Championship debutants get golden chance to impress on the big stage
Much has already been made to date of the raft of exciting new faces that currently adorn the Ulster stage.
With players such as Conor Turbitt and Tiernan Kelly (both Armagh), Conor Stewart (Antrim), Liam Kerr (Down), Conor O’Donnell (Donegal), Josh Largo Ellis (Fermanagh) and Monaghan’s Aaron Mulligan having already stamped their imprint on the provincial Championship, it would appear that the GAA talent conveyor belt is fully operational.
Today it will be the turn of Tyrone’s infusion of relatively new blood personified by Michael O’Neill, Conn Kilpatrick, Richie Donnelly and Paul Donaghy to make an impact on the Championship stage when they line out against Cavan at O’Neill’s Healy Park, Omagh (4.30pm).
For Kilpatrick and Donaghy, the game will mark their Ulster Championship debuts. They have been handed vital roles, too, with Kilpatrick manning the midfield alongside Mattie Donnelly while Donaghy will be the fulcrum of the attack.
Last year it was then Cavan novice Thomas Galligan who took the provincial series by storm as his side roared to a first title since 1997 – now the Tyrone duo get a golden opportunity to step into the spotlight.
“Everybody has responded well in training since that league defeat to Kerry and now we face a new challenge against Cavan,” pointed out joint Tyrone manager Feargal Logan. “They are coming to us as reigning Ulster champions and like ourselves they know that an opening Championship victory can be a great lift.”
If the newcomers to the provincial stage have made people sit up and take notice thus far, then the formidable undercarriage of experience which both Tyrone and Cavan boast will be particularly keen to flex their muscles this afternoon.
In this respect, the influence of Niall Morgan, Mattie Donnelly, Peter Harte, Darren McCurry and Ronan McNamee will undoubtedly bolster the host side while the Breffni County will once again look to the seasoned Gearoid McKiernan, Padraig Faulkner, Martin Reilly, Killian Clarke, Ciaran Brady and Conor Madden for inspiration.
Indeed, what is expected to be a substantial input from this overall posse of veteran warriors could well prove crucial in determining which of the two sides get to meet either Derry or Donegal in next weekend’s second semi-final.
While the respective team managements are keeping their cards close to their chests in terms of strategy, there is no doubt that the senior citizens on duty will once again answer the call to arms enthusiastically.
And that’s hardly surprising given that each side will feel it has a big point to make. While Tyrone will be seeking to rediscover their competitive edge, pride and scoring touch, all of which were surrendered in their most recent outing against Kerry, Cavan will be attempting to right the wrongs of what has proven a disastrous season to date in the wake of the county’s stunning Ulster triumph last November.
It is said that time changes everything but no one could have contemplated the inordinately short time-span within which Tyrone would be cast in the role of lambs to the slaughter at Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney and Cavan would suffer relegation for the third successive year after dining at the Division One table in 2019.
Their final league game saw the Breffni outfit absorb an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Wicklow which not only sent them spinning into Division Four but as things stand confirmed their candidacy for next year’s Tailteann Cup.
No wonder full-back Padraig Faulkner, a proverbial tower of strength in the team’s surge into the national spotlight last year, does not mince his words in assessing the magnitude of their task today.
“This is a real must-win game for us no matter how you look at it,” insisted Faulkner. “We may be Ulster champions but we are a Division Four team and that’s the bottom line. It’s now up to us as a unit to try and restore our credibility.”
Midfield will be a key battleground and indeed it’s in the central third of the pitch that the exchanges could prove to be at their most intense.
Tyrone will certainly have benefited from having retained their slot in Division One and should they get off to a good start they may be difficult to rein in given the zeal they are likely to unveil in what will be a concerted bid to get back to winning ways.
On the other hand, Cavan have clearly no intention of surrendering their provincial crown meekly and as well as their experienced corps, Thomas Galligan, Conor Moynagh, Luke Fortune and goalkeeper and captain Raymond Galligan are expected to do their bit to drive things on.
O’Neill’s Healy Park will be no place for the faint-hearted.
Tyrone: N Morgan; M McKernan, R McNamee, P Hampsey; R Brennan, M O’Neill, P Harte; M Donnelly, C Kilpatrick; K McGeary, R Donnelly, C Meyler; D McCurry, P Donaghy, N Sludden.