REGULAR wins in either the Minor or U-21 grades have often provided the ideal conveyor belt for Tyrone senior teams to make their mark.
On Wednesday night, the latest group of young players from the Red Hand county will aim to start what all hope be a prolonged journey towards ultimate provincial and national success when they tackle Down. The 2023 U-20 team have the added incentive of trying to become the third from the county to win consecutive Ulster and All-Ireland titles.
Under the management of Paul Devlin, Dermot Carlin and Owen Mulligan, this Tyrone team is certainly well equipped for the challenges ahead. They will know, too, though, that past glorious count for nothing as a new season beckons.
More than half of the 2022 squad – sixteen in total – remain on board in the 31-strong panel. Many of those who will lead the way in this Wednesday night’s championship opener against Down have also enjoyed notable triumphs already in 2023 with their St Joseph’s, Dean Maguirc, Omagh CBS and Holy Trinity schools.
But mention any of this to Paul Devlin and he’s understandably and justifiably cautious. As a player and manager, he knows only too well the pitfalls associated with football and is keen to stress that to an U-20 panel bursting with talent.
“Of the 31 players who were on the panel last year, we’ve 16 still there this year. There’s a good balance there as a result,” he remarked.
“But again that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be stepping in and it’s up to them boys to carry on where they left off last year. All the lads who weren’t there last year have been stepping up. They’re doing really well too.
“I don’t feel any pressure from having won the All-Ireland last year for this season. Last year is history now, it’s the past and chalk on the board. It shows where Tyrone are at, but it’s about going out again this year and starting from scratch. The first round is against Down, last year is non-existent now and it’s about moving on.
“It’s possible that we’ll reach the similar heights as last year if they work hard enough and get the rub of the green. If you work hard then you’ll get those calls and they’ll fall your way. As I say it’s well within them. They are a fantastic bunch of lads, they’ve put in a serious amount of effort and there’s nothing surer that they will want to scale the heights again.”
Down enter this game as rank outsiders. But the county has been shown positive signs at senior level, and they have a close encounter against Tyrone from last year’s opening round clash at Loughmacrory to sustain their hopes of causing a shock.
“The history of Down through the years they’ll come with a real all guns blazing. Down is a county full of pride and their history of the past and they want to keep knocking on the doors and chopping up wins as well,” added Devlin.
“We’ll be looking forward to it like every game. That’s what we keep telling all the lads – to embrace every chance that they get in a game like this. It’s something to look forward to. When you are playing football at nine or 10 years of age you want to be playing games like this.
“We met them in the first round last year as well. It was a tight game which went to the very end. We’ll be expecting the same again this year.”
Now that the MacRory, Hogan, Markey, MacLarnon and the Paddy Drummond Cups are now safely deposited away in Tyrone, the players from those schools are now free to concentrate on their inter-county commitments.
The team is captained by Ruairi Canavan, and Paul Devlin is content with the progress that has been made during the opening months of this year.
“The success of Omagh and Holy Trinity has also meant that we can look at other players. The lads at the schools are filtering in with us and they’re doing the training with us as well. It’s not to say that we’re completely lost from them. They are with us all the time and we’re working with the schools to get the balance right for them,” he adds.
For now the stage is set, and this clash against the Mourne lads at Healy Park is set to be a clinker as both counties seek Ulster progress.
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