'I think they’re streets ahead of everybody' - Owen Mulligan backing Tyrone for Ulster championship

The retired Red Hand forward also has firm views on the style of play his former team should employ.

GIVEN THE COMPETITION has three top-tier sides and its champions have been promoted to that level for 2020, there are very few people making confident predictions ahead of this year’s Ulster Championship. 

Owen Mulligan 21/1/2018 Owen Mulligan playing with London club Fulham Irish last year. He is now retired and coaching the club's senior team. Source: Gerry McManus/INPHO

Among the few: Owen Mulligan. 

“I fancy Tyrone strongly for Ulster if I’m being honest”, he tells The42

“I think they’re streets ahead of everybody. I was worried the first two league games – two bad defeats [to Mayo and Kerry] – they just didn’t look to be in gear at all.

“They were so far behind Kerry it was unbelievable, they were second to every ball. But it only takes one result to turn your season and across the next games they weren’t beaten.

“They were only off the league final by a point so I think they’re streets ahead of Ulster football.

“I think Cathal McShane is a massive plus at full-forward, he needs to stay there with Mattie Donnelly feeding off him.

“I think in Tyrone at the minute, even the supporters believe they can go that one step further now but I definitely think they’ll take Ulster no problem.” 

Tyrone started the league slowly but finished it strongly. After losing away to Kerry and at home to Mayo, they then drew with relegated Roscommon. 

From there, however, they gained some momentum with successive wins over Ulster opposition – Monaghan and Cavan – before sealing arguably the most eye-catching result of the whole competition: a three-point win over the Dubs in Croke Park. 

Although the All-Ireland champions missed out on a league final for the first time under Jim Gavin, Mulligan isn’t taking that upset as a sign of things to come this Summer.

“Everyone can challenge but Dublin are the team to beat. They’ve stepped away from anyone.

“If anything, the league has given them a bit of breathing space to regroup and see what’s going on, set their new goals. I’m a big fan of Jim Gavin, I think he’s a class manager, doesn’t give too much away, but it’s all player-based and player-driven: these players are a special bunch.” 

If Tyrone are to go one better and avenge their All-Ireland final defeat of 2018, Mulligan believes they must remain loyal to the direct style of play they followed in the league.

“Tyrone have to go direct ball. The kicking game is brilliant and it’s class to watch the runners coming off it because they’re flying.

They can’t stop doing it because, in championships gone by, they’d panic and drop everybody back. You can’t do that anymore, you have to go for the jugular when the game is in the balance.

“They did it in the league, but in championship, they seem to be under that wee bit of pressure and they pull everybody back. That’s not the way. We haven’t had a presence in there since the likes of Stephen O’Neill, Peter Canavan.

“[Cathal] McShane, you can give him any sort of ball and he’ll win it and that’s what’s class.” 

Cathal McShane Cathal McShane. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Does he fear that Tyrone will revert to a more defensive style of play if the pressure becomes intense later on in the Summer?

“They seem to do that when the pressure’s on, they seem to drop everyone back. But that’s player-driven, not manager-driven.

You have to say as a player ‘Push out, go man-to-man, mark up’. You’re almost cheating if you’ve a line across, you’re cheating by saying ‘you’re going to do my job and I’ll drop back’. You’re just a number there but if you push up and go man-to-man, you’ve a massive chance.

“It’s taken the bull by the horns and saying ‘we’ll push up and go with the players’ but you’re cheating when you’re going back into a blanket defence. You’re saying ‘I’m not fit to mark this man so this fella will cover me’.

“It’s a no-brainer because the last six games Tyrone showed all out attack and they were getting the scores. Don’t get me wrong, Tyrone last year, you couldn’t handpick the teams they wanted to play.

“It was like England in the World Cup, they got some draw. This year it mightn’t be like that so you have to go out and showcase it. They did it in the league and that’s what you want.” 

Tyrone begin the Ulster Championship on 12 May, where they face Derry in the preliminary round. 

Owen Mulligan was speaking in his capacity as a brand ambassador for Paddy Power. 

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Gavin Cooney

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