Posted by Mickey Harte

The championship really is very different from the league in a number of aspects

Championship in a league of its own

The championship really is very different from the league in a number of aspects. I know we always say that you do the best you can in every competition you’re in, and of course everyone is out to do that.

Every county wants to have some good league form behind them. But there is no doubt it takes on a new dimension when the championship begins. Very often league form is not reflected in championship performances but, having said that, I do believe that any county would prefer to have a good league campaign behind them rather than an indifferent one. 

Come championship time there is a definite step-up in competitive edge and there is no way of knowing how your team will do until they are in that first game. All the best plans can be put in place and teams, mentors and players can believe they’re ready for the cut and thrust of the championship but there is still this knockout mentality that the provincial championship has regardless of the qualifiers.

Teams want to do well in their provincial championships. There is still the underlying feeling that this is knockout, this is different than the league where you have two or three more games to pick it up if you’ve had a poor performance. 

Nobody wants to go into the qualifiers—certainly not after the first round of the provincial championship. There is a real intensity to first round games. Different provinces have different challenges and I’d say this year in particular – with the exception of Munster – the other three provinces are going to be very competitive because there are teams emerging in all of those provinces who can beat anyone on any given day.

The bookies have Kerry, Cork and Dublin leading the way and recent history and form suggest it’s highly unlikely someone will come out of the pack to win an All-Ireland. Of course it does happen from time to time and Kildare are the one team on everyone’s lips now because they’ve been knocking on the door for the last few years. They’ve suffered their share of bad luck in games they might have won but coming through as Division 2 champions gives them new impetus. Every other team is probably chasing that group at the moment. It has happened that teams come from off the rails but it doesn’t happen too often.

For Tyrone and Armagh, a transition has taken place over the last few years. All the players who started the 2002 All-Ireland final for Armagh are no longer available to them. We have lost five or six players this year to retirement so there has been a big turnaround in personnel. The competitive edge will still be there, though, and the level of preparation does go up every year.

Teams are more conscious than ever of ways to achieve a cutting edge over everyone else. Managers and coaches now plan their season towards a championship date and there is a continuous build-up of intensity. 

There is a mixture of the quantity and quality and you can never forget the value of the quality of your preparation. It is a more demanding programme for players at county level than ever before. So much fine-tuning goes on. There is a great desire to be at your peak when the summer arrives. It has to be almost choreographed now because no one can maintain that high level of intensity across an entire season.

There is certainly an element of timing your run but that’s no easy task. Different teams, depending on where they’re coming from, have to make that journey in different ways. It is quite intriguing though when you consider how the championship will unfold; how different teams will move up gears and some teams will negotiate the early rounds without necessarily being at full throttle.

There are other sides who need to be working hard the whole way through and that’s what tells in the end. That’s why the top teams are most likely to be the ones challenging for the All-Ireland title. In Tyrone, we’re happy with our own preparations.

We’re very disappointed with the injuries we picked up earlier in the season. We lost three very important attackers in Kyle Coney, Ronan O’Neill – whom many had not seen much of at senior level but who is a really hot prospect for us —and Tommy McGuigan who has a lot of experience and played in the 2008 All-Ireland final. All three have injuries that will keep them out for virtually the whole season and that is a big blow to us.

The preparation has gone well apart from that. There are always plenty of niggles and players are playing club football on a week-to-week basis so there’s always a chance they will come back with small injuries. Hopefully we’ll get over that and they will get used to the regularity of club football fixtures in the midst of their preparation for the championship. We also hope that the competitiveness of club football will benefit them.

Thankfully, though, we have steered clear of recent serious injury and we look forward to when the championship begins for us on 10

June against Armagh.