By Niall Gartland
TYRONE probably won’t require the luxury of a backdoor when they begin the defence of their All-Ireland in Saturday’s Ulster Championship preliminary round contest against Fermanagh, but opening round shocks aren’t without precedence.
We all remember what happened holders Armagh in 2003 – they were ousted by a Paul Finlay-inspired Monaghan in the first round of the Ulster Championship, albeit they wiped down their bloody nose and made it back to another All-Ireland final.
Or if you really want to delve into the archives, how about one of the greatest championship shocks of them all – Kerry, calling upon all-time greats like Mick O’Connell and Mick O’Dwyer, exited the race for the All-Ireland with a first-round defeat to Waterford in 1956.
It was Waterford’s first victory over the Kingdom in over half-a-century, and it would almost – almost – be as momentous if Fermanagh, oft-patronised but generally a dogged enough team, felled the All-Ireland champions at Brewster Park this Saturday evening.
It may surprise you to learn that the Erne County have claimed five championship victories over Tyrone down the years – the most recent occasion being an Ulster semi-final upset in 1982 – but it’s hard to see that number shifting this weekend.
It’s been a slow burner of a season for Tyrone. Irish Independent journalist Eamonn Sweeney jumped the gun entirely after a particularly disappointing defeat to Dublin at Healy Park, claiming rashly that “more and more Tyrone feel like the accidental champs, gifted the throne by an odd sequence of results in a strange Covid-inflected year.”
He wasn’t the only media pundit who rushed to dismiss Tyrone’s chances, but impressive wins over Mayo and Kerry, down in Killarney no less, served as a timely reminder that this is a supremely talented and well-drilled group of footballers.
Their form players heading into the championship include midfielder Conn Kilpatrick, his Edendork teammate Darren McCurry, Peter Harte and Frank Burns, who has looked in tip-top shape.
Darragh Canavan, always a bundle of energy, looks to have nailed down a starting berth, while Conor Meyler and Niall Morgan are so consistently good that it’s almost easy to take for granted.
On the flipside, they had the lowest scoring return of all Division One teams (a total of 3-76 or 85 points across seven matches), and a few players are yet to hit the heights of last year.
As for Fermanagh, they also took a while to get going this season, but they’re tippling along nicely under their new management, spearheaded by Omagh CBS teacher Kieran Donnelly, and they weren’t far off achieving promotion from Division Three.
Sean Quigley is their main attacking weapon, and he’s Ulster’s top scorer at present having amassed a seriously impressive total of 5-37 across the McKenna Cup and National League.
Are they too overly reliant on the Roslea sharpshooter?
Certainly at times, but improvements are evident and their 3-15 tally in a league clash against Laois was their best outing in front of the posts since 2015.
That day, Ciaran Corrigan weighed in with 1-3, Darragh McGurn nabbed a goal, and stalwarts Aidan Breen and Ryan Jones, re-energised after a one-year absence, were as influential as they’ve ever been.
On the injury front, their captain Declan McCusker has recovered from a knock in time for Saturday’s match, but the game is likely to come too soon for Tiarnan Bogue and Stephen McGullion. The supremely talented Ultan Kelm is also rehabilitating from a troublesome hip injury and is unlikely to feature.
It’s a similarly mixed bag for Tyrone. Mattie Donnelly could miss his first-ever championship clash through injury after damaging his hamstring against Kerry, while Peter Harte may be held in reserve as he recently had his appendix removed. Michael O’Neill could see game-time for the first time since the All-Ireland final as he’s recovered from an abdominal problem, while Brian Kennedy should also take his position in midfield after recovering from a leg injury.
Then of course, is the well-documented exit of seven players in recent months. Time will tell whether it will harm Tyrone’s All-Ireland chances, but it’s hard to see it having any impact on the result this weekend.
Tyrone don’t seem to be in the business of dishing out hammerings (an eight-point victory over Cavan last summer was the heftiest of Logan and Dooher’s tenure thus far), but it would be a major surprise if the All-Ireland holders don’t emerge with at least five or six points to spare.
No shocks here then, and both sides to quietly move on from what’s likely to be a fairly prosaic way to draw open the curtain on this year’s Ulster Championship.