DESPITE the mixed reactions to the new concept, Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan confesses that he ‘loves’ the prospect of games, games and more games in the coming month as the All-Ireland Championship race gathers momentum.
The Red Hands have been paired in Group 2 of the new look Sam Maguire Cup competition, alongside this Saturday’s opponents Galway, as well as Armagh and then Westmeath.
With three of the four counties in each of the four groups set to advance into the knock-out stages of the All-Ireland, the format has drawn some criticism because of the lack of real jeopardy for the big hitters.
But Niall Morgan is keen to embrace the new group phase, recalling one particularly painful season when Tyrone lost just one Championship game to be dumped out of contention.
“ Personally I love it because it prepares you for what’s ahead and you are guaranteed games. In 2016 we won Ulster and then were chinned by Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final and that was us out without a second chance.
“ At least when you have that safety-net you get another crack at it. If you look at the Leinster and Munster Championships they are a bit of a non-event sadly any longer. Sure look at the difference in terms of the emotion in the Derry victory and that of Dublin last weekend. It’s chalk and cheese. So with all teams now having guaranteed three games in this group stage of the All-Ireland it levels things up a bit.”
Tyrone start their All-Ireland quest out by breezy Galway Bay this Saturday night when they tackle the Tribesmen. Morgan is expecting a massive challenge against opposition who are littered with quality across every sector of the field.
“ Galway is always a difficult place to go. I think I have only played in Salthill the once and from what I can remember the big breeze can be a factor. But no matter when you play Galway you know you are always going to be in for it because they have great footballers- fast defenders, strong men around the middle, and at the minute probably the best all round forward line in Ireland.
“ So they are a top drawer side all over the field. It’s not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination.”
Galway secured the Connact title at something of a canter when sinking Sligo recently and Morgan insists that last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists probably don’t get the credit nationwide that they are due.
“ The same three names have rung off the tongue for the last number of years (Kerry, Dublin, Mayo) probably because of what they have achieved in the past. Galway were in the All-Ireland Final on merit last year and weren’t a million miles off Kerry.
“ They probably became everybody’s second favourite team because of that run they had and the fact they were a bit unlucky to miss out. So they will have that extra motivation just missing out last year and will definitely be a force to be reckoned with. I don’t think anybody wil be taking them for granted this year.”
The 31-year old Edendork star doesn’t feel that the five week break since the Monaghan defeat in the Ulster Championship should hamper Tyrone too much.
“ I suppose it is no major difference time wise till when I first started. We got put out by Donegal in the first round (2013) and you still had your three or four week break after that for the Qualifiers. Maybe it’s because there are so many games going on every week now that you do feel you are missing out.
“ But it’s not a ridiculously long break and we are still doing plenty of training. We know we are going into three Championship games minimum in five weeks now coming up so that focuses the mind. Hopefully the rest will do us no harm.”
While Tyrone’s provincial hopes were dashed in agonising fashion with Ryan O’Toole smashing home an injury time winning goal for Monaghan, Morgan discounts the notion that the home team were unfortunate in Omagh that day.
“ It was well reviewed from all points by the whole squad and management. We had lots of good play in the game but Monaghan got that late goal. I wouldn’t say they stole the game from us but they were worthy winners.
“ You only get one chance in the Ulster Championship and they won on the day. I don’t believe in luck in those circumstances. I don’t want to come off the pitch with people telling us we were unlucky. The facts of the matter are that we weren’t good enough to win that game. You just hope that on the next day we are good enough.
“ Hopefully we will learn from what happened the last day and take that into the Galway game though people will obviously have them as the favourites. But we have to make improvements where improvements have to be made.”
And Niall maintains that a positive reponse is required from the visitors at Salthill this Saturday with a tasty Ulster derby next in line in a fortnight’s time.
“ With the greatest respect to the other provincial runners-up but getting the Ulster representative (Amagh) probably makes for the hardest group. It’s going to be different Armagh, coming to Omagh in an All-Ireland series game after we go to Salthill, and then we finish with Westmeath at a neutral venue.
“ With the second and third place team getting through to another competitive game that adds a bit more incentive too. I know some people are saying that it dilutes the whole thing but players want to be playing matches not just training all the time, and sitting watching games on TV at the weekend.”
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