After opening their Division 1 campaign with a win over Roscommon and a hard-fought draw against All-Ireland champions Dublin, Tyrone are becoming a force in football once again
Former Tyrone midfielder Enda McGinley believes that the Ulster champions are closing the gap on the country's best football teams and that a more potent attacking force could see them contend for All-Ireland titles.
Dublin, Mayo and Kerry last year proved to be three of the finest teams in the land, with the two latter sides pushing eventual All-Ireland champions Dublin all the way in the closing stages of the Championship.
Mickey Harte's side won promotion from Division 2 last year in convincing fashion, producing an unbeaten league run and winning five of their seven games.
"The thing with the team now is that everybody respects them as a top level team," McGinley told Newstalk.com.
"Whether they’re in the top three is arguable - near to Kerry, Mayo and Dublin - but they’re certainly the closest as being the team outside of that to be considered in that group."
Because of their performance in 2016, McGinley says that the expectations of the team have been heightened. However, the team to this point have lived up to those expectations.
"We would have expected Tyrone to overcome Roscommon and they’ve done that relatively easily. We would have expected them to give Dublin a game of it considering where both teams are at over the past two or three months. Tyrone certainly did that last week.
"But, you’re looking to see if they have solutions for things that have held them back in the previous seasons. If they have, that will allow them to push on to being true All-Ireland contenders. As yet, we probably haven’t seen enough evidence of that so far in the league."
McGinley explains that their ability to reach the top of the modern game depends on them developing one of the best attacking forces in the league.
"They’ve had a consistent free-taker issue and trouble finding a high-scoring inside forward to offer a real top-level attacking threat. Tyrone have several very good forwards, but they’re not at that top end level with the likes of Michael Murphy, Diarmuid Connolly or Colm Cooper of the past.
"They have a lot of full-forwards with the likes of Conor McAllister, who is unfortunately injured, Darren McCurry and Ronan O’Neill. Neither of those guys can yet show that they can stand up on the biggest of stages which is a tough ask for any player.
"To push on, they need a consistent free-taker and then for one of those boys to find their very top level of performance. They show it at stages during the year, but they have to show it on the big stage."
Tyrone forward Ronan O'Neill under pressure from Ronan Stack of Roscommon. O'Neill scored three points - all from freekicks - against the Connacht side. Image: ©INPHO/Presseye
Tyrone were within minutes of ending Dublin's 30-game unbeaten run at Croke Park, but wilted in the closing stages to let a five-point lead slip. McGinley didn't attribute the draw to any hint of mental fragility within the side.
"I wouldn’t read into the mental weakness side of it at all. I think it’s early season and the conditions are poor, so the mental weakness isn’t there. You have to look at their ability to athletically and physically match Dublin.
"Dublin are such an imposing team now, we’ve seen Tyrone’s ability to go toe-to-toe to match them and not be found wanting in that regard. Yes we know Dublin haven’t been at it in this last period of time, we know they weren’t at full strength. But what Dublin have shown is that no matter who they put in, they’re still a very, very strong side.
"From that, Tyrone will take a lot of heart from last week. Yes, it would have been lovely to beat them but to be fair, a balance has to be struck too.
"If Tyrone had have beaten them, there would have inevitably been more hype about them. They’re a team that has had a lot of talk about them over the past year even when they are in Division 2. There was huge talk of them competing for an All-Ireland, so beating Dublin would have brought with it its own pressures.
"A draw will have shown the players that they are there or thereabouts and have shown them what they already know. They still have a couple more levels to come up to compete with Dublin come Championship time, certainly it will have encouraged them to keep working at that level and keep on that upward curve."
Aidan McCrory celebrates scoring the only goal of the game during Tyrone's draw with Dublin. Image: ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Dublin manager Jim Gavin described Tyrone's performance as 'defensive', but McGinley explained that the team were simply playing to their strengths.
"It’s probably [how the team] have been developing over three or four years and in the initial one or two years they were very defensive. They definitely lacked that cutting edge last year. You definitely see Mickey [Harte] creating much more of a cutting edge up front and adding an attacking thrust to the team.
"He’s been trying to get that balance right between a strong defence and attack. In the first game against Roscommon, they seemed to be holding a slightly higher line than previous games. They were attempting to make stops around the midfield and even pushed up on kick-outs.
"That shows a further evolution to what we’ve seen in previous years. They were defensive against Dublin up in so far as they work so hard and they track back an awful lot. All the players seem to be ready to track back. They’re trying to hold a slightly higher line and they have certainly been working hard on their attacking game.
"The defensive game is what they’re known for because that came first. In most team’s development, that is what comes first. For them to succeed they need to turn into a more effective attacking unit. Last year you definitely saw a progression of that. So far this year I definitely think you’ve seen them push on more in that regard."
Asked whether or not they were currently the strongest team in Ulster, McGinley said: "They’re reigning Ulster champions and the closest team to them last year was Donegal. Given the number of players Donegal have lost during the winter, it’s hard to see them being as strong as they were last year.
"The attention then turns to Monaghan. They’ve been performing very well for the last number of years, so the question is can they keep that going?
"Tyrone are in a better place, on more of an upward curve and Monaghan are just trying to hold themselves at a high level and push on another bit. That'll be tough to stay on that upward curve, so for me Tyrone are the strongest of the Ulster sides.
"Ulster being Ulster, there will always be teams within touching distance but I think Tyrone will start as favourites for the Ulster championship and deservedly so."