Tyrone's season could depend on forward rediscovering All-Star form
The conundrum of Tyrone's marquee forward.
Tyrone's season could depend on one of their main forwards rediscovering the sort of form that brought him an All-Star in 2019.
The Red Hand county appear to have brought their hangover from last year into the 2023 campaign, and although it's very early in the season and Tyrone have historically always been patchy in the league, an important start is more critical this year than most.
After reaching the mountain top in 2021, the Ulster side fell off it in rapid fashion the following year, and so begins the humble trek to glory once more.
A disappointing start against Roscommon was followed by an impressive win against Donegal, but it was the defeat to Galway last weekend that really highlighted their issues.
The Tribesmen were without Shane Walsh, Damien Comer and several other strong players, and with the momentum gained from the Donegal win, it was primed perfectly for Tyrone to come to town.
However, the home side were much more clinical up front and more dominant in the air, and although they only won by three, the scoreline was rather kind to Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan's squad.
Despite having clear goal chances, Tyrone never managed to threaten the opposition keeper, and an old problem appears to have resurfaced.
In Mickey Harte's latter years, the common consensus was that Tyrone were a strong, stubborn team, who were hard to break down, but they had lacked that 'marquee' forward who could consistently rack up high numbers.
Darren McCurry was almost sacrificed as part of the tracking-back game, they were still over reliant on an ageing Sean Cavanagh in full forward, and every year they seemed to be experimenting and shuffling players around, such as Ronan O'Neill, Conor McAliskey, Kyle Coney, Mark Bradley and Lee Brennan.
Then in 2019, Harte had one of his masterstrokes and put Cathal McShane into the full forward line, which was a braver move than people remember, given that he played a big role in helping Tyrone get to the 2018 All-Ireland final whilst playing in midfield.
The Eoghan Rua native went from being an athletic ball-carrier who loved to break lines and support the play, to being a dead-eyed killer in front of the posts.
Despite being knocked out in the semi-final to Kerry, you could argue that the team played much better football than the previous season, with McShane dismantling opposition defences, including that of The Kingdom's.
A horrible ankle injury against Galway ruled him out for the 2020 season and he just about made it back in time for the 2021 championship, playing an incredible role as an impact sub coming off the bench.
It almost felt inevitable that he would get a goal every time he came on, and that feeling almost always rang true, especially when it mattered most in the All-Ireland final against Mayo.
2022 was supposed to be the year we saw him return to his best, rested and ready to lead the line, but 70 minutes of football week in week out, proved to be too much too soon for the All-Star, who was still recuperating from injury.
Suddenly, the lack of presence from that 'marquee' forward became an issue again.
The McKenna Cup this year brought some fantastic flashes of the ginger goal-getter, and the management seem to be putting their eggs in the McShane basket as Mattie Donnelly - Tyrone's alternative at 14 - remains rooted to the bench.
It's difficult to be the top finisher however, when the middle parts of your team can't get the ball into you, so the whole panel need to improve as a unit, but if they can get this man firing, then the entire prospect of the championship looks much more promising.
Imagine a free-flowing McCurry to one side, a dynamic Darragh Canavan to the other, and the towering presence of a consistent McShane in the middle - that's a recipe for victory.
However, whether it's a case of the management still finding their best team, the weather preventing players from releasing the ball earlier, or simply the forwards still finding their shooting boots, Tyrone will want to be getting a move on in their progression this year.
The 2021 All-Ireland champions don't need to scout the county in search of hidden gems; they are one of the few squads who have every tool in the box to build a successful team.
Whether or not they have the blueprint and craftsmanship to do so, remains to be seen.
- Mayo demonstrate the full force of McStayball in blinding performance against Kerry
- Jack O’Connor is done messing about as he names one hell of a starting XV for Kerry
- Peter Canavan admits that Tyrone's poor start to the season is "worrying"