelly revealed how he arrested a slide in the early part of his Tyrone career.
"The ball is the most important bit of equipment any footballer could have. I paid more attention to it," he said.
"I thought back to what I was doing then that I wasn't doing now.
"I would have spent more time practising up at the pitch and I went back to my roots."
Behind Sean Cavanagh, he would be worthy captain of Tyrone. This weekend, they open their National League campaign when Monaghan come to town (Saturday, Healy Park, 7pm).
He says first priority is survival in a division that contains four Ulster teams, and the last three winners of the Ulster Championship.
"There are no agendas for us other than to try to get the start to the competition which we want to, putting ourselves in the best position we can to retain that status," he stressed.
This is a big year for Tyrone, and a big one for Mickey Harte in the last year of his current arrangement.
However, Donnelly gave his full backing before Christmas, saying, "I remember saying before that as long as I've been playing for Tyrone I can't imagine playing under anyone but Mickey Harte and that is still the same and it's never wavered, so Mickey still has the dressing room."
This week, some veterans walked away from the squad, but Harte made a tough call on one or two others, not least Donnelly's team-mate from the 2008 minor days in Kyle Coney.
As a signal to send out, it showed they mean business. Time will tell.
Harte sticks with cup winners
Mickey Harte has stayed almost completely true to the side that finished the Dr McKenna Cup final last weekend, as they face Monaghan in the league opener.
The only players that did not comprise the 15 who finished that game are Ronan McNamee, who comes in at full-back in place of Justin McMahon, PJ Lavery and Peter Hughes who take up the wing-forward positions, and Colm Cavanagh who has shaken off a knock.
Dungannon midfielder Padraig McNulty makes his league debut after impressing throughout the McKenna Cup, while captain Sean Cavanagh remains at full-forward.
Tyrone are evidently keen on the two-man full-forward line of Cavanagh and Niall McKenna.
The big story emerging from Derry’s announced team is the return of Barry McGoldrick.
A former county captain when they reached the 2011 Ulster final, McGoldrick tore his cruciate ligament during the 2013 county Championship and has had a number of niggling injuries ever since.
His return from injury is sure to delight manager Brian McIver.
The Monaghan and Armagh sides for the weekend were not announced due to the Armagh media event and Monaghan training being cancelled due to bad weather. Fermanagh will be naming their team on Friday night.
DERRY (v Donegal): T Mallon; O Duffy, N Holly, J O’Kane; K Johnston, G O’Kane, M Craig; M Lynch (C), C McAtamney; B Heron, D Heavron, E Lynn; SL McGoldrick, E McGuckin, B McGoldrick
TYRONE (v Monaghan): N Morgan, A McCrory, R McNamee, C McCarron; R McNabb, Mattie Donnelly, B Tierney; C Cavanagh, P McNulty; PJ Lavery, R O’Neill, P Hughes; D McCurry, S Cavanagh (C), N McKenna