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Tyrone v Monaghan: Warriors in duel for title glory

By John Campbell

Two 30-year-old players who look certain to go head-to-head in a personal midfield duel when Tyrone face Monaghan in the Ulster Championship on Sunday will both be commencing their 12th season in the competition.

While Kevin Hughes was taking his first tentative steps with the Red Hands in 1999, Dick Clerkin was striving to gain a foothold in the Monaghan line-up during that same year.

It will all be rather different come Sunday. Hughes is now the catalyst that can make the Red Hands tick while Clerkin's influence within the Farney squad is such that new manager Eamonn McEnaney had no hesitation in handing him the captain's armband shortly after he took over.

The outcome of their battle in the vital middle third area could well determine the result of the overall war, but for the moment both players are treading cautiously.

Hughes, combative and energetic, brings steel, experience and stamina to the table, his ball-winning capacity and ability to pilfer long-range points having long since been spotted by manager Mickey Harte.

The Killeeshil clubman is determined not only to retain his place but if possible strive for a higher level of performance.

"When you are young you dream of breaking into the county panel and then when you are in you want to stay there.

"This may be my 12th year but it's a short enough career in the grand scheme of things. I always think that players are a long time retired," smiles Hughes whose quiet, self-effacing demeanour masks his iron will and unrelenting passion.

Yet despite the success that Tyrone have achieved over the past eight years in particular Hughes is not prepared to take anything for granted.

"I regard myself as very lucky to be involved with a great bunch of guys who form this Tyrone side, many of whom have been around for quite a while. But we are fortunate to have players like Colm Cavanagh, Aidan Cassidy and Niall McKenna all of whom are contesting the midfield berths and this keeps someone like me on my toes," admits Hughes.

He is all too aware that any diminution in his playing standards can evoke a sharp reaction from manager Harte.

"I well remember starting the championship in 2008 and having a poor game. I was injured and then never really made it for the rest of the season because the team was playing so well. I learned the hard way but the lesson has stuck with me," he says.

On Sunday, he will come face to face with a fired-up Clerkin who, clearly relishing his role as skipper, will summon a passionate display from his troops. Clerkin, rugged and fiery, has played in several positions for his county and is likely to partner another old hand Eoin Lennon at midfield - and he's certainly up for battle.

"Tyrone are huge favourites for this match. We will be missing several experienced players and we will have new guys in. People are not counting on us but at the same time Tyrone have everything to lose and nothing to gain.

"Yet our new players have no baggage - they are ready for the challenge and I feel the team will do well," insists Clerkin.

And he makes the point that several Monaghan players have acquired experience of beating Tyrone at schools level.

"This will do them no harm going into Sunday's game. Monaghan by all accounts were unlucky against Tyrone at Under 21 level recently so our younger players won't fear them. But to be honest we know that the absence of hardened experienced players like Rory Woods, John Paul Mone, Tommy Freeman, Dermot McArdle, Gary McQuaid and Tommy Freeman could be a handicap given the increased physical demands of the modern game," says Clerkin.

It's an honest assessment of Monaghan's credentials - and both Hughes and Clerkin, conditioned as they are to the intensity of championship warfare and still markedly ambitious, can be expected to bring the same level of openness to their individual contributions to Sunday's proceedings.

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