THE old adage goes that defence wins championships, and Tyrone captain Padraig Hampsey says the team was acutely conscious that they needed to rectify their defensive deficiencies in the wake of some bruising defeats in the earlier rounds of their league campaign.
Defeats on the road to Roscommon and Galway were obviously disappointing, but it was the 4-10 to 0-12 shellacking to Mayo in round four that really sent alarm bells ringing.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but quite possibly it was a blessing in disguise as it forced the issue and the hard work on the training pitch has paid off with a streak of three straight victories heading into their Ulster Championship opener against Monaghan on April 16.
Speaking at the official launch event of the Ulster Championship on Monday evening, two-time All-Star Padraig Hampsey says they’ve made a concerted effort to improve their defensive solidity.
“Monaghan have a potent forward line, they’ve plenty of good players including on their subs bench so we know they’ve got the strength in depth as well.
“Something we’ve focused on the last number of weeks is our defensive set up and it’s starting to improve. We weren’t happy with a couple of our away games, the Roscommon, Galway and Mayo games, defensively we weren’t at our best so we knew we had to work on that. We’ve tightened up a bit but it’s still something to improve on.”
Hampsey has regularly been entrusted with shadowing the opposition dangerman throughout his Tyrone career. He negated Monaghan’s Jack McCarron at Clones a fortnight ago and also did a sterling job on none other than David Clifford in a wonderful individual performance against Kerry in Omagh (albeit with ample help from his colleagues, he’d be the first to acknowledge).
It’d be no major surprise if he keeps close tabs on the seemingly ageless Conor McManus in the first round of the championship. McManus, now 36 years old, was handed a starting berth in Monaghan’s do-or-die clash against Mayo on Sunday and he weighed in with 1-7 as the the Farney County ensured their Division One survival for a ninth successive year.
Hampsey said: “Conor’s a serious player, to score 1-7 on the last day out and keep his county up in Division One is serious going, a man of that age to do it year in year out consistently is massive. Fair play to him, he’s always kept himself in serious shape too, and it’s good to see that given he’s age.”
The Coalisland Na Fianna man also welcomed the return of his defensive partner Ronan McNamee, who played his first match of the season in their final day clash against Armagh last Sunday. He’s one of Tyrone’s greatest ever full-backs but he isn’t afraid to link in with the attack and he chipped in with two points against the Orchard County.
“Ronan’s a great player, he has been for Tyrone down the years and it was great to have him back on the pitch on Sunday. He’d a great game, scoring two points from play,” said Hampsey.
“He looked like a man who had been at it all season. It’s nice to have Ronan back beside us in the full-back line, he’s definitely a tough, tough boy and he likes the heat of battle so it’s nice to have him back.”
By the time Kerry came to down in round five, Tyrone had only won a single league game and there were very real fears of relegation. Hampsey says he didn’t sense any real pessimism among the Tyrone faithful, however.
“Honestly, not really. Anyone I’d spoken to in the last few weeks has been very positive, even when we were picking up defeats, they were very positive towards me and the team as well. We know how great Tyrone supporters are and they’ve pushed us to success as well so we need them to get behind us again as we need the support.”
Hampsey also hopes that the Tyrone supporters turn out in force at O’Neill’s Healy Park for their upcoming quarter-final clash against the Farney County. It hasn’t always been a fortress for the Red Hands but they came out on top of all three of their home clashes in the league which bodes well for their championship opener.
“It’s very important to have that home game. It’s nice to be undefeated in Healy Park this year, it’s been a long time since a Tyrone team has done that, it’s good to have the Tyrone supporters out and getting behind us. That’s massive for us, we need them out on the 16th of April to get behind the team and push us over the line hopefully.”
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