NIALL Sludden would be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about Donegal.
In the first half of the decade, Mickey Harte’s side couldn’t buy a victory against their neighbours to the west, losing claustrophobic championship meetings in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015.
Those defeats had Tyrone fans tearing their hair out in frustration, but the dynamics of this particular rivalry has flipped on its head in the intervening years, the catalyst being the Ulster Championship final in 2016.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but that just happened to be Niall Sludden’s breakthrough season. The affable Dromore man sustained a broken leg in a club match in 2013, and it took a full two years to complete his recovery before subsequently making his championship debut in 2016.
Sludden was on the pitch for every single minute as Tyrone claimed big championship wins over Donegal in each of the last three seasons, so he probably isn’t going to be having nightmares of Michael Murphy and Neil McGee ahead of Saturday’s Ulster Championship semi-final.
In saying that, Donegal are due another victory over the Red Hands, and Sludden is conscious of the threat posed by Declan Bonner’s in-form side.
“It’s Donegal and there is going to be that bit of bite there because of the rivalry over the past number of years.
“We know what they are like as we have met them many times over the years both in league and championship, sometimes coming out on the winning side and other times being on the losing side. We have got the better of them in recent years in the championship but that will count for nothing this time around.
“It’s a game that will have a life of its own and they come into it as reigning Ulster champions so they will have plenty of belief in themselves.”
Tyrone played like men possessed as they ended Donegal’s lengthy unbeaten run at Ballybofey in the finale of last year’s ‘Super Eights’. Donegal had to make do without Paddy McBrearty on that occasion after he suffered a cruciate knee injury in their Ulster final win over Fermanagh, but he marked his recovery with a five-point tally against Rory Gallagher’s side in a repeat meeting a fortnight ago.
Sludden said: “They have quality players throughout their side and with Paddy McBrearty back it leaves them even more dangerous as they badly missed him last season. I saw the Division Two league final and they have a number of young boys in there so they have a very good mix between youth and experience. Its going to be a very difficult challenge for us but its one that we are all eagerly looking forward to. Its another step up but that’s what you expect when it comes to the latter stages of the Ulster championship.”
The Red Hands are in the fifth year of Peter Donnelly’s strength and conditioning programme, and their supreme athleticism was one of the defining factors in their championship victories to date over Derry and Antrim. Sludden isn’t sure whether they’re any fitter than last year, but their athleticism is there for all to see.
“We are very lucky to have someone like Peter Donnelly when it comes to the strength and conditioning side of things but at the end of the day you have to put the work in and all the boys do that. With the hustle and bustle of intercounty football nowadays you really need it and you can see it there as there is a lot of physical players in our side and I know at training there are a lot of big hits.”
Tyrone cruised into a 14-point lead at half-time in their Ulster Championship quarter-final against Antrim, but they were a little sloppy in defence after the break. Speaking on the Sunday Game, Joe Brolly said they needed to ‘recalibrate’ at the back, but Sludden said the most important thing was getting the result.
“It was all about getting a quick start against Antrim. I wouldn’t say that we were in top gear against them but a lot of boys got game time and that is good going forward. We had fourteen different scorers which is pleasing but we wouldn’t be happy at how easy they got in for their two goals and that certainly won’t be good enough against Donegal. At the end of the day though it was all about getting the result and we know that a lot bigger test lies ahead this weekend.”