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Tyrone aiming to turn the tide

By Declan Bogue

The fear of becoming a part of an ugly statistic is foremost in the minds of the Tyrone players this week as they stare down the barrel at Donegal, in Ballybofey this Sunday.

Back at the dawn of the Donegal project, Tyrone were away out on their own in Ulster.

Their great rivals of another era –Armagh – had slipped off the radar. For two successive years the Red Hands had it all their own way as they ambled gently into the 2009 and 2010 Ulster finals against Antrim and Monaghan.

They won those games by an aggregate of 16 points and while All-Ireland glory would elude them, within their own province they never had it quite so easy.

It's funny, but back then their supporters had grown very blasé indeed about the idea of winning an Ulster title, hardly celebrating at all as Brian Dooher raised the Anglo-Celt Cup.

They were going for three-in-a-row in 2011 when Jim McGuinness and his men came like the Jessie James gang and halted the steam train, pilfering their purses. Tyrone wrote it off as one of those things but after defeat last year and Donegal's subsequent All-Ireland, realised there was no luck involved.

Now, it is Tyrone looking to block Donegal's route to three consecutive Ulster titles.

"The big thing for them is that they will be going for three-in-row and if you looked, they stopped us getting the three-in-a-row a few years ago but is going to be a tough task, especially in Ballybofey," says Joe McMahon, one of the veterans of this ever-evolving Tyrone side.

"Over the last couple of meetings that we have had they have got the upper hand in terms of the championship and they now have that over us. In terms of desire and the will to win, not to say that it was not there before, it will be even more so."

This game has been keenly anticipated ever since the championship draw was made last October, yet even though the date of May 26 has been burned into the collective memory, the championship can still take an experienced man by surprise.

"It is hard to believe that it has come around this quick and all the focus is now on Donegal after the league campaign," he says.

Perhaps Tyrone need the spark of a local rivalry.

It took them a few years in the mid-90's to realise that all the Ulster counties around them were marching to All-Irelands, and in a famous game against Derry in 1995, the 13 men of Tyrone strained everything they had to take out the All-Ireland favourites.

Now their major rivalry lies on another border, but McMahon is keen not to dismiss any other potential opponents at another stage of the championship.

"Maybe it's more so because we are two of the stronger teams that people look at it like that and between the two of us we have shared the last four Ulster titles but that is not to take away from the other counties in Ulster too," he said.

Showing up to the party this time is a different, meaner Tyrone. They have a younger team, for sure, but they will also be led by captain Stephen O'Neill in the form of his life and of course, 2008 Footballer of the Year Sean Cavanagh is fully-fit for this, having missed last years' encounter with a pectoral muscle injury.

McMahon describes the different chemistry this season, "The way they (O'Neill and Cavanagh) are playing they are always going to be key men.

"With the younger lads that have come in, they have done well and they have gained experience during the league playing against the bigger teams but the championship is going to be another step-up again."

Donegal will bound out onto their own pitch as All-Ireland champions, an honour they have not had since 21 years ago when they successfully defended their Ulster and All-Ireland crowns in a first-round match against Antrim.

There were those in Tyrone that got up to a little bit of mischief in claiming the game should have been moved to Clones to accommodate the largest crowd possible, but for those within the chalk lines, the venue as little relevance according to McMahon.

"I have not really thought about it as a major issue. I know if it was our case, you would want to be playing at a home venue. I can understand why Donegal want to play in their home venue and personally it has not been an issue."

Citing the fragility of the Donegal panel, it has been said that the champions need to win this to have the recovery periods that winning in your province brings.

Within their squad, their motivation will be to keep Tyrone under their thumb, above all else.

Belfast Telegraph


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