GAA: Devlin optimistic ahead of Ballybofey test

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte and assistant Gavin Devlin. �INPHO/ Cathal Noonan
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte and assistant Gavin Devlin. �INPHO/ Cathal Noonan
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For the second time in three years Tyrone make the short journey to Ballybofey to get their championship campaign underway against Donegal.

In 2013 Tyrone offered no match for the threat of Donegal as the Jim McGuinness managed side eased to a 2-10 to 0-10 victory.

Two years later and things appear to have changed little. Donegal are still riding the crest of a wave they are reigning Ulster champions and coming off a campaign that saw them reach only their third All-Ireland final.

There is one major change with the Donegal men, with charismatic manager Jim McGuinness now departed, Rory Gallagher has taken control of the team almost seamlessly.

While McGuinness has gone, Mickey Harte remains but now without his trusted lieutenant Tony Donnelly.

Gavin Devlin has filled that void and the Ardboe man was in bullish mood at the launch of the Ulster championship.

“We’ve made a lot of changes over the last three years in terms of player personnel,” said Devlin. “We’d a very successful period in the noughties winning three All-Irelands and it doesn’t last forever.

“But sometimes you have to start at the start and rebuild and go again. That process started roughly about three years ago and these young boys are making great progress, fantastic progress.”

While Devlin appears happy with the progress made he’s under no illusions about the size of the job facing the Red Hands on Sunday afternoon: “We’ve a massive task now on the 17th of May going to play the All-Ireland finalists, Ulster champions.

“They’ve been at the top table now over the last number of years in their own back yard in Ballybofey, that they know so well. It’ll be a massive task on the 17th of May but these young boys are looking forward to it. So bring it on, I suppose,” said a bullish Devlin.

The Ardboe man had to temporarily take charge of team affairs when Mickey Harte was incapacitated just before the final league game with Kerry, a game that would eventually see Tyrone relegated.

Devlin has chosen to take the positives from the league campaign: “This year’s been a very tough year in terms of Division One football. We were relegated and we came within a couple of scores of making the play-offs and the semi-final, that’s how close it was.

“In all our games, or three quarters of our games in the league, we’ve been very, very good. We went to Mayo and beat Mayo in McHale Park. We went to Croke Park and drew with Dublin in Croke Park. We drew with the All-Ireland champions.

“We’d a very successful, in terms of performance, league but we got relegated which was very disappointing.

“We’d have hoped to get another two games in the league in the semi-final and the final which would have brought us closer to the 17th May but it didn’t work out that way.

“We had to adjust and the adjustment over the last couple of weeks in training has been very, very good so we’re looking forward.”

While Tyrone performed well against non-Ulster opposition in the league their performances against their neighbours, Derry, Monaghan and most notably Donegal were disappointing and this was something Devlin acknowledged.

“There was a gulf of difference between the two teams. They were a lot better than us all over the pitch, technically and everything and we’ve been working from that day to try and close that gap and I suppose we’ll know about it on the 17th of May, whether we’ve closed that gap or not.”

The All-Ireland winning centre half back was also keen to stress the positivity within the Tyrone camp ahead of the clash with Donegal, rejecting any suggestion that morale in the set-up had been low following the league defeat to the Tir Connail men.

“We have been the most energetic bunch, it’s been great to be round our boys at training every day. I’ve never seen our boys down once this year from Christmas.

“It’s been a fantastic year so far, it’s been great to be involved with them and it’s been great to be around them. We’ve a great task ahead of us but I think it’s a summers football that we’re really looking forward to.”

Sunday will give us a much clearer idea whether Devlin’s optimism will be realised or dashed.