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Thursday, 25 May 2017

BACK TO BUSINESS thumbnailSean Cavanagh lifts the Ulster Senior Football Championship last year. Tyrone will begin their defence of the Anglo-Celt Cup this Sunday against Derry.

TYRONE begin the defence of their Ulster Football Championship title this weekend when they travel to Celtic Park to take on Derry.

Despite a dip in form during the latter part of the league, the Red Hands go into Sunday's first round clash as favourites.

A huge crowd is expected at the Derry city venue for the latest episode in a story of fierce rivalry between these neighbouring counties.

The sides met at the same stage last year, when Tyrone scored a resounding victory, and more of the same is expected.

Peter Harte is confident that Red Hand quality will shine through on the big day.

“There's serious competition at the minute in our panel. I'd say at this stage I'm not too sure if Mickey knows his best fifteen or not," he said.

“There's all those lads that came through with successful U21 teams, they're pushing everybody on.

“They're looking to play, they're not looking to be part of a panel just to sit on the bench, so that means that everybody, including myself, has to be pushing and playing well on the training pitch and staying fit, because if you don't, you're going to find yourself out of the team."

A highly motivated group of players have been competing fiercely against each other during in-house games at Garvaghey as they fight for places in the starting fifteen for this weekend.

“There are no friendlies and that is exactly where you have to show it," said Harte.

“I suppose in Tyrone we're lucky in that we're getting six club games. It's a great chance for boys to get a bit of form and get a bit of football under their belt.

“If you can now, it's a great chance to play your way into the team if you're fit and playing well, so that's what everybody will be looking to do."

A recent weekend training camp at Carton House helped team played an important part in the preparations.

“It was very useful. Time away is precious. We're not a professional outfit and everybody has jobs, so during the week you will have your pitch sessions or gym sessions.

“But to have that extra bit of time, where you can come together and thin as a team and talk and sort things out, even just have the craic together for a weekend, is very important."

The league campaign ended with three defeats, but Harte feels the team is in a better place than last year, having competed against the country's top teams.

“Division One is the best place to be in that early time of the year, February, March and April, because it's where you learn the most.

“In Division Two last year, in our last couple of games, we qualified for Division One, we were in the league final, you probably didn't get the same learning as you would against the likes of Kerry, Mayo or Donegal.

“We have to take the positives from it. There were things that didn't go well for us, we have to learn from it, but it's much better learning and finding those things out and trying to put them right in March and April, rather than July or August."

But All-Star Harte is taking nothing for granted ahead of a clash with a team they defeated comfortably in last year's championship.

“Every year is different. No two years in the Ulster Championship are alike, no two years in any championship are alike.

“No two matches are alike, and the match could take on a life of its own. Parts of it will be similar, bur as for the game itself, I have never played somebody twice and it's gone the same way

“Derry are always dangerous. Derry have as good footballers as anybody. You just have to look at what Slaughtneil did, and they were very unlucky not to win an All-Ireland club title.

“They're good footballers, and a first round championship game in Celtic Park is a one-off game. We'll be very focused going in there to get the performance right.

“Last year was great, but it's over now. That was 2016, this is a brand new season, as you saw from the league, teams have already changed a bit, new personnel, new styles of play.

“We'll just be hoping to do our best in 2017, and look no further than Derry in Celtic Park."

But manager Mickey Harte is treading carefully, and with a semi-final clash with Donegal awaiting the winners, he insisted he is looking no further than this weekend's opener.

“We wouldn't look that far ahead for sure. If we were to talk about anybody other than Derry at the moment we would be very foolish," he said.

“We would not even think beyond this game. People might say that's blasť, or that's politically correct, but it's a fact.

“It's a fact that if we thought about anything other than playing Derry in Celtic Park, we would be on a foolish road, and we wouldn't have to worry about playing anybody in the semi-final, because Derry would be in it."

And he believes Derry's relegation to Division Three of the National Football League is irrelevant.

“That's history now, that's over, that's done with. This is the Championship, it's a new ball game and we're all looking forward to this part of the season.

“Ultimately this is what we play for, we play for this time of the year, and Derry will be no different."

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