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Tyrone see light at end of tunnel

By John Campbell

Relegation to Division Two as a stark reality, a mini-exodus of fringe players which has served to trim the squad, stinging criticism surrounding their perceived defensive strategy and the fact that manager Mickey Harte is still recovering following a minor surgical procedure all combine to paint a picture of life at the cutting edge of GAA for Tyrone right now.

But any notion that there is weeping and gnashing of teeth within the county is being dispelled by county board officials.

Instead, clearly anxious to underline what they feel is a positive stance that is being adopted within a county which has shipped rather more than its share of misfortune lately, they are focusing on the future rather than the immediate past.

The message emanating from the O'Neill territory is resoundingly clear - victory over Roscommon in today's All-Ireland Under 21 semi-final in Sligo would be seen as a catalyst for a transformation in Tyrone's fortunes, particularly with the hugely attractive Ulster Championship preliminary round tie against Donegal looming ever nearer.

"We have had our share of disappointments lately, there's no doubt about that, but Roscommon and then the big game against Donegal next month represent opportunities for our county to be cast in a better light," stresses county board spokesman Eunan Lindsay.

"It's worth pointing out that we came close to beating Kerry in our last league game and we feel we were distinctly unfortunate to go down. We have to accept reality but we will go forward in positive mode."

Red Hands legend Peter Canavan, part of Fergal Logan's U21 management team, clearly believes that the green shoots of recovery can be sown but pleads for patience as sterling efforts are made to extricate the county from the wilderness.

"There has been a lot of criticism on several fronts lately but the whole focus is now on today's Under 21 semi-final and that's as it should be," maintains Canavan.

"This is a group of players that have done very well to date and a win over Roscommon would undoubtedly be a big boost.

"Tyrone is still producing good players and I think we will see more proof of that."

When Tyrone met Kerry in their last game of the Allianz League, Mickey Harte addressed the players at Kelly's Inn, Garvaghey before the tie, but it is not known if he will have any input into proceedings before the U21 squad depart for Markievicz Park, Sligo.

No-one in Tyrone, of course, is better qualified to outline the formula for attaining the ultimate success at this level as Harte guided the Red Hands to All-Ireland titles in 2000 and 2001 when they beat Limerick 3-12 to 0-13 and Mayo 0-13 to 0-10 respectively.

The loss of players such as Dwayne Quinn, PJ Lavery, Paddy McNeice and others from the senior squad is viewed as a setback but the wealth of talent contained in the U21 line-up suggests that Tyrone have considerable cause for optimism.

Lee Brennan, Mark Kavanagh, Cathal McShane, Daniel McNulty, Kieran McGeary and skipper Padraig Hampsey are just some of the players who are displaying a maturity that belies their years.

Manager Logan pleads for patience, though. "It's a big step up from Under 21 level to senior level and players have to be given time to develop," he says.

"But there is a belief and a commitment within this squad which are very encouraging and give rise to the hope that these players will be around for a while."

Roscommon reached the All-Ireland U21 final last year when they were beaten by Dublin and their side contains several players who have already acquired experience at senior inter-county level - a fact not lost on Logan.

"When you look at it, Roscommon have made big strides at both senior and Under 21 level. Nothing breeds confidence like winning games and they will take big support to Sligo but my lads will be up for the challenge," raps Logan defiantly.

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