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Close call proved the spur for us to drive on: Sludden

 

By John Campbell

Tyrone playmaker Niall Sludden winces when he recalls what many people still believe was a season-defining moment for his team.

That came in the All-Ireland qualifier against Meath when Cathal McShane whisked over an injury-time point which levelled matters at the end of normal time, 0-14 to 1-11, and took the game into extra-time from where the Red Hands, profiting from a Harry Loughran goal, pushed on to nose home by 2-14 to 0-19.

It was a close shave for Mickey Harte's men though, and Sludden accepts that the manner of their victory might not quite have fermented optimism.

"There are times when you are just going to scrape through games, but the important thing is that you get there, and if you win games like that it really serves you well in the latter stages of the Championship," points out Sludden.

"There were a few occasions where we could have gone out, so I am sure it is not easy for the fans as well. We have made it exciting for them but we are in the semi-final and that is all that matters."

Tyrone's new-found reputation for closing out games clinically was reinforced in last weekend's Super8s victory over Donegal. Yet there is no secret to their enduring stamina, according to Sludden.

"I just think we train really hard. It is down to the work we have done, not just this year but the last couple of years as well because we like to finish strongly. You see the bench we have as well, it's unbelievable," he points out.

The team's resilient spirit has undoubtedly proven a big factor in keeping them on course for what would be a fourth All-Ireland title, but Sludden is aware that tomorrow's semi-final against Monaghan will be a major test of the side's mettle.

Malachy O'Rourke's men will enter the fray cushioned by their win over Tyrone in the league and, even more importantly, further bolstered by their victory when the sides met again in the early stages of the Ulster Championship.

"When we met Monaghan in the Championship, they were very switched on. They definitely had our number that day," acknowledges schoolteacher Sludden.

"We conceded a lot of frees on that occasion and you can't be doing that with people like Conor McManus and Rory Beggan waiting to punish you.

"I think, though, that we as a team have improved since then, and we will certainly see where we are at tomorrow."

"We got great backing from our supporters against Donegal and I think it will be the same tomorrow in Croke Park. The fans are really getting behind us and this is undoubtedly helping to drive us on. It helps to build up a brilliant atmosphere in matches."

With the flame of ambition burning brightly within the squad, Sludden confirms that the team has raised the bar for themselves.

And he makes it abundantly clear that the capture of major trophies remains a priority.

"When you get into the Tyrone squad you know you are not coming in just to win Ulster titles, even though that is great, and you are certainly not coming in to win a few matches here and there," stresses Dromore clubman Sludden.

"We are always setting our own standards, and the next task for us is to gain a place in the All-Ireland final by beating Monaghan.

"We have to accept, of course, that Monaghan will see this as a great chance for them to achieve this too."

Sludden's creative skills and blistering pace have ensured that he has remained a key cog in the Red Hands' attack and, although he was substituted against Donegal last weekend, he is expected to remain in the thick of the action today.

He will be flanked by Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane in a half-forward line that could hold the key to victory.

Colm Cavanagh and Padraig Hampsey have the task of winning primary possession at midfield, and if they manage to get on top there, then the Tyrone attack could flourish.

Connor McAliskey is hoping to recapture his best form following his below-par performance last weekend, while Ritchie Donnelly is hoping to prove more influential at full-forward.

McAliskey's free-taking was not all that it might have been against Donegal, but the chances are that he will exude more confidence at Headquarters.

Tyrone's defensive resolve highlighted their second-half performance against Donegal last weekend when players like Ronan McNamee and substitute Kieran McGeary in particular stood up to be counted, and manager Harte is seeking a similar offering of defiance against the normally lively Monaghan attack tomorrow.

While their Ulster rivals will bring zeal and spirit to the table, Tyrone's cohesion, character and craft should reign supreme at the end of the day.

Tyrone vs Monaghan

All-Ireland SFC Semi-Final

Croke Park, Tomorrow, 3.30pm

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