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Tyrone taking step to new glory

By Declan Bogue

Back when the two boys were starting out, it meant something to them. By 2003, when the Dr McKenna Cup found a permanent home as a neat little January warm-up for the National League, games were played in blankets of fog. County teams would field in oddly dated long-sleeved jerseys and the footballs were always a little careworn.

Nowadays, getting out to see the odd game is the only appetite Owen Mulligan retains for January football. Wasn't always thus.

"I know that when I was first brought into the Tyrone set-up, I didn't care what month of the year you were playing in, you didn't care because you had a senior jersey on," recalls the three-time All-Ireland medallist.

The novelty didn't take long to wear off though: "Maybe as years go on you begin to get a wee bit complacent about your place. Myself and a couple of others, we liked to winter well, to enjoy yourself in November and December!"

While staying trim was an annual struggle for Mulligan, the more spritely Ryan McMenamin would report ready for duty. For him, the battles of the McKenna Cup were mostly played in the head.

"Once you get your first game over, that thing of 'Ack, McKenna Cup, wet days, sleet and rain...' Once you get over that, you look forward to the rest of it. You would rather be playing football than running around a field," he says now.

In Mickey Harte's first year as Tyrone boss, they were beaten in the final by Monaghan in Brewster Park. Eleven years later, he returns to the Enniskillen venue tonight for his 10th final, against Cavan. It truly is an astonishing record that says something for the playing depth of the county.

Mulligan displays a forward's instincts on greed when he explains the motivations of a debutant in January.

"It's early in the year, the shackles are off. Scoring points and a lot of goals is a great way of proving yourself. People are not going to remember the great defensive work you did, they will remember the great scores," he added.

Under the new rules, Mattie Donnelly has said the game has become easier for forwards. Bad news for dyed-in-the-wool defenders like McMenamin.

Watching the semi-final win over Derry from the Healy Park stands, the Dromore player relates an anecdote: "What stood out for me, is what a man said to me; 'That's a nice game of football'.

"The whole tackling has seemed to go out of it. It's the type of football that maybe some people in Croke Park want; high-scoring, and all the rest. Players are afraid to tackle out of the field for fear of a referee's reaction."

If that is going to be the way of it, then Tyrone are blessed with enough firepower to be challenging strongly.

So far, Harte has relented to use a sweeper system. It could be that he is sending out traditional formations in order to see if a player can survive at this level without the comfort blanket of a massed defence. Who knows?

McMenamin's keen coaching mind has spent time over the possibilities of this for Tyrone.

"It looks to me early on that he may not play with a sweeper this season. He will maybe go with a Dublin-type of formation," he begins.

"Mickey seems to have changed philosophy from being ultra-defensive to having everyone attacking, especially from the half-back line. The legs seem to be there, the pace is there now. It's a changed philosophy. Whether that will stand up against the bigger teams, with better inside forwards, remains to be seen."

The cover at the back also is a concern, he feels.

"I know Derry gave Tyrone a wild bit of bother when the ball went into the full-forward line.

"Tyrone struggled with a couple of converted half-backs at half-forward. Sean Leo McGoldrick and Gerard O'Kane ran the show for Derry, Sean Leo had different markers on him and they couldn't put a hand on him," he said.

There is a chance that Tyrone will revert back to a more trusted system for the National League, and as more seasoned campaigners such as Conor Gormley and Joe McMahon are re-integrated back into the starting line-up, the players Harte has at his disposal may dictate his approach.

Mulligan certainly suspects so: "Against Derry it was a great game, good for the spectators to watch and it is good for the future of Tyrone.

"(But) I don't know if it can work in the league and the championship, you are up against better opposition, but definitely I think that when the pressure is off you can prove yourself in that way."

He spells out the difference between the end of January and the start of February.

"I know myself from playing McKenna Cup there is no pressure. You are told to express yourself. In the league, you are watching videos during the week and the build-up comes with each game. When you are in Division One every game is like a championship match and each game is crucial.

"It's good for Tyrone that they are so positive, but might be a different story against Derry in the first league game."

When he casts an eye on the opposition, Mulligan sees a team speckled with underage champions, with a few veterans hanging on to catch their wave. It reminds him of his own peer group linking in with Peter Canavan, Chris Lawn and Brian Dooher. But now Mulligan is gone too and Tyrone have a new team. He sees the need to get back on a winner's podium.

"In Tyrone, people are nearly blasé about the McKenna Cup, but it's still a trophy at the end of the day and you have to challenge for it," he said.

"Cavan need a trophy but there are a few Tyrone players that don't have a McKenna Cup medal and will be thinking the same thing."

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