Tyrone must be clinical to hit next level, says Sludden
At the outset of the Allianz League, it was widely predicted that Tyrone would not only retain their place in the top tier but go on to make it back-to-back Ulster titles.
The first part of that equation may have been delivered, perhaps not with the greatest conviction, but the second part now carries rather less currency given Donegal’s startling transition and Monaghan’s typically doughty league itinerary.
Thus instead of entering Celtic Park to confront Derry on Sunday cushioned by favourable odds and an inspiring journey to date this year, Tyrone will do so burdened by a degree of apprehension and discomfited by their recent inability to hit the net from play more often.
Last May, Niall Sludden was a relative unknown even within the O’Neill County but after a year which he describes as “a blur” he is now cast in the role of Red Hands playmaker on Sunday while also shouldering what he anticipates will be a ration of defensive responsibility.
“It has been a quick year, a blur in fact, for me. Getting into the team and playing a good role was a bonus but now it’s back to square one. It’s Derry for us again and we know it’ll be a different story from last year,” stated the 25-year-old schoolteacher.
“We had a number of new players in the panel at the start of this year and we made a good start to the league, although we didn’t keep that going. We lost a bit of consistency but I don’t think we’re in a bad place.
“We let the Mayo game in particular slip. We had a number of chances and if we’d been a bit more clinical up front, we would have taken that game.
“You get punished against the top teams and that’s the difference at the end of the day if we want to take it to the next level.”
And taking it to the next level is exactly what manager Mickey Harte will be demanding of his side. They had gone six years without the Ulster title until last year and Sludden acknowledges that they will now be under pressure to build on that.
“We’re confident in our ability to play against any team but first and foremost it’s Derry and that’s all we’re looking at,” he stressed.
“Hopefully we can get into a semi-final against Donegal. If some people want to back us then that’s great and if they don’t want to back us, well, then so be it.”
Certainly, Harte has been eliciting a new level of versatility from several of his players of late including Colm Cavanagh, Peter Harte, Sean Cavanagh, Rory Brennan, Mark Bradley and of course Sludden himself.
Not surprisingly, Sludden sees this ability to fulfil more than one role within the side — which, indeed, is inherent in so many players — as a huge plus factor in terms of striving for successive Ulster titles.
Padraig Hampsey, meanwhile, has been named at left-full-back in place of Cathal McCarron for Sunday’s showdown while Rory Brennan is listed at centre-half-back, Conal McCann partners Colm Cavanagh at midfield and Conor Meyler starts at left-half-forward.
Tyrone (v Derry): N Morgan; A McCrory, R McNamee, P Hampsey; T McCann, R Brennan, P Harte; C Cavanagh, C McCann; K McGeary, N Sludden, C Meyler; M Bradley, S Cavanagh, M Donnelly.
Belfast Telegraph Digital