The Ulster Championship kicks into gear this weekend when Derry travel to Healy Park in Omagh to take on rivals Tyrone in the provincial competition’s preliminary round.
Tyrone go into the game as heavy favourites having finished their Division 1 league campaign in style with four wins on the bounce including a huge victory over Dublin in Croke Park. This came after a poor showing in their opening three rounds when Mickey Harte’s charges looked miles off the pace.
Derry will be confident going into the game having blazed a trail through Division 4 earlier this year en route to a league final victory over Leitrim back in March.
However, it’s difficult to see the Oak Leaf men overcoming their arch-rivals on their home patch. Tyrone are the outright betting favourites going into this year’s championship and three-time All-Ireland winner, Owen Mulligan, says “they’ll take Ulster no problem”.
“I fancy Tyrone strongly for Ulster if I’m being honest, I think they’re streets ahead of everybody. I was worried the first two league games, two bad defeats, they just didn’t look to be in gear at all. They were so far behind Kerry it was unbelievable, they were second to every ball. But it only takes one result to turn your season and the next games they weren’t beat,” said the Paddy Power GAA columnist.
“They were only off the league final by a point so I think they’re streets ahead of Ulster football. I think Cathal McShane is a massive plus at full-forward, he needs to stay there with Mattie Donnelly feeding off him. I think in Tyrone at the minute, even the supporters believe they can go that one step further now but I definitely think they’ll take Ulster no problem.”
The decision to play Cathal McShane on the edge of the square has proven to be a masterstroke by Harte with the Owen Roe O’Neill’s man causing plenty of headaches for opposing defenders as Tyrone deployed a long kicking game.
Mulligan is hopeful that Tyrone stick to their new-found kicking strategy despite the fact they won’t be able to utilise the mark in this year’s championship in the same way that McShane did to devastating effect during the league.
“I just hope that Tyrone don’t stop doing it because of the mark. The mark killed Dublin a couple of times against Tyrone in Croke Park. Tyrone have to go direct ball. The kicking game is brilliant and it’s class to watch the runners coming off it because they’re flying. They can’t stop doing it because, in championships gone by, they panic and drop everybody back. You can’t do that anymore, you have to go for the jugular when the game is in the balance.
“They did it in the league, but in championship, they seem to be under that wee bit of pressure and they pull everybody back. That’s not the way. We haven’t had a presence there since the likes of Stephen O’Neill and Peter Canavan. McShane, you can give him any sort of ball and he’ll win it and that’s what’s class. We tried Donnelly, just that wee bit small, but Mattie Donnelly scored four from play against Dublin.”
While Mulligan may perceive Mattie Donnelly to be “that wee bit small” for full forward, there can be no doubting that the Trillick man has thrived thus far this season in a more attack focused role.
Mulligan believes the two-time All-Star has been used as a more defensive midfielder by Tyrone and that it is time to showcase his skills higher up the field.
“I think Tyrone have used him as a defensive midfielder when he’s more an attacking midfielder. He’s too big of a loss if you’re going to put him in defence. Let him showcase his skills, he’s a good accurate player, he shoots on sight, he’s not afraid to take players on. Put him up there at centre-half (forward) or midfield and let him go. He’s a great engine so he will eventually go back sometime but I think we’re missing a trick playing him as a defensive midfielder.”
Despite Tyrone’s new style of play, Mulligan still holds a slight fear that they may revert to type if met with pressure in 2019.
The former All-Star believes this is a player-driven trait that Tyrone must put right as their performances have shown this year that a more attack-minded strategy works.
“They seem to do that when the pressure’s on, they seem to drop everyone back. But that’s player-driven, not manager-driven. You have to say as a player ‘push out, go man-to-man, mark up’. You’re almost cheating if you’ve a line across, you’re cheating by saying ‘you’re going to do my job and I’ll drop back’. You’re just a number there but if you push up and go man-to-man, you’ve a massive chance.
“It’s taken the bull by the horns and saying ‘we’ll push up and go with the players’ but you’re cheating when you’re going back into a blanket defence. You’re saying ‘I’m not fit to mark this man so this fella will cover me’.
“It’s a no-brainer because the last six games Tyrone showed all-out attack and they were getting the scores. Don’t get me wrong, Tyrone last year, you couldn’t handpick the teams they wanted to play. It was like England in the World Cup, they got some draw. This year it mightn’t be like that so you have to go out and showcase it. They did it in the league and that’s what you want.”