By Barry O’Donnell
AFTER months of diligent preparation, clubs from right across the county come out of hibernation this Sunday afternoon with the start of the Tyrone All-County Leagues.
Much has been said and written over the winter break about the dwindling importance that the top brass at Croke Park attach to club football, but despite all the political posturing among the suits, nothing sets the pulses racing like the dawn of a new season for players and supporters alike.
Ahead of throw-in this weekend, all forty-nine teams in Tyrone will harbour their own specific hopes and aspirations at the dawn of another campaign.
Only a small minority will see those ambitions realised in the coming weeks and months, but that won’t prevent a sense of positivity emanating from dressing rooms around the county on Sunday.
While little has changed in terms of the managerial merry-go-round among senior teams heading into a fresh term, one new face patrolling the sidelines in Division One in 2017 will be St Enda’s stalwart Kenny Clarke, who is set to oversee affairs at Strabane Sigersons.
Having helped steer several supremely talented St Enda’s youth sides to major silverware (including the Ulster Minor crown in 2009), Clarke is hoping to make a similar impact now at adult football.
And in an age of depressingly negative and cautious tactics (certainly at inter-county level) he aims to impose a more attractive, attacking template at Pairc Mhic Shioghair.
“ I have a lot of ideas. To be honest I think that Gaelic Football has gone backwards with this whole defensive mindset. I’m trying to get the boys to adapt and counteract that style of play.
“ But as they say Rome wasn’t built in a day and it is going to take time. If we get the boys out working hard, we’ll eventually adapt to my way of thinking. Obviously they put their views across too and what they think, so it’s is going well, I’m enjoying the challenge. We know it’s going to be tough but if we can stick together and work hard we can progress I feel.”
Since taking up the reigns at Strabane Kenny said he is impressed by the whole set-up, and the attitude of the senior squad.
“ They are a great bunch of lads, really nice fellas. As well the facilities up there are fantastic. We played a few games in the Ulster League. I was testing the water with them, seeing what they were like and their system of play. I didn’t try and change anything up too drastically. Since then we have tried to move it up a gear.
“ We have tried to change the way they perceive how the game should be played and me putting in my input. But it’s coming together and they are doing well.”
This feel-good factor will certainly be tested in the early stages of the league campaign with Strabane handed a nightmare sequence of games first up against some of the county’s big hitters. Clarke is all too aware of what lies in store.
“ It will definitely be tough, have no doubts about that. The boys just about stayed up last year and we have lost a few players since then. There is nobody under any illusions about the fact it won’t be a walk in the park.
“ Our first five matches have really brought it home to us. We start with Dromore at home and then play Trillick, Carrickmore, Clonoe and Errigal Ciaran. It doesn’t get any tougher than that. But there are great lads who are training very well and they are all itching to get going.
“ We are taking one game at a time. We are not getting carried away expecting to beat everybody. It’s a long term project and first and foremost it’s about consolidating our place in Division One.”
Clarke stressed the importance of the League for teams like Strabane, though he added that the competition as a whole was demeaned somewhat because of the absence of so many county stars at times.
“ To be honest I feel that the Starred Game structure takes away from the League, with the Tyrone players being pulled out. The bigger teams obviously look more to the Championship whereas the lesser teams look more to the League. But maintaining our Senior status is the priority setting out.”
The stand-out fixture for the Sigersons of course this year will be renewing rivalries with their old adversaries Urney, who are back up to the senior ranks for the first time in nearly two decades. Yet while that derby clash will attract no end of attention, for Kenny himself there is one other match which will obviously hold particular interest.
“ That Urney match will be the one everyone at Strabane are looking forward to alright. It’s been a long time since that derby so it should be interesting lets say.
“ And obviously now for me there will be the match Omagh St Enda’s, that will be played at Healy Park. That will be strange for me, I’d need to watch my back that day,” he joked.